Sam Rich has all good things to say about the ten months he spent living and studying in Patagonia—even about the time he was chased by a pack of Chilean street dogs.
Sponsored by Rotary International, which places some 8,000 students in similar situations worldwide every year, Rich, now 20, took a year off after he graduated high school, deferring his acceptance at a competitive Massachusetts university.
“My junior year in high school, I began to feel like I was being forced into this system—graduate high school, go to college, get a job,” Rich recalls. “And I was thinking, ‘When am I going to get to travel and get outside of this bubble they call the United States?'”
He got his wish, living with a family and attending school in a remote region of Patagonia, which is where he met up with the dog pack during a pre-dawn run, as one and then another stray joined in, nipping at his heels as he was trying to make his way over unfamiliar streets.
Rich not only survived the encounter, he went on to write an essay about it, which he used midyear to apply from abroad to a fresh round of colleges. Whether the essay, or his gap year in general, helped get him into Tulane University, where he’s now a sophomore, Rich can’t say. But he feels certain his experience changed him in fundamental ways.
“Before my gap year, I would not have applied to a school so far away from home,” says Rich, who grew up near Boston. “It’s easier now for me to connect with people. Before, I really stuck to what I thought was ‘my group.’ Now I’ll talk to anyone.”
That kind of maturity and perspective is exactly what’s sought by an increasing number of U.S. high school graduates—supported by their sometimes more-reluctant parents—who choose to take time off before or during college. Nobody keeps definitive numbers, but colleges, universities, high school guidance counselors, and college admissions reps all report anecdotally that interest in gap years among American students is sharply on the rise.
Choices abound and are growing more plentiful every day, from private organizations that plan every moment of your child’s experience (and charge you for it accordingly), through middle-tier options that place young adults in home-stay or au pair situations abroad, to U.S.-based service organizations like AmeriCorps that pay participants a small stipend and try to find them affordable housing options during a year of service. Some young adults go completely independent and fashion a do-it-yourself gap that may include work, an internship, an apprenticeship, service, travel, or all of the above.
Whatever route a gapper chooses, there are challenges. Gap year programs can be expensive, straining the bank accounts of parents who had counted on four, not five, years of young adult dependency. Students who apply or reapply to college during their gap year find that tracking deadlines and filling out the Common App, FAFSA, and other required documents can be more difficult from an Internet café with spotty service thousands of miles from home. All gap students must reapply for financial aid, and not all colleges and universities will offer deferring students the same merit aid package from year to year. Some don’t allow gappers to defer at all; they must reapply for the following academic year.
Navigating those hurdles is simply part of what makes a gap year so valuable for students, proponents say.
“We love the notion of students taking control of their lives and navigating adult-like situations,” says Charles Nolan, vice president and dean of admission at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., a small, elite college that competes with MIT, Harvard, and Stanford for students. “We believe that any student who takes a year off to do something different, rather than just follow the pack, comes to college with a different perspective on their education.”
Why Gap? Let Us Count The Ways
The American Gap Association (yes, there is such a thing—it’s an accreditation, standards-setting, and advocacy organization) defines a gap year this way:
“A gap year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers. Typically these are achieved by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, or working. A gap year experience can last from two months up to two years and is taken between high school graduation and the junior year of their higher degree.”
Others are less exacting in their definitions. No less august an institution than Harvard College, which maintains a web page extolling the virtues of a gap year, defines it more loosely as “one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way.”
Either way, proponents from Harvard on down say students who take a year off from their studies are more mature, better focused, more curious, better community members with a more refined idea of what they’d like to study and how they plan to contribute to the world.
Olin College has an unusually proactive attitude towards gap years. The school guarantees that any student put on its wait list will eventually gain admission—though that often means waiting a year. A surprising number of students take Olin up on the offer every acceptance cycle, even though the school offers no guidance as to what students should do with their unexpected time off.
“Part of the creative process is letting them figure out what they want to do,” says Nolan, who says students in the most recent incoming class used their gap year to work in Korea, travel with an aid group, write a rough draft of a novel, work in TV production, and mentor girls in STEM education, among other pursuits.
Whatever their choice, students come to campus “a year older, a year wiser and ready to work,” Nolan says. “Age 18, 19 and 20 is a critical developmental time for young adults. That year can make a world of difference in how students approach their studies.”
There is a small but growing body of research that backs up Nolan’s perceptions, according to Ethan Knight, founder and executive director of the American Gap Association.
A gapper himself (Knight took time between his freshman and sophomore years of college to travel in India, Nepal, and Tibet) who later worked as a gap year consultant, Knight started the AGA in part to collaborate on gap year research and serve as a resource for university admissions personnel and educational counselors.
On its website, the AGA quotes studies that show:
- * A majority of students report a gap year had an impact on their course of studies (either confirming their initial interest or setting them on a new course)
- * Students return to school with higher levels of motivation, which translate into a measurable boost in performance during their first semesters at college, and
- * Later on in life, students who had taken a gap year overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs.
The AGA itself collaborated on a study with Bob Clagett, the former head of admissions at Middlebury College, that found that students who took a gap year performed better during their first year of college than they were expected to do without the time off. Clagett developed a methodology to track gap students’ actual GPA performance against an academic rating that looks at everything from high school grades, national test scores, and teacher recommendations to the intensity of an applicant’s essay to predict how they would perform if they’d entered college directly from high school. In almost all instances, Clagett found gappers outperformed their predicted rating. Even better, that boost lasted for all four years of college.
The AGA’s Knight firmly believes gap year students excel in college because they’ve had time to think about their priorities, a precious commodity in modern American life. “We spend a majority of our lives chasing a definition of success without taking time to figure out ‘What’s my individual definition of success?'” says Knight. “A gap year lets you explore your definition of success. If you have a particular passion for music or engineering, you want to work or get an internship or explore a possible career, this is that moment.”
Students exploring the possibility of a gap year approach it from many different vantage points. Within the industry, Knight says, counselors, gap year program directors, admissions directors, and others connected to the industry informally categorized students into five general groups:
“Meaning seekers” typically have high SAT scores, decent or midrange GPAs, and are looking for context for the learning they’ve been exposed to. Knight says a majority of gap year students fits into this first category.
“Overachievers” not surprisingly, have high SATs, high GPAs, and have been gunning for the Ivy Leagues or similarly competitive schools for much of their educational lives. Typically, these students are burned-out from their high-pressure high school experience and are looking for a break before beginning an equally rigorous secondary education.
If he were the kind of guy to categorize himself, Kenzie might say he’s a meaning seeker/pragmatist with a bit of overachieving disengagedness thrown in for good measure.
“Pragmatists” are very much aware of how much college costs and typically don’t want to commit to four years of tuition without a better sense of their higher education goals. These students often use a gap year to intern, apprentice, or work at an entry-level job as an entry point to potential career decisions that will be made in college.
“Strugglers” are students who might not have found academic success in high school, sometimes due to a learning disability or learning difference. A gap year can give such students a needed boost in perspective, self-awareness, and self-confidence as they participate in non-traditional learning activities and are able to experience success, often for the first time.
Finally, “The disengaged,” a small sliver of gappers, are typically students who feel no burning desire to continue on immediately to college. This sub-group uses a gap year to refine their focus and—their parents hope, anyway—gain some fire-in-the-belly for their next moves in life.
What Colleges Think of Gap Years
A study conducted by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, co-authors of 2009’s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College, found that the top two reasons cited by high school students taking a gap year were a desire to find out more about themselves (“meaning seekers”) and burnout from the competitive pressures of high school (“overachievers”).
It’s not a coincidence that some of the most gap-friendly universities in the United States—including Princeton, Tufts, Elon, and the University of North Carolina—are among the most elite. After all, they have the highest rate of accepting overachievers who are burned out by the process of getting into college in the first place.
In a heartfelt essay on its gap year web page, Harvard College laments the cradle-to-college obsession of getting into the right college, which it says can produce “some students [who] are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors. 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.”
If he were the kind of guy to categorize himself, Kenzie Schoenthaler might say he’s a meaning seeker/pragmatist with a bit of overachieving disengagedness thrown in for good measure. All he knows is that, midway through his junior year at a large, well-ranked public high school in Massachusetts, he just wasn’t feeling the love as his fellow students threw themselves into the college-search process.
“Near the end of sophomore year, I was getting a tiny bit burned out, and it crossed my mind that the possibility existed that I might not have to go straight to college,” Schoenthaler recalls. “Once junior year hit, and I didn’t know which college I wanted to go to, I just found myself thinking, ‘This is the only time I’m going to be able to bike across the United States. Now when I’m eighteen or later when I’m sixty-five.'”
None of this was lost on his mom, Robin Schoenthaler, who had long been concerned about how boys in general, and her two sons in particular, were faring in a school system being pushed, on both state and national levels, to emphasize testing, more testing, and a general interest in having children color within the lines. “From about third or fourth grade on, I was very distressed at what I consider the schools’ absolutely relentless demand on boys,” she relates. “Neurological science is conclusive that many of these demands are not developmentally appropriate.”
What’s more, Schoenthaler was a gapper herself who took several years before she found her way onto a college track that eventually lead to an M.D. And then she had the honor of serving for many years on the admissions committee for the Harvard Medical School. “Harvard had a completely generous deferment policy for people who wanted to take a gap year after acceptance,” Schoenthaler says. “Their reasoning was, everybody wins. Either a student comes back a year later more mature, dedicated and ready to work. Or they don’t, and that’s great, too, be- cause medical school isn’t for everyone.”
So when she saw her son Kenzie’s growing disinterest in the college-application process, she floated the idea of a gap year, which he eagerly took up. By his estimation, he couldn’t be happier with his do-it-yourself plan. He has a part-time job at the afterschool program he’d attended as a child, which he loves; and another part-time job at a national grocery chain that’s teaching him about second shifts, corporate values, and punching the clock alongside people of all ages and ethnicities. He earned an EMT certification this past spring and is planning on earning a second Wilderness EMT certification after taking a class this spring in San Francisco—to which he plans to bike 3,000 miles across the United States.
Like many gap parents, Dr. Schoenthaler was worried about whether the school at which Kenzie was accepted, Lesley University, would let him defer, whether his merit aid would transfer from year to year, and what his reentry into academic life would be like after a year out of the trenches.
As it turns out, American colleges and universities are all over the map in terms of awareness of, and support for, gap years, according to AGA’s Knight. “Tier 1 and Tier 2 schools tend to be extremely excited about gap years; some allow you to put right on your application that you’re taking a gap year,” Knight says.
Tufts University made news last March by going one step further—the school announced a program, to debut in fall of 2015, that helps some would-be gap year students pay for airfare, lodging, and other costs, provided they are enrolled in a structured full-year program of national or international service. Princeton and the University of North Carolina offer similar programs.
But they’re among the minority—for now anyway, says Knight. “Tier 3 schools, the larger schools, the state schools…lots of times they don’t have the staffing to accommodate some- thing different, so you wind up having to reapply.”
Lesley University didn’t offer any information on gap years or deferrals on its website or in its admissions materials, which meant Schoenthaler, with a little coaching from his mom, had to take matters into his own hands. After a face-to-face meeting with the admissions office, some paperwork, and a few phone calls, Kenzie’s deferral was approved and his merit money earmarked for next year. “It was a maximum of three days of work, and I gained 365 days,” he says. “So overall on a time- benefit scale, that ratio seems pretty good to me.”
Deferrals aren’t the only thing that keeps parents up at night. No. 1 among parental concerns, admissions officers and gap year experts concede, is the worry that their child will never go to or return to college.
While statistics show that’s only rarely the case—research by authors Haigler and Rae found that 90 percent of gap year students return to college within a year—that doesn’t keep parents from worrying.
“Just coming back to the United States after seeing how needy other parts of the world are and then joining the typical American college experience, it’s a lot to absorb at once.”
After hearing tales of local gap kids who wound up working in entry-level retail jobs rather than heading to college, Dr. Schoenthaler told her son emphatically that his plan was to last for one year and one year only. “I’ve made it 100% clear that he’s going to school in September. Getting that degree is the end goal.”
Kenzie says he’s received that message, loud and clear. “This is a pretty awesome life—I’m fairly independent, making money—but people warned me not to let it get too awesome or I’ll wind up just staying home and living in my mom’s basement. A gap year is great, but you can’t let it become gap years.”
“Alexandra” is a Connecticut mother who asked that her name be changed to protect her family’s privacy during a time of delicate negotiations with her daughter, a high school senior graduating this June, who is lobbying to take a year off before college. That proposal that fills Alexandra with apprehension, especially coming at the end of what has been a long college-application process. “To me, a gap year means never going back to school,” she says, conceding that her concerns might stem from her own upbringing. “I was bred on the predictable, expected steps: high school, college, then you work your butt off in a field that you care about.”
She worries that a gap year signals a lack of motivation on her daughter’s part, and wonders if she has the maturity to organize a productive year off—a particular concern since her daughter has not—yet, anyway—articulated any clear plans. “What if she never winds up going to college? What if she lives at home for the next ten years? And, most important, how can we finance a five-year plan?”
(See “Who Gets To Gap?” for details on how some parents pay for that extra year.)
Parents tend to focus their worries on the “before” and “after” parts of the experience, but every now and again, the gap year itself goes seriously wrong. Promised internships or apprentice opportunities disappear or disappoint; the gapper goes adrift and never enrolls or returns to college; or, in the case of one young woman we’ll call “Aubrey,” an immersion year abroad starts out badly and gets worse.
Aubrey enrolled in a well-known and well-vetted study-abroad program with high hopes and eyes wide open. At the time, she was fine with not getting her first or second or even third choice of country; in retrospect, she now thinks some of her difficulties might be endemic to the culture of her host country, a former communist state.
Her first host family had a mother who was cold and monosyllabic and a father who, she came to realize, was an alcoholic. The second couple she was placed with was kind, but they had no children and knew no teenagers in town, and their largely unheated home was a 90-minute bus ride away from the school Aubrey was expected to attend every day. When she made it there, the schoolteachers, rather than engaging or encouraging her, flatly ignored her. When she asked her local program director to be placed with a family in town that had teenagers—and had already agreed to host her—she was told she was “lazy and complaining” and that she couldn’t move. Finally, overcome by loneliness and disappointment, Aubrey went AWOL—with her parents’ distant blessing—striking out for the airport without permission but with the help of other exchange students in the area who knew of and understood her predicament.
Back stateside, Aubrey’s mother was equal parts proud of her daughter for surviving in a negative situation for so long, heartbroken she hadn’t had a better experience, and frustrated that her stateside liaison for the international program seemed to have little sway over the situation on the ground overseas.
“The moral of this story is negative things can happen on these trips. My daughter wasn’t physically harmed, but she is heading home five months early with a lot of mending and healing in her immediate future,” Aubrey’s mother says. If she could tell other gap parents one thing, she says, it’s to be mindful that you and your child are at the mercy of an organization that may not always function as promised. “These systems are only as productive as the people in them.”
Whether their landing is bumpy like Aubrey’s or smoother, at some point gap year students need to reintegrate themselves back into academic life, which can be a challenge. Kenzie and his mom both are mindful that his reentry may be ticklish.
“You’ve matured a year, you’re a year more experienced, and you may have had some very out-of-the-box experiences,” Dr. Schoenthaler says. “Kenzie hangs out with firemen; one of his co-workers used to be a Hell’s Angel. He’s having non-college, non-middle-class experiences, so he may feel some lack of identifying with some of the other students” when he enrolls in college next fall.
Erin Jensen, a domestic and international admissions counselor at PSU in Portland, OR, has become something of a specialist in gap year transitions. PSU awards college credit to students who participate in certain programs offered by Carpe Diem, a Portland-based travel-abroad program; upon completion of their gap year program, students then transfer those PSU credits to whatever college they plan to attend.
In helping students ensure that their credits transfer properly, Jensen discovered that gappers transitioning to college faced other hurdles as well. In her experience, it’s not common for gap year students, particularly those who have been on yearlong international experiences, to develop a kind of “reverse culture shock,” she says, with their maturity level and global outlook out of sync with incoming freshmen arriving straight from high school. “Just coming back to the United States after seeing how needy other parts of the world are and then joining the typical American college experience, it’s a lot to absorb at once,” she says.
While some schools, including PSU, allow gap year students to apply for sophomore housing, most don’t do any more to help ease re-entry into an academic setting. Jensen has heard that Whitman College hosts a luncheon for gap year students at the beginning of the year to allow them to bond and share experiences. If more schools did that—or offered gappers the opportunity of rooming with other students returning from travel—that could ease the transition, Jensen suggests.
For his part, Sam Rich says he did feel ahead of his peers when he arrived on campus as a college freshman. “I definitely felt like the dad at first. Everyone seemed overly excited and a little immature, and here I was coming from living in a foreign country for a year.” By intention, he chose a roommate who had spent a few months in Bolivia, “just because he’d had experience in a different culture.” As the term progressed and the freshmen settled down, Rich says, his feeling of differentness gradually faded.
And then there’s Aubrey, home early and dealing with a double set of re-entry issues. Not only must she reintegrate into academic life come fall, she first must figure out how best to fill five unexpected months.
When we spoke by telephone, she had to hang up early because she was due at a job interview for an office assistant position and was feeling hopeful something would materialize. As for the public university she’s accepted at in the fall, likewise she feels optimistic things will work out okay.
Which leaves her only with the challenge of processing her feelings about her truncated year abroad.
When asked how she was feeling so soon after returning home, Aubrey paused for a moment and then said the message she’d sent to friends as she was leaving her host country still best summed up her emotions: “Sometimes in life we must expect the unexpected. Though my exchange did not work out as I hoped it would, I continue to have no regrets. Living [abroad] for the past five months has taught me about myself, the world, how to deal with others and how to accept the fact that sometimes situations are simply not fair.”
Hard-learned lessons, to be sure, but ones that will likely last a lifetime—which, gap year proponents would say, is really the goal in the end.
Tracy Mayor is a long-time Brain,Child contributor. Her essays and longform journalism have also appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Boston Magazine, Child, Self, and online on Salon, The Rumpus and the New York Times‘ Motherlode blog. She is the author of the parenting humor book Mommy Prayers (Hyperion, 2010) and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize.
Illustration by Rick Brown