The Gap Year

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I do not remember the option of the gap year being offered in the ’80s when I graduated from high school, although I have learned that the practice began in the ’60s in the United Kingdom.  Gap year, also called deferred year, interim year, or bridge year, is popular in the UK, as well as in a handful of other countries – New Zealand, Australia, Canada.  It is growing in popularity in the United States, but remains the exception, not the rule.  During a gap year, a high school graduate chooses an alternative to mainstream education, such as travel, volunteering, or actual employment.  It is used largely as a time to recharge, rethink, and mature.  A year-long deep breath, if you will.  

I recently spoke with a young man, Jack, who has decided to take a gap year.  He got in to Princeton, and a handful of other equally impressive colleges and universities, but has decided to defer.  (If you think your child might be interested in this option, double-check the cut-off date for deferral requests.  The date is not widely advertised.)  After requesting and receiving the green light from Princeton on deferral, Jack, who just graduated from Severna Park High, is now creating his own gap year program, a fantastic collection of opportunities he is sincerely interested in pursuing, and will likely never have another chance to do.  Jack plans to work for two wildlife rescue operations in Greece and hopes to intern in Athens at the offices of a large philanthropic non-government organization based there.

Jack says he has been interested in a gap year since ninth grade, largely because he was always young for his grade. No teachers ever suggested it, and his college consultant (privately engaged) was actively opposed to the idea.  His parents are split on the experience–one in favor, and one coming around.  The one in favor has always viewed the gap year as a great chance to gain some maturity and perspective.

This is what Jack had to say about his decision-making process:  “Well, I finished high school and found myself sick of book work, exams, and the usual grind of education. I wanted a break, to do something else for a while, and saw in a gap year the perfect opportunity to do service, another activity I enjoy. Finally, since I’m a year younger than most of my classmates, a gap year suits me because it gives me time to grow up before beginning my undergraduate studies.”

There are more gap year options than you can shake a stick at, but here are some of the big ones:  AmeriCorps, City Year, National Outdoor Leadership School, Semester at Sea, and Leap Now.  Many high schools now offer guidance through their college counseling offices on the gap year options, as well.  One general piece of wisdom I have gleaned from the various websites, though:  Make sure your child applies to, and gets in to, a college during high school, and then defers.  I am told it is much harder to get in at the end of a gap year. 

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  1. Hmmm, a decade before the author finished high school, a lot of us were traveling around the country – or the world – in imitation of Ken Keysey’s _On the Road_. We hitchhiked, or drove VW bugs or vans, bummed around San Francisco or Amsterdam, and went to “find ourselves”. What we found was a generation who have raised some very sheltered kids, who are scrubbed and scheduled and often rather timid. My contemporaries have children moving back in after college, or grandkids who barely know their parents. I do worry.
    Perhaps the opportunity to do this testing-the-water thing *before* college will give us a college cadre who are more serious about their studies (since they presumably have found out how much they need it), and who also bring to their college life a little more taste of the world than just the tree-shaded environs of Guilford. I’d rather see in my college class a student who has worked in a wildlife preserve in Greece after high school, than one who thinks that the greatest achievement in the world is a soccer scholarship.

  2. well said roland jim – after being exposed to the gap year concept while living in the uk i think it makes such wonderful sense – i often dream of what my daughter will do . . . she is only 5 : )!

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