Like his bride-to-be, Kate Middleton, Prince William took off a year between high school and college. In fact, the royal website boasts about it: "Like many students, The Duke of Cambridge chose to have a gap year before beginning his university course in order to travel and gain a variety of new experiences."
Is it OK for regular folks (such as your sons and daughters) to follow Kate and Will's example and not head straight to college? Yes. "Gap years have become more and more important as the national obsession with college admissions decisions has become more and more intense," says Bob Clagett, former dean of admissions at Middlebury College and a proponent of "a year-long breather." "A well thought-out gap year can help students think about what their education is all about and maybe even re-invent themselves."
A gap year can help students feel refreshed and reinvigorated. "At its best, a gap year can give students the opportunity to 'march to their own drummers' for a change and to do something important to them that has nothing to do with helping them get into college," says Clagett. "As one gap year student put it recently on a panel that I was on, 'We know how to do school. We don't know so much how to do life.' And 'doing life' is what a gap year can help students learn to do, so that when they do go to college, they are more mature and focused about it."
A gap year is increasingly common. Your child won't feel like an oddball. At Middlebury, says Clagett, the number of students requesting a gap year has increased from around 20 to 40 over the past few years. And some schools even offer special orientation sessions for gap-year students.
A gap year is granted after a student receives a "yes" letter from the admissions office. To get approval, the admitted student writes a letter and explains what he expects to do during his time off. "It does have to be worthy," says Robin Mamlet, the former dean of admission at Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence and co-author of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step. "It's really making sure students have a plan that makes sense – that they're not just going to be sitting around." (Another reason to apply as a high school senior: who wants to spend the gap year working on college applications?)
A gap year can boost GPA. Really. "The research is now showing that students who have taken gap years get better grades their freshman year to a statistically significant degree," says Mamlet. "Vacations refresh, and this is a vacation of the mind. You're doing something very different for a year."
A gap year need not be expensive. Kate Middleton and Prince William traveled to Chile and other countries. But that's not a requirement. "If a student wanted to take a gap year to earn more money for college, that would be respected as well," says Christine Vandevelde, Mamlet's co-author. She notes that some students work in canning factories in Alaska or head to South America to conduct research – "things that are hard to do later in life."
A gap year isn't a complete year off. Admissions officers like to get an update from students around February. "It gives the enough time to have really gotten something out of the year at that point," says Mamlet. The timing also works since admissions officers by then need to know whether to continue to hold a spot open for that fall.
A gap year can be longer than a year. "It goes college by college," says Mamlet. But two years is typically the maximum. Why not three? "It's unusual because you're really kind of in a different sort of universe at that point," she says.
A gap year can be unrelated to a student's field of study. "This is to kind of mature, get your bearings, get rested up, get fresh, or do something that you won't get to do at another time in your life," says Mamlet.
A gap year can be structured as an internship. A nonprofit called Dynamy, for example, offers a personalized one-year internship program. Mamlet and Vandevelde's book also offers resources. Parents and students can also attend gap-year fairs.
A gap year can help students come into their own. "A lot of times students are not quite ready for college," says Vandevelde. "A gap year can give them a renewed sense of purpose." Of course, she says, "It's also for those who are mature and have something compelling they want to do."
A gap year is easier to take between high school and college than after graduation. Students with bachelor's degrees need to start paying off loans six months after graduation, so many can't afford time off then, notes Mamlet.
A gap year doesn't mean your child will decide to skip college completely. "In 25 years of doing admissions work, I only saw one student who requested a gap year and then decided not to go to college at all," says Mamlet. "He decided to put his time into the dotcom he had started and hit it big." Students simply do not say, "I'm going to stay in Bali and keep surfing," she says.
A gap year can make a child feel less rushed. "Life's all about finding the ride enjoyable and meaningful, not about quickly getting to a destination," says Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy. Often parents worry too much about their kids getting "off course," he says.
A gap year works best for self-motivated students. Parents may realize that a child who "won't get out of bed in the morning" is poor candidate, says Hindy. On the other hand, "If their kid has been on a positive trajectory in life, then I think they need to trust him and not be alarmed," he says. "The bottom line for any parent is, 'Will the year be productive?'"
A gap year requires parents and kids to think about the long run. "Don't be short sighted," says Hindy. "Will he or she learn from it and come back with a broader view and a greater commitment to what he wants to do next?"
A gap year may sound more appealing to you than to your child. Hindy's son, Greg, a Yale undergraduate now, did not consider taking a year off. "Coming out of high school all I wanted to do was get to college!" he says.
Would most midlifers want to take a gap year if they could redo that time in their lives? "I would!" says Mamlet. "Who wouldn't – to get a year to just be free and do something wonderful and exciting!"
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