Post Magazine: The Gap Year

Ian Shapira, Marlyn McGrath Lewis and Holly Bull
Washington Post Staff Writer, Director of Admissions, Harvard College and President, Center for Interim Programs
Monday, August 6, 2007; 12:00 PM

Exhausted from the pressures of high school and the college application process, some students are deferring their college enrollment for a year -- to pursue other interests or passions before hitting the books again.

In this week's issue of Washington Post Magazine, Post reporter Ian Shapira talked to area students embarking on a "gap year."

Joining Shapira will be Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College and Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs with offices in Princeton, N.J., and Cambridge, Mass.

A transcript follows.

Washington Post Magazine: The Education Review

Ian Shapira writes for The Post's Metro section.


Ian Shapira: Hola, gap year questioners, gap year skeptics, and gap year wannabes! I am writing to you from Antigua, Guatemala, where I am spending six weeks taking language classes, which, in a way, is my own gap year, my first ever break from writing for the paper since college graduation. It¿s like a mini sabbatical and now I truly understand why people take these gaps in their lives. It¿s incredibly refreshing and you learn about something you¿ve never really had much experience with before. Anyway, we are privileged to have Holly Bull, the president of the Center for Interim Programs and Marlyn McGrath Lewis, the director of admissions at none other than Harvard. Yes, Harvard. Harvard encourages its prospective students to get off the treadmill and Marlyn will be happy to answer questions about that. Off we go.


Alexandria, Va.: I don't get the hockey player's motivation. He wants to play D-I hockey at a good school. He got into UVA so he should be able to get into smaller, less academic schools where the hockey team is good. Are his hockey skills not good enough? If he couldn't get drafted into the USHL shouldn't he consider a different dream? There are signs that he is not good enough to ever make it to the pros. What exactly is his dream? Is it to get into a school better than his pure academic ability that's also good at hockey? Wouldn't he just sit on the bench anyway?

Marlyn McGrath: Without knowing any details beyond what is in Ian's good story, I have to observe that Bill's route is by no means the only successful route to a good division I program.


Alexandria, Va.: Doesn't this smack of privilege and a refusal to grow up? Students whose parents $10K to travel around India because Junior is "stressed"?

If people want a gap year or two to expand their horizons, they can always enlist.

Holly Bull: Actually, the gap year is very much about growing up! Students with whom I have worked have helped pay for the program experiences during summers and in between programs. They handle a budget, learn how to travel on their own. They get a sense of working with people from many different socioeconomic backgrounds. It usually makes them appreciate their education more. Every year I have students who pay their own way completely and we give them scholarship money for our consulting fee.


Brunswick, Md.: Can high school students be admitted to college and then defer the admission for one year rather than simply taking a year off? That way they would not have the new pressures at the end of the 'year off' to apply to college.

Marlyn McGrath: A good question, and helpful. Most students who defer Harvard admission, for example, have already been admitted. (We suggest in the admission letter that they consider deferring, because we are so persuaded of the value of maturity and self-direction.) But other students do apply to us during a gap year.


Bernardsville, N.J.: My son was diagnosed very late in the 8th grade with two learning differences. Although he is very interested in many topics, can discuss much more than most kids his age and is very bright IQ-wise, his grades are poor.

He does not enjoy high school. The regimen bores him and much of it makes no logical sense to him educationally.

I support taking 6 months post-high school graduation to earn money to then enjoy 6 months of travel. He is a rising junior with a poor GPA, high standardized scores and is very unsure about what he wants to do in the future. I have great confidence in him, but realize that colleges today rely on objective scores and grades so much, his options will be few.

Do you feel he is a good candidate for a gap year?

Marlyn McGrath: It sounds to me as though you are wise not to hurry the timetable for college application. In a situation such as yours -- especially with an obviously enlightened family!-- you should certainly take the time you and your son need to explore academic options, perhaps during or after a gap year. The point, as you clearly see, is to position him for subsequent educational experiences that will prepare him for adult life and for earning a living. Time is an important ally in that process.Good luck.

Holly Bull: I have worked with quite a few students with learning differences over the 18 years I have been counseling gap year students and the gap year provides them with a tremendous opportunity to learn in a different way and gain some measure of success and self-confidence back. There are loads of hands-on learning programs available. It would be a terrific option for your son.


Takoma Park, Md.: Hello. What an interesting article, and thanks for putting it on chat. My question is about parents who don't want their kids to take a gap year in fear that the kids will never want to go back to school if they have a taste of life outside.

What do these parents think their kids are going to do once they arrive at college, if they don't value their own education? If a kid isn't ready to choose to go to college, is that kid ready for college?

Marlyn McGrath: You took some of the words out of my mouth!


Madison, Wisc.: My daughter wants to spend a gap year as an AFS exchange student in Japan. Any comments on whether this is a good idea? Should we apply for colleges while she is a senior and then try to defer? Or apply the year she is in Japan (which may be difficult logistically).

Marlyn McGrath: From a strictly logistical point of view, applying to US colleges is ordinarily simpler to do while one is enrolled in high school.


Falls Church, Va.: What a timely article! Our son is leaving Wednesday for a year in Germany as a high school exchange student. Since Germany has an extra year of high school, this is a perfect gap year for our graduate, who is not quite enough of a self-starter to manage college yet. We're hopeful that the year abroad will allow his initiative to catch up with his abilities. One concern: if he wants to attend college the following year, he'll have to apply from Germany this fall.

Marlyn McGrath: Applying to college from a year abroad-- or from a gap year anywhere-- simply requires advance planning, but it is not impossible to accomplish well. He will want to work closely with his school's college advisor to be certain that documents (transcripts, recommendation materials) are in order and to be sure he has taken the necessary testing. It would simplify matters if he had a tentative list of colleges in which he intends to apply, but the list can always be altered. From what you say, it seems your son is doing something that can only benefit him in the long run, so it is worth some extra effort. (Good for you.)


Cambridge, Mass.: Heeeeeeeeeeeeeey Ian. Great story. I wondered why your story did not mention the "forced" gap year that some of the top schools are imposing on high school seniors. I've heard of many instances where an admissions board will only accept a student if they defer one year. This means that not all students taking gap years are actually choosing to do so.

Ian Shapira: Yes, this happens and I mention this, I believe in the story, as it relates to Georgetown. Sometimes, universities want to hold on to the best talent but don¿t have room so they ask them to defer. A friend of mine used to work on the admissions committee at a prominent Ivy League university and she told me that the Dean always said they could admit a handful of different freshman classes. But to say that these students are being ¿forced¿ to take the gap year is a bit off. They have a choice not to attend the university and go somewhere else. A deal is being made: Harvard says, Look, we can¿t take you this year, but we like you and we want to offer a concession. Can you wait it out a year and enroll the next? I mean, from my perspective, that¿s a pretty good deal. You get the comfort of knowing you got into your first choice school (second choice if you¿re a Yalie or Princetonian), plus now, you¿ve been given the gift of a year to think creatively about what you want to do. On the other hand, it¿s a bad deal if you¿re the kind of person that feels like you need to go directly to college. So yea, I can see it being a negative thing if you¿re a treadmill kinda person. And, even though that sounds pejorative, I don¿t mean it to be. Lots of people feel the need to continue their studies right after high school and that¿s cool.


Washington, D.C.: In reading the article about gap year students, we were both simultaneously delighted and skeptical. We were delighted because it highlights the value of careful planning and support needed during the exciting yet oftentimes stressful transition to college: youths' desires to make the best of their education, schools accommodating the unique needs of students (in this situation, by allowing deferred admission), and parents encouraging their children to think broadly about their place in the world as they make choices about their education.

We were skeptical, however, because the article provides a skewed version of reality. We had conducted a study (published in the September 2005 issue of Social Forces) where we followed more than 11,000 members of the high school class or 1992 until they were eight years out of high school, when the vast majority have completed their education. In contrast to the affluent students attending selective colleges like the ones depicted in Sunday's Post article, those who delay enrollment were economically disadvantaged youth and youth who struggle in school -- in other words, those with the fewest resources to successfully navigate the transition to college or to the work force. Most importantly, we found that the gap year is in fact a disadvantage: those who postpone enrolling in college a year after finishing high school are 78 percent less likely to complete a bachelor's degree than those who enroll immediately after high school. This finding holds for the affluent, high achieving students as well as those with limited resources.

With that background, we endorse careful and pro-active planning on the part of students, and applaud the efforts of parents who want their children to have both academic and non-academic experiences that meaningfully enhance their life goals. However, we caution against encouraging the gap year as an educational practice if the ultimate goal is a bachelor's degree.

Robert Bozick, Ph.D.

RTI International

Stefanie DeLuca, Ph.D.

Johns Hopkins University

Holly Bull: The issue I have with your study is that your definition of a gap year seems to include anyone who doesn't continue right on to college. Most "true" gap year students are consciously choosing to take a structured gap year. There has not been any statistical research done yet in the U.S. that focuses solely on these gap year students.

Marlyn McGrath: Speaking strictly for Harvard, I can report that we see no effect of gap years on our graduation rate (which is about 97%.) Our experience, admittedly, is with highly motivated students.


New Orleans, La. : My daughter was double promoted in elementary school, started high school at age 13, was placed in accelerated course work where she has done well, and is now entering her junior year of high school at the age of 15. She wants to quit high school after her junior year, take the GED, and spend a couple of years living away from home, working and traveling before she starts college. I can't really argue against this from the educational point of view -- by the end of this year, she will have finished a typical high school curriculum with good grades and high ACT scores to put on her college applications. But I'm a little concerned that this means she will leave home at the age of 16. She's mature for her age but is any 16-year-old really mature enough for this step?

Ian Shapira: Everybody¿s different. And, I am hesitant to give parenting or career counseling advice, but I will say that your daughter has nothing to lose by taking some time off between high school and college because she¿s so already ahead of the pack, so to speak. I hate to think of life as a ¿race¿ and that each age group must track with each other. But if you¿re looking for more comfort in deciding on a gap year, you could think about it in those terms. That being said, there are many options for your daughter. She can take a gap year but she doesn¿t have to be gone for a whole year all at once. She can do a few different trips or endeavors, lasting a couple months each, either abroad or at home. Spend six weeks with Habitat for Humanity, then spend the next two months volunteering for an assisted living facility, then take off for India. Who knows, then come back home again for three months. You can mix it up.


Holly Bull: I am Holly Bull, a gap year counselor and president of the Center for Interim Programs in Princeton, NJ. I work with students all over the U.S. assisting them with their gap year plans. We work with all ages but mostly students between 17-21 years.

Holly Bull: For those who are interested,


Washington, D.C.: I was disappointed that there was no mention of locally based gap year programs like City Year. I am currently serving a second year with City Year after deferring from University of Michigan. I believe that my service experience is equal to the programs that you mentioned and is available to people of all economic backgrounds.

Thank you.

Marlyn McGrath: Such programs can be excellent. I'm glad you mentioned this, because it is an important corrective to the perception of gap years as being inevitably "purchased" progarms to go abroad.


Portland, Ore.: I took a year off after high school and college and they were the best decisions I have ever made. I have lived in France, England and New Zealand because of it and have gotten to experience other cultures and other view points that you can't when you just visit somewhere. There are a lot of programs out there (like BUNAC) to help young people live and work in other countries and I think they should be more publicized. They help get visas/work permits and provide a great jumping off point in the new country. I think it should really be encouraged because you will never be able to do it again once you get a job/marriage/kids ...

Holly Bull: This is terrific - thank you for writing in about your own experience. What you describe is so much of what I hear from Interim alumni who have done a gap year. The long-term enriching benefits are often quite extraordinary.

Another very good point for parents is that you know it gets harder as you get older to take this kind of creative time in your life. The gap year before college, or during college, or just after college, is a natural time to go and explore. It really should be part of one's education rather than something unusual or on the side. I usually object to the term "year off" because the gap year is invariably a year very much "on" ~


Alexandria, Va.: I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the article, I took a gap year four years ago and was featured in Jean Chatzky's article in Money Magazine about Gap Years almost two years ago, I felt the most important part of taking a gap year was about taking some time to remove one's self from the chaos which has built up around college admissions as well as to do something that benefits the student as a person or helps them grow in some way, I don't feel that taking a gap year is a way to build a resume or to get into an Ivy league school, if this is purely your goal then I think that the idea of a year out needs to be re-evaluated. If people start to view the gap year in this light how long before it just becomes another hyped-up step no different from the resume and application building that we have done to get into college?

Marlyn McGrath: I think your concern is a real one, that the year off has the potential to become another standard resume-booster. But it can also have the capacity to strengthen both a student's resume and his or her actual skills, self-directedness and maturity, which makes a better college applicant and a better college student. That is an important goal, despite the potential for being manipulated.


Maryland: Is a 13th year or post-graduate HS, equal to a gap year?

Holly Bull: It is a gap year but probably not equal to what I would call a true gap year because a PG student is simply back in another year of classes in a high school in the U.S. There are so many interesting options that are possible with a gap year. Immersion in other cultures, following up on a potential career. In my own gap year, I was able to do hands-on work in aquaculture in Hawaii, thinking I might want to be a marine biologist. After about a month, I realized that I didn't have the patience for that daily research and ultimately chose not to major in that field in college. This is far more helpful to my mind, than sitting in yet another traditional classroom.


Wheaton, Md.:"Stress of High School?" Get real. We'd all like to take a year off life and persue other interests. These kids, more than anyone else, need to get full-time jobs and learn to support themselves quickly. Taking a gap year will only make it harder.

Marlyn McGrath: By definition, a gap year will delay that process, but it might not make it harder in the way suggested here. (Skipping college entirely and entering the work force right away might make a student self-supporting-- if indeed he or she can find a good job without a college degree--more quickly. But all the evidence suggests that that decision would be a financial mistake of great magnitude.)Among the great benefits of a gap year is its power (often) to help students understand not simply what they love to do, but what they do well. In the long run that happy situation can be beneficial financially as well as in other ways. Taking the longer view should be an advantage-- and is very unlikely to be a disadvantage financially, though it might seem so at the time.


Phoenix, Ariz.: One troubling issue faced by potential gap-year students in America is what to do about health insurance coverage. Many traditional family health insurance policies discontinue coverage for children over age 18 unless they are full time students. (Perhaps the existence of national health coverage helps explain why British teens are liklier to take a gap year?) Do you know of any health insurance programs specifically targeted for the gap-year type student? Are there health insurance plans available through some of the specific gap-year program organizations that would be available to students volunteering or traveling abroad through their programs?

Marlyn McGrath: This is a very important question-- and one parents often puzzle over. The usual solution is either to extend the parents' health coverage, or to purchase special coverage. None of this is cheap.


McLean, Va.: Hi I am a 24-year-old male senior associate at a large CPA firm who was promoted very recently and had the opposite game plan than taking a year off. I completed five years of college in three and a half and have been in the professional work force since I was 21. Currently I have an individual working for me who did this "year off" plan and is about to turn 26-years-old next month. The problem is now that he "fulfilled" his yearnings to take a gap year. he is resentful of the fact that he is working for someone who is two years younger than him. I can tell that this age difference has had a huge emotional effect on him and has hurt his work product and his general disposition at work. If situations like this occur, then how can taking a year off be a good thing?

Marlyn McGrath: I think there are a number of factors in this dilemma, and that the gap year may be the least important....


Winchester, Va.: Thanks for a great up-close look at an individual who is taking a "gap year." I was interested to see that he was taking classes at NOVA during that time. Does this have any effect upon his eligibility to play D-I hockey for a full four years once he gets to college? Thanks.

Ian Shapira: No, in fact, Bill told me the Army encouraged him to take some classes. But the reality is that a gap year is supposed to be time away from the classroom, so in that regard, Bill was not exactly in tune with the pure ethos of the gap year philosophy.


Philly: How does the admissions office look at "gap" year students? Equally to incoming freshman? How does a univeristy justify declining a HS student to make room for someone who spent a year ... at the beach or in Africa doing volunteer work?

Marlyn McGrath: Selective colleges take care to consider the gap year experience -- along with everything else they know about an applicant -- in the context of that applicant's interests and particular set of opportunities. Even if sitting on a beach for a year helped a student gain maturity (or at least a more advanced age) it would be unlikely by itself to enhance an application to college.


Boston, Mass.: It's unfortunate that people need to apply to college nearly a year in advance. In the fall, students taking a gap year are still at the beginning of it. After six months, they may have a better understanding of what they are looking for in college, and people better suited to write them a recommendation.

Holly Bull: I work with a fair number of gap year students who apply to colleges half-way through their gap year. Lauren, my student mentioned in the Post article, did just this and she said that her fall experience teaching in Ghana gave her wonderful things to write about in her college essays and that it made a difference in terms of her acceptances by the colleges. But she didn't do Ghana just to "look good" for colleges. She simply went toward something she was drawn to and became inspired by the experience, and spoke authentically from that inspiration in her college essays...


Washington, D.C.: Taking a year off after high school was the smartest thing I ever did. Taking it as an exchange year, sheer brilliance. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

If I had gone straight to college, I would have made an embarrassing showing. My high school was very rigorous, and I hadn't realized how much I needed a little time out between academic blocks. This way, I got all the partying out of my system, and was ready to work. Plus, it didn't hurt to come home totally fluent in a second language.

Ian Shapira: I am posting this for all you strict, treadmill parents out there. You score major points with your children by letting them loose a little bit. And in return, you get more for your money when they actually go to college.

Part of me wishes I had taken a gap year myself. But then again, maybe I wouldn¿t have met my wife, Caroline. So, in that sense, gap years can mess with your fate. Whoa. We¿re getting deep. But seriously, by taking that year off, you will irrevocably change the course of friendships, teachers, classes, activities. Instead of getting to be roommates with your best friend for life in the fall of 2007, you take the year off and enroll in the fall of 2008, and now you will get assigned some cigarette-smoking loudmouth who becomes your arch enemy. Gap years, they are a gamble.


Washington, D.C.: Good for the kids who can do this. But the gap year to "explore one's passions" is clearly something that is only realistic for affluent students. And I can't help but think that it also contributes to growing class stratification. The gap year, like unpaid but sexy summer internships, is a means for advantaged kids to further pad their resumes for the post-college job search or graduate school application process -- a boost that kids who actually might have to work during summer or a year off from school won't have. The fact that there are now services to help plan the gap year only is a testament to this.

Marlyn McGrath: These are real concerns of many observers of the gap year practice. But many gap years provide opportunities to work, to help others (even one's own family) and require no financial investment. It would be good to read about more such experiences, as we get to hear those reports from Harvard students who used their time in such ways.


Washington, D.C.: Programs like City Year and other AmeriCorps Programs provide health insurance, a living stipend and child care benefits for their members.

Ian Shapira: I¿ll throw this out there for all to see


Charlotte, N.C.: Do all gap programs cost money? Are there scholarships for gap students?

Holly Bull: Not all gap year programs cost money. There are a range of options that provide students with housing and food, or at least housing, in exchange for work. For example, you can work on organic farms or on ranches in the United States and receive housing and food for your labor. You can also help out at a school for the deaf, working with the kids, for housing and food. There is a non-partisan political internship out west that provides housing and food for a ten-week internship. Usually, it's travel costs and miscellaneous expenses that you have to consider for the low-cost gap year. I have students every year who receive scholarship for our consulting fee of $2100. They will work in the summers and between programs to save money for their year and then head out on the low-cost programs. One doesn't have to stay in the U.S. only either. Taking Spanish classes in Guatemala while helping at an orphanage is a very low cost option. Also, some of the gap year semester programs are delighted to offer scholarships for their program fees to good candidates. It's not full scholarship but may make a fantastic travel and service type program affordable.


Maybe I'm Naive ...: but I was astounded at the family that was trying to get additional financial aid from Brown U. for the expenses associated with their younger child's gap year travels. Do you think Brown is likely to give the older child additional money just because the younger child wants to take a purely optional junket during his year off?

Ian Shapira: This reader is referring to the Metro story (not the magazine story) that also appeared in Sunday¿s paper. I am not sure what Brown is going to do. But ¿junket¿ is not exactly a fair word to describe what Zach Duffy is going to do, now is it? It¿s not like he¿s going off to Las Vegas for a year to polish his card playing skills and do it up on the Strip. He¿s got some earnest, do-gooder plans.


Fairfax, Va.: Interesting article! It reminded me of a few kids who delayed college to "find themselves." Are you finding more kids doing that in this area to avoid the parental pressure or is waiting a year a growing trend nationally?

Marlyn McGrath: I think you are on to one of the postive benefits of gap years. Many students are able to use the year to develop a stronger sense of self direction (often to their family's delight.)


RE: Phoneix: British teens are more likely to take a gap year for several reasons: 1. the U.K. is (clearly) part of the commonwealth, therefore British teens can do a work abroad year in any commonwealth country with almost no problem getting visas, and (2) it's more valued in their culture.

As an American citizen, I tried to do a working holiday in either Australia or N.Z., but I couldn't get a visa because it is a reciprocol program and the U.S. does not participate.

Marlyn McGrath: Work permits are indeed among the logistical challenges in gap years taken abroad. It is well to remember that the US offers many opportunities.....


Washington, D.C.: I took a gap year before going into college and I joined AmeriCorps. I was accepted to college and deferred for a year to travel the country, do community service and gain valuable skills and experiences. Then I went to college and did another gap year with AmeriCorps before getting a typical 9 to 5. I know people my age who never took a break and have law degrees. So what? We're the same age and I can do law school any time. Everybody is different, but I don't get why some people are in such a big hurry to be lawyers at 24 and have no real life experience outside the classroom and a few summer jobs.

Marlyn McGrath: What you say is precisely the point. Life is longer (if you're lucky) than high school seniors might think it is.

Holly Bull: Yes, and unfortunately, many of those young lawyers end up not liking their work! It seems to me that you have a much better sense of who you are and probably have learned how to create opportunities for yourself because of your AmeriCorps experiences. I know that many of my gap year alumni are much less fear-driven as they make important life choices in college and beyond.


Princeton, N.J.: First a comment and then a question.

Parents in my area are very afraid of anything that diverts their children's attention and direction away from college. The Gap Year is one of those fear-inducing diversions.

Have any of the youngsters who were pointed toward college before they took a Gap Year gotten derailed by the time off and failed to go on to college? If yes, what happened and how did it work out for them?

Marlyn McGrath: In my experience of twenty years working with students considering, and taking, gap years, I cannot recall a single student who decided not to go on to college. But you are correct-- parents do worry about that.

Marlyn McGrath: In my experience of twenty years working with students considering, and taking, gap years, I cannot recall a single student who decided not to go on to college. But you are correct-- parents do worry about that.

Ian Shapira: Just want to get this published...


Alexandria, Va.: I love the gap year concept. However, which I didn't do a gap year, I did study abroad in both college and graduate school and traveled as much as possible during summers (while also working). I found that once I got out of graduate school, every interview I had looked on these things skeptically -- many explicitly asking if I was a flight risk because I had traveled so much and would not want to stay in one place. Not that I'm advocating staying home, I'm just warning that you need to have an answer to those questions.

And just something I've noted -- I've lived in Europe and Australia. In both places, employers looked on a gap year or foreign studies as a positive. It seems like only here in the U.S. is it somewhat frowned on.

Ian Shapira: A flight risk! Wow, what were you doing exactly? Yea, if that happens to you, the best way to answer is to just to say that you¿re a curious person and that you wanted to take advantage of your summer breaks to educate yourself about the world but that now you¿re looking to settle down, etc. How can an employer view that as a negative? And if they did, you probably wouldn¿t want to work for them anyway.


Silver Spring, Md.: First off, a fantastic, well-balanced piece on a trend this is long overdue in America. I have a nephew and a niece who are considering gap years, and I am trying to be a positive force in their search. My niece wants to learn more about Islam and Arab culture -- maybe even study Arabic -- given her passion for conflict resolution. My nephew is fascinated by Chinese culture, China's growing presence on the world stage, and wants to learn some Mandarin. Do you have any recommendations on organizations that offer structured (but not a classroom-centric experience) gap year programs in these regions? Specifically for my niece, are there resources to assuage her parents' overblown concerns about safety in this part of the world? Finally, in your counseling or admissions process, do you place more value on gap year experiences in countries like China, Egypt, or Morocco as opposed to the more traditional venues like Europe or Australia? I would think teens might be more susceptible to the temptations of "partying" in more familiar, western settings, but I'm interested in your take. Thank you very much for your advice.

Marlyn McGrath: Goodness, all the options you mention sound interesting-- and worthwhile. From the point of view of our admissions committee, at least, none of the ones you mention would be valued over others. But the test of a good experience is what it meant to the person undertaking it.

Holly Bull: I have several students heading off to Morocco this fall with a group of peers and leaders to study French or Arabic, live with host families and do service work for three months. I also have other students heading across China on a similar kind of semester group program specifically created for gap year students in the States. These are marvelous ways to get a sense of these cultures, not as a tourist but more as a traveler. It is certainly more exciting learning and speaking a language in the culture compared to slogging through it in a high school or college classroom. If your nephew were to travel in China for 3 months studying Mandarin the whole time, he will be truly excited about the language and probably fired up to continue learning it in college. It won't be just another language class he has to take.


Seattle, Wash.: I took a year off between high school and college and it was the best decision I ever made in my life. I spent 9 months working as a dishwasher at a busy restaurant, saved my money, and traveled around Europe for three months. The real advantage was not the travel, it was working at a hard, boring job for nine months. When I did go to college, I was ready to work. I also took a year off between college and grad school, and a year off during my Ph.D. program. So I did not finish my doctorate until I was 33, but it all worked out in the end.

Ian Shapira: A success story. See, all you by-the-book parents? Not all people who postpone college end up on the streets. Some of them actually get themselves Phds!!


Springfield, Va.: Do you find that participants in a gap year program have clearer goals as to what profession they will pursue after the program? Do their career goals change after the gap year? I personally found it difficult to go directly from high school to college and declare a major. I think if I had had some time to really think about it, I may have made a different (and happier) career choice.

Marlyn McGrath: Our experience has been that students often find that gap year experiences affect their professional goals-- sometimes changing them and sometimes confirming them. And sometimes the gap year gives them a chance to do something to which hey never intend to devote themselves again, but wanted to have the chance to do. But a gap year certainly doesn't render one immune to career or college-program regrets!


Washington, D.C.: A gap year should not be looked at as a year off but a year on. There is a big difference between backpacking through Europe and serving your community through a structured program. Everyone would benefit from these type of "paid" gap year experiences. But it should be noted that there are numerous National Service programs that provide gap year opportunities that offer leadership development and the chance to serve your community and you don't have to have wealthy parents to participate.

Ian Shapira: Well, that¿s a nice gimmicky phrase and I kinda like it. A a year on, not a year off. Sounds good. But the truth of the matter is that you are not in class and that is time off. And why so judgemental? Although backpacking through Europe is not a public service, it is still a form of education and a way to capitalize on your curiosity. You are getting yourself out of your clique, your social world, your zone and you are interacting with people not like you. Is that not something that can be just as rewarding?


Gap Year and money: To be honest, if I had instead taken the time after high school to work and determine what I wanted to do (something I didn't know by 18, oh dear!) then I wouldn't have wasted about 20K on my education determining what I was both good at and passionate about.

Holly Bull: I am convinced that many students can save a tremendous amount of time and money by taking a gap year. If you can determine a passion before college, it will certainly make you a more focused student. Most parents and students are budgeting for four year of college but the average number of years that it takes students to finsh up is 5-6! They are floundering around, changing majors or transferring to other colleges as they try to figure out what to focus on and which college will suit them best.


Rockville, Md. : Gap years?

I took three years for the U.S. Army and returned to school with much better grades and a career plan that worked well.

Marlyn McGrath: This is a story we hear regularly. Maturity, focus and skills can be greatly enhanced by military service, or indeed by other structured programs. And you get to serve your country (thank you.)


Lander, Wyo.: Concerning the question re: insurance. Many programs that gap year students may choose to pursue include college credit. I work at NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, and students that are earning college credit at NOLS have typically been able to maintain their student status for health insurance.

Ian Shapira: Just wanted to post this for everyone¿s education


Arlington, Va.: I took off a year between high school and college and it was the best thing I could have done for myself and my parents. By taking the year off I saw how important higher education was so when I got to college I was motivated to learn. I've never regretted it.

Marlyn McGrath: Thanks for the personal testimony, which has more credibility than the views of observers!


Marylander: Honestly, I graduated in '05 and actually graduated a semester early after all my AP classes from HS transferring to college credits.

Had I to do it over, I would have taken a gap year. I dealt with some really severe depression issues during my second and third years, mostly due to being really overwhelmed despite my grades being good in both HS and college (and I was never a partier, in HS or in college, so it wasn't like I was overwhelmed because I chose to go to the frat party every week or something similar).

I think if I'd had a year to get my feet under me I'd've been able to deal with the knocks I experienced significantly better. My parents, however, were completely against the idea and said "Yes, you ARE applying to college, you ARE going when you're accepted, and you really have no choice in the matter, if you don't know now you'll never do it."

Looking back, I think I would have gotten much more out of the college experience (and the non-academic side is included in this) had I had some time to breathe rather than going from an AP-class-intensive senior year straight to college.

Holly Bull: Most students can use a break after 12 years in a classroom setting. If you think about it, no one asks us if we want to go to school at 5 or 6. It's a place we are put. Even if we like school and are good at it, we don't choose it. And college for many students isn't a choice either; it's an expectation. Something often gets lost in this process of cranking out the grades and tests and AP papers, etc. A gap year is ideally a student's choice and it is a jewel of period of time to take a break from the formal classroom, rejuvenate and also get reinspired about learning. The second part of my own gap year in the early 80s was a semester in Greece where everthing I was studying was right under my nose. I was so excited about learning for its own sake after that experience and took that fierce energy with me into my college classes.

Many gap year students find that they are less swept along in college. They have a better sense of self, undefined by just being a student, and some of the potentially harder aspects of college life: fitting in that first year, feeling overwhelmed or intimidated, the crazy partying that can go on, etc. are less of an issue for them.


Anonymous: Kudos to these kids. I needed to do the same, but ended up wasting my first year from exhaustion essentially. A wasted year and transferring cost me. For some the college decision needs more time and the student needs time to mature and grow for the situation.

Marlyn McGrath: You point out a major consideration, the time pressure amny students feel to "do" college on an external schedule. Even consideration of a gap year gives one a sense of choice, at least in timing, which is a sensible and realistic way to approach college. Taking the long view is hard when the schedule seems rigid and (for some) too rapid.


Arlington, Va.: For those parents who are so incredibly worried whether the child will want to eventually go on to college or not, there's always the Study Abroad option. It's not the same exactly, but MOST colleges offer 6-month or year long options. I wish I'd taken a gap year but my study abroad year served a similar function.

Marlyn McGrath: Indeed most colleges promote study abroad. And for many students getting away from their own college-- and getting another perspective-- is a major plus of studying abroad!


Annapolis, Md.: It strikes me that many students who take gap years because of the stress of the senior year could easily ease that stress by defusing it in advance. The senior year in general, and the admissions process in particular, don't have to be stressful. They can be, and maybe ought to be, a time of self-reflection and self-discovery, rather than a time to impose enormous demands on oneself for the sake of one's parents and/or peers. When the boomers and the Gen-Xers went to college they didn't encounter the national admissions market that we see today. It was still hard to get into Harvard, but not Chapel Hill. Today it's a very different ball game, driven by parental anxiety and a vague sense that the top 40 schools (the ones who admit fewer than half of their applicants) are the only good schools and a school like College Park is for second-raters only. Defusing that anxiety seems more helpful to me than encouraging wider use of the gap year.

Ian Shapira: I agree with you in the sense that getting into places like Harvard is tougher than ever. (Forget Harvard, try University of Florida and other state schools, which are seeking out non-state students as a way to get more money for research, and in the process, making it much difficult for state students to get in.)

But how do you defuse that anxiety? These universities carry enormous weight when it comes to branding and getting jobs. I think we¿ve passed the point of No Return. One way for it to ease up is for these prestigous universities to build more dorms, make their classes bigger and accept more people. Princeton, one of the smallest Ivies, just built a new dorm (built with Ebay co-founder Meg Whitman¿s donation) to expand their enrollment. But that¿s all very expensive and many elite universities like being elite and small, because that¿s what gives them edge and that¿s what makes the learning experience so unique. At the same time, it¿s disconcerting that much larger universities are becoming so selective now. It¿s partly because this generation of college students is so huge. One way to assure your kid gets into a good university? Start up an incredibly successful web site like Ebay, donate a bunch of money to your favorite university to build, say, a huge dorm, and well, you get the drift....Well, in all seriousness, I think guidance counselors at schools are making a great effort to tell their top students that the Ivies are not the only places to go. There was a great piece in the New York Times a few months ago about how Lehigh has gotten so selective. So that message is being received. Only problem is that the domino/trickle down effect occurs. Every college soon may get too selective. Let¿s just hope my generation --those of us in our late 20s, 30s -- don¿t produce a million offspring.


College Park, Md.: I took a gap year after high school. I applied to my college of choice, decided what I wanted to do for my gap year, and deferred telling them I'd be back for the next fall. It was not difficult, and the best decision I ever made. I was more relaxed, more ready to live on my own, and not as scared of what it's like not being home because I had spent my year volunteering in a hospital in another country which also made me more mature. The difference between my friends who did a gap year and regular freshmen was very noticeable.

Marlyn McGrath: Those who work closely with freshmen here observe the same enhanced maturity you describe among those who deferred entrance.


Bethesda, Md.: I'm interested in the poster who wrote in and said s/he spent most of a gap year working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. If most kids took gap years like that, I think parents wouldn't need to worry about whether their kids would go on to college afterwards. Once you see the kinds of jobs you can get with just a high school education, getting a college degree surely looks a lot more appealing.

Ian Shapira: Yea, good point. But maybe spending several months as a diswasher may not be the best use of your time. In fact, some universities won¿t grant you a deferral if all you want to do is earn money to go college. (Sounds real callous, I know). But if you can afford to pay for your child to stay at home, do volunteer work somewhere and work somewhere where there is something meaningful going on, then that is much preferable. Then again, if you look at the dishwashing job in broad terms, you could view it was a kind of immersion into our countrys minimum wage world. Ever read the book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Nickel and Dimed? (How is that for entrepeneurship? Turn your dishwashing gig into a book deal?)


Ocean City: The resort towns in the U.S. rely heavily on college students to work the summer months and longer if they are available. Many provide employee housing, the employee contributes financially but its affordable. They are away from home and it's a valuable learning experience.

The resorts don't get nearly as many college students as in years passed and we look to foreign students to help fill a variety of positions.

Holly Bull: This is a good option for a gap year student who may want to work during the year but not live at home. Getting away from home and parents does tend to foster more independence right away. I noticed that the ice hockey student's parent commented that it might have been better if his son had lived away from home for part of his gap year. This is something that parents invariably comment favorably on when they see their kids leave home and begin to handle things more on their own. I had a father say that his son didn't even need to have his parents go with him to college his first year because he had already done a gap year and was quite independent. Jumping into college was a breeze for this young man.


North Carolina: As the parent of a gap year student, I can say that the experience our son had unquestionably affected his life in positive ways, not the least of which was his learning what he wanted to do in life -- to make a contribution to others' learning about the environment. We continue to be impressed by his seriousness of purpose that came directly from his experience and growth during his gap year.

Marlyn McGrath: It is very helpful to this exchange to get this good-- informed and credible-- parental testimony!


Leesburg, Va.: Loved the article. We are encouraging our son, a rising senior in high school, to consider a gap year. We feel it would provide real world experience and help define his goals for college. But, in planning for his future after graduation, all his high school counselor can offer is assistance with the college application process. It seems a shame that guidance counselors do not support a student in examining the bigger picture of what is available to help students transition to adulthood, beyond a bachelor's degree.

Ian Shapira: Hey Leesburg: First, let me say that I am a huge fan of Leesburg and worked there for several years and gained quite an addiction to Johnson¿s Charcoal Beef House. I hear it may be closing soon and if that is true, I would be very sad.

Now that has been said and I can continue with this chat.

When your son gets to college, there are plenty of career counselors for that kind of thing. Usually, universities have career offices that can give them menus of options. And, barring that, organizations such as the Center for Interim Programs can also offer advice.


Washington, D.C.: Like many of those who have written in, I too took a Gap Year after attending a very stressful high school. I decided to do this about two weeks before enrolling in college, which scared the heck out of my parents. I had no plan -- I did not have the chance to go abroad or just sit around. In fact, I got a sales job that in no way enhanced my college application.

After graduating, I knew I was not ready for the demands of college yet, and even though it was hard to upset my parents and do this without their support (they eventually came around), I ended up going to a wonderful college, earned my degree on time, worked a few years and am now back in graduate school. There should be no rush to enter the work force and "grow up." A full-time job is not the only way to become an adult. Learning to take care of yourself happens in many different forums, and any teenager who knows that he or she is not yet ready for college is already showing signs of incredible maturity.

Even though it didn't help me get into college, working a 40-hour week taught me a lot, most importantly that I WANTED to go back to school. Not because I had to or because my parents expected me to, but because it was a driving force within me. And that is something most of my classmates never had in college, and I always felt special because I knew I wanted to be in those classrooms.

Holly Bull: This goes back to another of my answers where the idea of choice is so key. Most students don't feel as though they are choosing college. And they often don't appreciate college as much as they probably should! Fred Hargadon, former dean of Admissions at Princeton University, thought the ideal freshman would be 21, with plenty of experience and wisdom to bring to the college process.


Arlington, Va.: Just a story to encourage people to see the good in this. My husband and I (both of us 25 years old) took drastically different ways. I went to college straight out of high school, he began doing temp work. One of his temp assignments became a permanent position in state government -- one that many, many people with degrees at my school were trying to get. Because of this temp position, he gained contacts and experience and began doing graphic design work freelance. Now, at 25, he is going to start going to school for graphic design, something he knows 100 percent that he has a passion for, while working a great job, and will be paying for it (mostly) using his freelance money. I, on the other hand, am mired in debt and working at a position that is good enough ... but not a passion. Now I am the one waiting, until I finish paying for my first degree, so that I can pursue a passion of my own. Time "off" is not a bad thing, trust me.

Marlyn McGrath: This is an enlightening report. And (among other things) it underscores the underappreciated value of temp work.


Atlanta, Ga.: This is a great idea. My sister graduated college 6 mos early (the option was around then ) and took time off to travel a little and work. I think it was great for her, and a good break from our very competitive high school.

I had a friend who was accepted to an ivy league, but for spring semester -- he ended up going to a state school for one semester, then to the ivy, but I believe he was happy with the experience (I think part of the acceptance was that he wasn't going to go to another school, so he couldn't actually transfer those credits, but ...).

Between my husband and I we have 4 degrees. I think my kids will know that we value education. But I think that there are various paths for all and doing things just cause everyone else does it that way isn't the best idea (work hard in high school -- go to college). I say all the time that if our kids don't go to college, that's fine -- if they don't want to go (we're saving anyway) -- they may or may not find out how difficult it is to live without that college degree, they'll have to pay rent like the rest of the world, and they'll find out how difficult it can be without the education. So if either of them wanted some time off -- that would be great. I wouldn't (probably) finance it -- they'd have to pitch in -- and/or pay rent if living at home -- but learning about the real world is not a horrible thing for anyone.

Holly Bull: Exactly, learning about the "real world" is incredibly helpful before you potentially plod through four years of college, uncertain about what to major in. How many people actually use their majors? Most parents I ask this question of are not using their majors in the present job.

The gap year can definitely make the transition to college easier but it also makes the transition to the work world easier. One has already had a half-step out into the world through the gap year experiences.


Ian Shapira: All right everyone. Thank you so much for reading the stories in both the Sunday magazine and in the Metro section. I¿d like to conclude by saying that gap years are not for everyone. For some students, it works, but for others, it could be a big mistake. It depends on the student. There is no one right way.

Also, if anyone has any story ideas on anything related to education, feel free to email me,


Holly Bull: Thank you for the opportunity to dialogue in this guest forum. These have been terrific questions and I appreciate hearing people's concerns and their own gap year experiences. When we started Interim, our gap year counseling company, in 1980, the gap year idea was relatively unknown. I wouldn't call it mainstream now but there is so much more support and awareness.


Newark, Del.: I know this has nothing to do with this topic ... but it does have something to do with education. Is it a bad idea to get your MBA at the same college that you got your bacholor's from? It's just a lot cheaper for me and closer to my job. Thanks!

Holly Bull: I can't answer this with any authority. Maybe Marlyn can tell you!

Marlyn McGrath: I can't give an authoritative answer either but 1. I know lots of happy, successful people who got both degrees at the same place and 2. I can't see any theoretical reason why it should be a problem. A business program is normally quite distinguishable from a liberal arts curriculum and experience. Good luck.

Marlyn McGrath: Thanks for joining us. This was a pretty stimulating exchange and I am encouraged at how carefully our readers have thought about the complexities of this very broad topic.

_______________________ This concludes our discussion today. Thank you for joining us.


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