Nurture Your Zeitgeist with a Gap Year Before you start college

What happens if a student graduates from high school exhausted? AP classes, standardized testing, extracurricular activities, sports, music, community service, research projects...and all of those college essays! What if they worked so hard they can’t remember what they like? Are they ready for four or five or six more years?

Taking a gap year does not mean the student does not apply to college as a high school senior. Emphatically, the student should apply to college. As a high school student he or she has access to the teachers and counselor who will write letters of recommendation, grades and test scores are in hand, and good reference materials to search for college are easier to access. Definitely, apply! And then defer.

As a college counselor working with gifted high school students, I’ve twice seriously advised a gap year. One student considered extreme mountaineering, the other living in Europe with extended family. (Admittedly, neither did it.) I’ve talked about it with every student who has an interest in studying foreign languages. Among our tabloid friends, Prince William and Kate MIddleton took gap years. (Kate spent much of hers studying Italian.) Every year fifty to seventy students defer entrance into Harvard College for a gap year. In 2006 Harvard reported some of those gap years’ focuses:

  • Backpacking
  • Care for grandparents
  • Writing the Next Great American Novel
  • e-commerce startup
  • Figure skating
  • Kibbutz life
  • Language study
  • Military service
  • Mineralogy
  • Music
  • Political campaigns
  • Reading
  • Special needs education
  • Sports
  • Steel drumming
  • Storytelling
  • Swing dancing
  • Working to save money for college

Parents often worry that by detaching from a year-to-year academic progression their student will fall behind. Colleges seldom see it that way, and many letters of admission come with the option of deferring for a year. Once in college, students are often encouraged to take a year off, and college student counseling centers freely offer advice about opportunities. Splitting the difference, some colleges offer mid-year entrance, allowing the student a “gap semester.” American University and Brandeis University have formal off-campus programs for first year fall semester.

A year off can center around anything. Now that average student indebtedness at graduation is $25,200, saving for a year before college can create more flexibility after college. Another opportunity is more family time, especially with grandparents, which may have been sacrificed for academic achievement. Some parents and students prefer a structured year. There are many services which will match a student with a gap year program, and a quick search of the internet will yield many. Think also outside of the box. My personal favorite was a year at Austin  Community College, studying blacksmithing.

A gap year makes for a more interesting student, capable of adding more to the academic community. Best of all, students can discover their passions, and capture their zeitgeist before they begin college.