Several years ago, my family and I had the opportunity to live in Sydney, Australia and Christ Church, New Zealand where we discovered that many of the college students we met took time off before starting university. They traveled, worked on sheep farms, in restaurants or in the tourist industry. In other words, these young Australians and New Zealanders took a Gap Year. As Americans, this was a new and interesting concept to us, since traditionally in the United States students march directly on to higher education.
The idea of taking time off before starting college is becoming more and more popular in the United States. For example, after she was accepted to Harvard University, Melia Obama took a Gap Year. She served as an intern in the American Embassy in Spain, volunteered on environmental and conservation projects in Peru and Bolivia, and worked in Hollywood, before starting college the following fall. The practice of deferring enrollment for a year, as Melia did, is a trend Harvard and many other institutions such as Colgate, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, Colorado College, and Florida State support. Helen, a student with whom I worked, was accepted to Bates College in Maine. She then she decided she needed a break. Helen paid her admissions deposit and took a year off to volunteer and travel. Bates held her spot, and she went back the following year as a freshman. About 60% of all students who take a Gap Year apply to college and then defer for six months or a year. Others wait to apply once their Gap Year is underway.
According to the American Gap Year Association, a Gap Year offers students experiential learning, new skills, different cultural and career perspectives, maturity and independence. In addition, researchers at the University of Chicago and Middlebury College found that students tend to excel in academics after taking a Gap Year and graduate from college with higher than average GPAs.
Wendy Bachman, of Boalsburg, is the parent of two Gap Year participants. She suggests that the experience of a Gap Year helps young people “learn what they don’t want to do.” It helps them to adjust to the demands of a university – both emotionally and socially – once they start their college career. She also says that “planning for a Gap Year allows a student to relax and enjoy his or her senior year and offers a gradual transition toward independence for the entire family.”
Students may choose to do one or a combination of activities during a Gap Year which often involve voluntarism, career exploration, paid work, or travel. For example, during his gap year a student might volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, the library, or for a political campaign. Career exploration might include shadowing a professional in a certain field such as physical therapy or getting an internship based on career interests in a graphic arts company or law office. Working is a great way to save money for future college expenses as well as adding to one’s resume.
Many students find part-time work in a restaurant, a bookstore, in construction, or day care while they take a class at a local college or pursue other interests in art, music, or sports. There are travel programs for mature teens to learn a language and immerse themselves in another culture. The company Visions offers language immersion and service programs in countries such as Guadeloupe or the Dominican Republic.
You can learn about structured Gap Year programs at TeenLife.com, GoAbroad.com, WhereThereBeDragons.com, or IrishGapYear.com. There are also several books available about Gap Year experiences, one of which is Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, by Joe O’Shea. The idea of a Gap Year is certainly not for everyone, but for students, such as those we met in Australia and New Zealand, who aren’t quite ready to start college right after high school, a Gap Year may be the answer.