Keep Calm, Consider a Gap Year

Keep Calm, Consider a Gap Year

Robert S. Clagett
St. Stephen’s Episcopal School
Austin, TX

For us college counselors, this time of year is, as Charles Dickens would say, the best of times and the worst of times. At the same moment that we are celebrating the joys of some of our seniors, we are sharing the despair of others. But it is the sad reality that most of our students’ lives in the past four to eight years have been geared towards the culmination that the past month or so represents for them.

Even more sad is that reaching the conclusion of this process can bring with it a sense of letdown, an “OK, so now what?” feeling, as if getting into college was not a means to the end of becoming a more fully-developed person, but rather an end in itself. And I suspect it is that mindset that leads to much of the infantile behavior that we see in the early months and sometimes even years of college. As a dean at Tufts has been known to say, “Everyone in the US takes a gap year. It’s called freshman year.”

For too many of our students at our highly structured and competitive schools, it is easy to lose sight of the connection that should exist between their educations and their lives. And I believe that is why it is at this time of year when some of our seniors first entertain the possibility of taking a gap year between high school and college.

Happily, the concept and perceived value of doing so has also begun to gain more traction in the US. Harvard has been at the forefront of encouraging its admitted students to consider taking a gap year for many years, and this past year’s freshman class includes 70 students who took a gap year before enrolling (and that is without including those students who were offered deferred admission there). At Colorado College, fully 10% of the enrolling class in the fall is taking a gap year this year. Even some public universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin, have come to see the value in enrolling more mature, balanced, and focused students by allowing them to take a well thought-out out gap year. Attendance at the 39 USA Gap Year Fairs that take place around the country each winter has also increased by almost 120% to more than 6000 in the past five years, and non-profit gap year programs are now allowed to exhibit at a few of the NACAC college fairs. They will also be included in the exhibit hall at the NACAC annual conference in Boston this fall for the first time.

Even parents are beginning to recognize that it can be a growth-promoting experience for their sons and daughters to step off the treadmill and do something that, for once, has nothing to do with enhancing their candidacy for some college. And it does not even have to result in the decreased academic motivation in college that so many fear will result from taking a year away from academic work. In fact, my research from several years ago on gap year students’ academic performance at Middlebury (and replicated by UNC-Chapel Hill, with even more positive correlations) shows that not only do students who had taken a gap year have, on average, higher GPAs than their non-gap year counterparts, they actually perform better than would have been predicted, controlling for those students’ academic credentials when they applied for admission.

So what can we as college counselors do to better inform ourselves about the gap year opportunities that are out there in order to advise our students more effectively? Fortunately, it does not have to entail the time and effort that goes into understanding the nuanced differences between all of the colleges and universities with which we are familiar. A good starting point is encouraging our seniors to keep an open mind to the idea and, much as we do in our college counseling work, stepping back and allowing them to take ownership of the process and intentionally define for themselves what they would like to get out of a gap year experience. There are so many different kinds of gap year opportunities out there, some involving work or internships, others travel and adventure, awareness of important global issues, or all of the above. And it does not even have to entail being part of a structured program. Some of the most worthwhile gap year experiences are entirely self-designed, and that can help reduce the cost, or even make them financially profitable. But for almost everyone, it ends up being a year on, not a year off.

There are also some outside resources that may prove helpful to you as a counselor. A good list of gap year programs (both non-profit and for-profit) can be found at https://usagapyearfairs.org/programs. If you would like to learn if there is a gap year fair anywhere in your geographic area, check out this listing: https://usagapyearfairs.org/fairs. If you do not see your area listed there, you might even offer the USA Gap Year Fair organization the possibility of hosting a fair at your own school. The American Gap Association (http://americangap.org), the accrediting agency that vets many gap year programs, also has helpful lists of programs and its own research on students who have taken gap years. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are also independent counselors who specialize in advising students on possible gap year experiences.

I believe the gap year phenomenon is an especially promising trend occurring today in the school-to-college transition, since it is a win-win for all parties, including US higher education. In more than 40 years at both ends of our profession, I have yet to meet a student (or even those students’ parents) who regretted having taken a gap year. Since it virtually always results in students being more ready for and accessible to the challenges that they will confront in college, there is every reason to encourage our students to at least consider the option.

Share this post: