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Why Harvard ‘encourages’ students to take a gap year. Just like Malia Obama is doing.

The White House announced that eldest daughter Malia Obama will attend Harvard University after taking a gap year. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Now that Malia Obama is planning to take a gap year after high school and before starting college at Harvard University in 2017, some questions arise: What exactly do students do while on a gap year? What do colleges think of them?

The answers are: There are myriad options for students who have the resources to take a gap year — though they do not have to be expensive. And some colleges actually encourage admitted students to take a gap year — including Harvard.

What exactly is a gap year? Laura R. Hosid, an expert on gap years at the Vinik Educational Placement Services in Bethesda, told me in an interview some time ago that a “gap year typically describes a year off between high school and college.” They have long been popular in Britain and other countries, she said, but have been gaining popularity in this country, too, in recent years. They offer students with means “an opportunity to travel, explore different interests, and gain experience and maturity before beginning college.”

There are no solid statistics on how many students take gap years in the United States, according to the American Gap Association, but anecdotal evidence shows that students benefit significantly from taking time off. A study by the dean of admissions at Middlebury College found that the average GPA for Middlebury students who had taken a gap year was consistently higher than those who had not.

In 2012, Harvard’s website noted that 50 to 70 students take gap years before entering as freshman. The website today says:

Harvard College encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way — provided they do not enroll in a degree-granting program at another college. Deferrals for two-year obligatory military service are also granted. Each year, between 80 and 110 students defer their matriculation to the College.

Also on the website is an article titled, “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” describes how pressured K-12 schooling has become, noting that ” training for college scholarships — or professional contracts — begins early, even in grammar school.” It says:

Faced with the fast pace of growing up today, some students are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors. Counseling services of secondary schools and colleges have expanded in response to greatly increased demand. It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the “prizes,” stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties – physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others – sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.
Some early remedies
What can we do to help? Fortunately this young fast-track generation itself offers ideas that can reduce stress and prevent burnout. In college application essays and interviews, in conversations and counseling sessions with current college students, and in discussions with alumni/ae, many current students perceive the value of taking time out. Such a “time out” can take many forms. It can be very brief or last for a year or more. It can be structured or unstructured, and directed toward career, academic or purely personal pursuits. Most fundamentally, it is a time to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one’s accustomed pressures and expectations.

Other schools encourage gap years, as well. For example, Princeton University offers the Bridge Year Program, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has Global Gap Year Fellowship Program.

Students who wish to take a gap year are supposed to apply to college and, once accepted, present a plan to the university for why they want to defer. Many colleges will be happy to comply.

For those students who don’t apply to college, hoping that activities undertaken during a gap year will enhance their admissions profile, Hosid said a gap year can’t “compensate for deficiencies in your high school record.”

She also said in the earlier interview:

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 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 30 different fairs throughout the country. 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.