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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 09/21/2012

A primer on gap years

It’s the season when high school seniors are frantically filling out college applications and trying to figure out where they will be and what they will be doing next fall.

There is some evidence that a growing number of U.S. high school graduates are taking a year off before going to college. But there are questions about how gap years work, and who they benefit and what colleges think about them.

To get some answers, I talked with Laura R. Hosid, an expert on gap years at the Vinik Educational Placement Services, Inc. in Bethesda, and you can read the Q & below. Hosid can be reached at laura@vinikeps.com.

 Q) What exactly is a gap year and when do students take one? Is it always right after high school?

 A gap year typically describes a year off between high school and college.  While gap years have long been a common practice in England and other countries, they have only recently gained popularity in the United States.  Gap years offer an opportunity to travel, explore different interests, and gain experience and maturity before beginning college.

 

Q) How many kids do this in the United States? How different is this than in England?

There are no official statistics on how many U.S. students take gap years, but many colleges and guidance counselors have noticed a recent upward trend.  According to a 2010 Time Magazine article, "[t]he number of Americans taking gap years through Projects Abroad, a U.K. company that coordinates volunteer programs around the world, has nearly quadrupled since 2005."

While gap years are gaining popularity in the United States, they remain more popular in England, where the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services found that 7% of all British students deferred admission to take a gap year in 2007.  According to the Higher Education Research Institute, an estimated 1.2 percent of first-time college freshmen in the United States deferred admission to take a gap year in 2011.  Neither of these numbers include students who may have applied to college after taking a gap year. 

Q) Why do kids usually taken a gap year? Are they exhausted from high school? Looking for a way to boost their resumes to get into college?

Many students choose to take a gap year because they see it as an opportunity to try something new and take a break from formal schooling, while also realizing that the perspective, maturity and experience they gain can benefit them in their college careers.  A gap year can be an excellent opportunity to actively pursue an interest or passion and thereby gain experience that will be attractive to employers after graduation. 

Some students take a gap year because they feel that they need the time off because they are not academically or emotionally ready for college, and still others want a second chance to reapply to colleges the following year.

Regardless of their reason for taking a gap year, these students often return to school with renewed vigor and focus — in fact, a New York Times article cites a study by the Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College who observed that the average GPA for Middlebury students who had taken a gap year was consistently higher than those who had not. 

Q)  Would a new high school graduate who wants to take a gap year apply to college and get in first before declaring they want to take a gap year and ask for a deferment, or should they wait to apply? Are college/university admissions officers generally open to requests for a deferment for the purpose of taking a gap year?

The majority of students apply to college and secure a spot by placing an enrollment deposit, and then ask for a deferral.  Almost all colleges will approve a gap year if presented with a reasonable plan — in other words, one that does not involve lounging on the beach for a year!  In fact, Harvard University's acceptance letter actually encourages students to consider deferring admission to take a gap year.  According to Harvard's website, each year 50-70 students take advantage of this option. Other schools have also formally encouraged gap years -- for example, Princeton University's Bridge Year Program, and the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill's Global Gap Year Fellowship Program.

Q)  If a student is looking to improve their chances of getting into college, what sorts of things do colleges like to see done during a gap year?

While a gap year can certainly enhance your admissions profile, it cannot compensate for deficiencies in your high school record.  While colleges support and encourage gap years, admissions officers rarely see gap year experiences have a dramatic effect on a student's chances of admission. 

With this in mind, the most valuable experiences are often those that delve deeper into a student's demonstrated interests, or otherwise reflect maturity and purpose. For example, a college is likely to view more favorably a prospective international relations major who completes a language immersion program while also interning or volunteering in a foreign country, compared to a student who backpacks and parties his way through Europe without a plan. 

Q) What kinds of things do students do on their gap years?

Many students choose to spend their gap year in structured programs volunteering abroad or in the United States.  There are also many opportunities to explore interests in the environment, arts, and other cultures.  Taking courses to improve academic skills is another option.  Within these broad categories, there are a myriad of options ranging from studying at the International Culinary Center in New York, to performing musical stage performances in multiple countries while living with host families with Up With People, to building trails in state parks with the Student Conservation Association.

One thing to keep in mind is that gap years need not be expensive or involve international travel.  City Year, part of AmeriCorps, provides a stipend and scholarship for 10 months of service in inner city schools.  World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms offers offer meals and housing in exchange for farming work.  

A gap year also does not need to be one full-year program.  Students often piece together different options to explore a range of interests, or can work for a few months to fund a shorter opportunity.   Short-term options can range from three weeks at a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa with BroadReach to a month studying French at Concordia Language Villages in Minnesota.

 

Q) How do families get help planning one?

There are several good books available, including "The Complete Guide to the Gap Year" by Kristin M. White and "The Gap-Year Advantage" by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson.  Websites such as Teen Life offer listings of gap year programs by type - many private high schools and colleges also have lists available online.   In addition, USA Gap Year Fairs offer over thirty different fairs throughout the country (fairs are scheduled for Feb. 26, 2013 in Rockville, MD and Feb. 27, 2013 in Fairfax, VA).  Finally, there are a small number of educational consultants who focus on gap year advising and can help students figure out what they want to do and help identify specific programs that would be a good match.

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