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Gap Years: Positive Growth Experience?

by Maria Minsker | Cornell University

F Posted in: College P Posted on: May 17, 2012
gap year Image courtesy of Flickr, user Lecdenkenya.

With high school graduation around the corner, seniors around the country are preparing to enter the world of (semi-) adulthood. But for an increasing number of students, college isn’t going to be part of the picture… yet.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, 300,000 first-time freshmen at four-year colleges and universities found that 1.2 percent take a gap-year after graduation to study, volunteer, travel, or simply take some time off.

While gap-year programs are popular in England, they are less common in the U.S. Some colleges like Amherst College, Princeton University, MIT, Middlebury and Harvard are implementing official deferment policies to give accepted freshmen the opportunity to take a year off before beginning their studies at the school. Public colleges like the University of North Carolina even offer a Gap Year scholarship so that students can pursue academics and service abroad.

Many students often opt to plan their own travels, jobs, or other endeavors. Students that need a little more guidance typically turn to “Gap fairs,” which have been on the rise in the past few years. Gap fairs introduce students to various programs and opportunities to pursue during their gap years, and as many as 30 are held nationwide every year.

Reasons for choosing this option are as different as the students that take them, though feeling burnt out after 12 years of school is often listed as one of the top reasons.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Casey Santi, 18, of Winnetka, Ill., has been studying French and history, traveling and doing community service in Europe and Africa since she began a gap-year program last June.

Santi said that stress during her senior year in high school forced her to “regain herself and get back on track.”

Sam Helderop, who has been accepted to Michigan’s Hope College this spring, plans to take advantage of the school’s permission to defer and take a year off.

As ABC News reports, Helderop will take a gap year to teach English with the DaLaa project in Thailand and then backpack throughout Southeast Asia.

“I always wanted to travel pretty much my entire life,” Helderop told ABC News, “but after 18 years of the same old routine, going to school and sitting in class, I am not motivated enough right now to go through four years of college. I feel like a gap year will narrow down what I want to study and do in my life.”

Though hearing that children want to defer their college acceptance can be scary for parents, many college admissions experts agree that gap-years are a good idea.

“Admission officers tell you that the gap year increases independence and self-reliance and students have a confidence about them,” Julia Rogers, director of Vermont-based EnRoute Consulting, told ABC News.

Contrary to popular belief, gap-years can also end up being a good financial decision. Gap-years generally cost about $10,000 to $25,000, compared to college tuition, which usually starts at around $50,000 a year, Rogers explains. Because they typically cost less, gap-years can provide an opportunity to save up money for school, especially if the student has a paying job during the year.

Some research even shows that gap-years help students perform better once they enter college.

Robert Clagett, who has worked in admissions for both Harvard University and Middlebury College for three decades, said he and his colleagues noticed a positive trend in students that took time off before they started school.

According to Clagett, ABC News reports, students who took time off not only had higher a GPA during their first semesters, but also had higher grades during all four years.

But not everyone thinks that gap-years are a good idea. Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says that unless there’s a solid structure to the gap program, it might not be the best choice.

“If you’re going to loiter around the margins of life for a year, you may be better off in the classroom,” Nassirian told The Wall Street Journal.

If there isn’t enough structure in a program, students often end up feeling lost and even more confused than before they began.

Shoshanna Silverberg — who participated in a gap-year program teaching in Ghana several years ago — didn’t enjoy her experience.

“I felt very disenchanted with it,” she told The Wall Street Journal. According to Silverberg, she wasn’t told what she was supposed to teach, and wasn’t comfortable with the way she was supposed to discipline the children.

Whether students are thinking of embarking on spontaneous travels throughout Europe or participating in an organized, carefully-planned program, the decision to take a year off is a difficult one. Experts recommend that students think long and hard before they defer admission, and consult with parents, guidance counselors and program officials.

Maria Minsker Maria Minsker Maria Minsker is a junior English and communication double major at Cornell University. She is an aspiring journalist who loves to travel, try foreign cuisines and watch reruns of old sitcoms.

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