“Considering the ‘Gap Year'”

By Peter Van Buskirk

“Do you think it would be okay if I took some time off before going to college?”

It’s a question that comes up with surprising frequency as students grapple with their post-high school options. And, while the questioner seems to be seeking validation around the idea, there is often an implied and even deeper concern about how colleges themselves might regard such a strategy.

I would like to address the notion of taking time off or the “gap year” at two different levels. First, I will lay a philosophical foundation for the gap year discussion. Then, I will take a look at “if” and “how” the gap year might be beneficial.

Conceptually, the question of the gap year fits within a broader consideration of what seems to be a required sequence of experiences that young people must follow in their academic lives. The lockstep begins with pre-school and, for many, extends right through graduate school. It’s as though kids are placed on a conveyor belt that moves them through a series of prescribed exercises that systematically measures their needs, fills them up with the things they “need to know,” tests them and, assuming they have acquired a “minimal level of mastery,” stamps them as fit for promotion.

While the educational chronology is presumably geared to the developmental and academic needs of each age-group cohort, it often fails to accommodate the kids whose progress along their respective learning paths requires different measures.

Consider, for example, the young woman who desperately wants to accelerate her progress toward high school graduation because, by age 14, she has exhausted the curricular offerings of her school. Or the young man who is “young” for his eighth grade class. Like many others whose academic tracking puts them ahead of their peers, each is struggling to weigh the desire to remain stimulated intellectually with the need to grow socially and emotionally in age-appropriate ways.

Unfortunately, ours is not a “one size fits all” system that works comfortably for everyone. It is important to remember, then, that the best interests of the young person may not always be defined by the chronology. As parents and educators, we need to remain vigilant in support of those interests even when doing so means taking them out of the lockstep of the conveyor belt.

It is within this context, then, that many families consider the “gap year.” While some students are understandably concerned about their readiness—academic, social or emotional—to move immediately into college, others simply need to be able to step back and breath deeply before taking the next step into life as a full-time college student. Yet others are able to realize some pretty cool personal enrichment opportunities related to travel, service, or work.

I believe the answer to the gap year question is quite simple. “Take the time off! Invest in yourself. Do what you need to do, so when you enter college you are ready to embrace the experience with focus and determination.”

The college years should not be entered with hesitation or reservation. Don’t allow your enrollment in a college to be an accident of circumstance. It can’t be the default option. College campuses are full of students who don’t know why they are there. As a result, many of them leave early with little or nothing to show for the time and money invested in their educations.

When you enter, do so with a sense of purpose—a conviction that that a college campus is where you need to be in order to lay the foundation for future success and happiness. And if you need to take some time away from the classroom to get your head clear, or just to try something different before getting started, good for you!

In general, colleges value the added maturity and perspective students bring with them after having taken a year off—especially if that time has been spent productively. It’s hard to imagine that admission committees wouldn’t welcome students who contribute to a broader range of life experiences.

Having said that, you have two options with regard to declaring your gap year intentions. One, you can inform the admission committee of your intent when you apply for admission. Two, you can apply for admission without reference to the gap year and then, upon gaining admission, seek a deferral of your enrollment for a year.

I recommend the latter for two very practical reasons. Despite the tacit endorsement of the gap year by admission officers, you don’t want questions about your intent to enroll to enter into their deliberations.

More importantly, though, it will be much easier for you to complete the application process while you are still in school. You will be in rhythm with the rest of your peers as you complete your applications and you will have direct access to your school-based support system (counselor, teachers, coaches, etc.) as you pull together the various elements of your applications. Attacking the college application process 8-10 months after graduation will put you at a disadvantage, as you might not have easy access to the people and information you need.

In the final analysis, don’t assume that you need to go to college just because “it’s what you do after high school.” We don’t all work on the same developmental “clock.” For some, college makes sense right after high school. Others, however, find great benefit in taking some time off. The “gap year” is an opportunity to be embraced—I wish more students would feel confident in taking advantage of it!

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