More Are Taking a Rain Check on College

Billy Neville, 18, deferred enrollment at Miami University of Ohio to work and volunteer in the United States and abroad.
Billy Neville, 18, deferred enrollment at Miami University of Ohio to work and volunteer in the United States and abroad. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Billy Neville was flipping through the humongous Fiske Guide to Colleges last fall, yet another senior at a pressure-cooker high school in search of a game plan, when his mother told him something unexpected.

"She said, 'Keep in mind, you don't really have to go to college next year. You can do something fun,' " recalled Neville, 18, who graduated in June from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. "I genuinely liked that idea, but I didn't know how serious she was and how well a year off would work. But I started looking at the idea, and it looked better than going to college because I didn't know what I wanted to do at college."

Ultimately, Neville was accepted at Miami University of Ohio. But he deferred enrollment for a year, joining the ranks of maverick students who take a "gap year" -- time off between high school and college. Some do it to find enlightenment and introspection, others to learn something new or pursue a passion.

There are no hard counts of gap-year students, but the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria reports anecdotal evidence from counselors that more high school graduates these days are seeking a year off. Gap-year consultants who charge $1,000 or more to advise students on how to fill the time have emerged.

Some students say they take a gap year to escape stress accumulated from Advanced Placement courses and competition over grades and class rank.

"I grew really tired of everything in school. I just didn't like the atmosphere, especially at Whitman, where if you're not an overachiever, then you're just . . . I don't know," Neville said. "So, I was hoping, in my year off, I'll find out what really interests me."

Neville asked for his deferral in a letter to the admissions office. "And they came right back, saying, 'Sure,' " said his mother, Clare Neville.

Ann Larson, a senior associate director of admissions at Miami of Ohio, said the university grants deferrals for medical issues, military service, study abroad and other reasons on a case-by-case basis.

"We really have no problem with students taking gap years," Larson said. "It's very positive what they bring back to the university. It's a maturing experience."

College admissions officers said they want gap-year students to improve upon an area of expertise or perform some kind of public service. John Blackburn, dean of admissions at University of Virginia, said students often seek deferrals for missionary work or public service jobs through such nonprofit organizations as Operation Smile, which performs free reconstructive surgery on children born with facial deformities in developing countries. Admissions officials at Georgetown University estimated that 25 to 30 students admitted each year in a class of almost 1,600 ask for a deferral, requesting trips abroad to learn a foreign language, intern at a foreign embassy, or even work at a foreign or domestic magazine.

Charles Deacon, Georgetown's admissions director, said: "Students have to have a plan that we approve of. Mostly it's for some type of cultural enhancement."

Some outsiders might consider a gap year an exercise in slacking off. But many students plan their time intensively. Some turn to consultants, such as the Center for Interim Programs in Princeton, N.J., or Taking Off in Boston.

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