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Consider Taking a Gap Year Before Starting College

You may have heard the news that Harvard has admitted Malia Obama. The White House press release noted that Malia would be taking a gap year after high school. She won’t be attending as a freshman in the fall of this year but will enroll in the fall of 2017 instead. Unlike the majority of 2016 high school graduates who have been admitted to college this spring, Malia has chosen to matriculate with the class of 2021 rather than 2020.

Let’s take this occasion to consider the pros and cons of a gap year (also referred to as a bridge year) along with some ideas about how to use your gap year.

Please note that in some cases, you can request a gap year after a college has admitted you and you have accepted their offer. However, other schools will not allow you to defer acceptance in order to take a gap year. Your IvySelect college admissions consultant can help you explore this issue. Indeed, it may influence your college choices.

There is increasing awareness of the benefits of a gap year to students and colleges and this accounts for the growth in the percentage of American students requesting and receiving permission to take a gap year. For example, Harvard includes the following statement on its website:

“Harvard College encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way — provided they do not enroll in a degree-granting program at another college. Deferrals for two-year obligatory military service are also granted. Each year, between 80 and 110 students defer their matriculation to the College.”

Conceptually, the purpose of a gap year is to allow students who have been driven to excel throughout high school for the sake of college admissions to relax and reassess while engaging in a purposeful pursuit. This is the approach to gap years taken in the U.K., the EU countries, and Australia, where the practice is more common and traditional than in the U.S.

Top-tier institutions in the U.S. prefer a structured, pre-approved approach to a student’s gap year activities. For example, Princeton describes its Bridge Year Program as follows:

“Bridge Year is a tuition-free program that allows a select number of incoming freshmen to begin their Princeton experience by engaging in nine months of University-sponsored service at one of five international locations. In addition to supporting community-based initiatives at each program site, Bridge Year aims to provide participants with greater international perspective and intercultural skills, an opportunity for personal growth and reflection, and a deeper appreciation of service in both a local and international context.“

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers incoming students an opportunity to participate in their Global Gap Year Fellowship, as described below.

“The Global Gap Year Fellowship offered at UNC-Chapel Hill is the only college-sponsored gap year program that allows students to design their own gap-year experience. Fellows are encouraged to create their service-based gap years with the full support and guidance of our staff and faculty. The Fellowship partners with UNC-CH Office of Undergraduate Admissions, which helps promote the program and select the recipients.”

Although UNC says that students, “design their own gap year experience,” like most American gap year programs, theirs is structured. It entails public service work at specific locations outside of the U.S.

In addition to institution-sponsored gap year programs such as the two above, there is also a growing industry of gap year program providers consisting of companies and NGO’s that cooperate with the colleges that interested students will attend. Many of these organizations, such as Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School, are members of the American Gap Association, a trade association that sets standards and accredits participants in this field.

Gap Year Cons:

  1. There is one major reason why most students don’t wish to undertake a gap year before college—they don’t want to fall out of step with their cohort. Their friends will be going away to college in August, so most students want to be sharing that experience simultaneously. Relatively few students can overcome the understandable emotional appeal of this course of action.
  1. Many gap year programs are expensive. If a student’s family is stretching financially to afford attending an elite institution, the added cost of a gap year program is unnecessary. However, certain low cost or paying gap year options such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps are likely to be approved by your college if they conform to the school’s timetable.

Gap Year Pros:

  1. After the hyper-intensive grind of top-tier college admissions… you’re fried. You need to be in a non-competitive environment for a while to assure that you’ll be at your best when you begin college. You’ll return from your gap year with your vitality restored and your focus sharpened.
  1. Research indicates that students who have taken a gap year perform better in college than those who have not. The report of one such study undertaken by Middlebury College is available on their website.
  1. A gap year allows you to live in a different culture rather than just visit it.
  1. There’s no better way to become fluent in another language than to immerse yourself with native speakers.
  1. A gap year enables you to develop life skills like leadership and self-reliance.
  1. A gap year can provide you with increased maturity, independence, and self-confidence that will help you make the most out of college.
  1. Participating in a gap year displays the qualities that many post-college employers will be looking for in new professional hires.
  1. In the gap year milieu, you’ll join a community of young people with aspirations and goals similar to your own. You’ll form lifelong friendships.

We recommend that you mention your desire for a gap year in discussions with your IvySelect college consultant as early as possible. As is the case with all other aspects of your campaign for admission to an elite institution, we have the expertise required to assist in planning for your gap year. We’ll guide you through the process without letting it interfere with your primary objective—gaining admission to Ivy League universities or other top-tier institutions.