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College Admissions

Taking a Gap Year

With the May 1 deadline for enrollment deposits rapidly approaching, many high school seniors are making final decisions about which college to attend in the fall. But after twelve years of school, some students are deciding they need a timeout.

Gap year has long been a tradition in Britain. Perhaps it’s because when students begin college there, they need to know exactly what they want to study. Since American students can spend the first two years of college trying different subjects before committing to a major, they can start college without clear goals.

In the United States, many students go straight to college after high school because that’s what is expected. But some of these students are not ready. They may lack academic focus, self-discipline or social skills, and could be at risk of depression, alcohol abuse or academic failure. Taking some time to develop academic and life skills or to explore possible careers can help a student feel more motivated and purposeful when he gets to college.

Gap year is becoming more common in the United States and is accepted by most colleges, which will defer a student’s admission for a year. Harvard actually recommends it in their acceptance letters. The University did a study which found that students who had taken a gap year earned higher grades during their freshman year than students who started at Harvard right after high school.

Students choose gap year for many reasons. A student who has been immersed in AP courses for the last few years may want a break from the academic treadmill. Spending a year traveling, doing a service project in another country, or even working at a job, can protect a student from academic burnout and allow her to begin college with a renewed interest and a mature perspective.

Another student, whose high school record is less than stellar, might be in a stronger position to apply to college after attending one of the post-graduate programs offered at a number of boarding schools. Mitchell College in Connecticut has also just started a post-graduate school, Thames Academy, where students work on improving study skills and increasing confidence before transitioning to college.

For the student who questions the need for college, working can be a real motivator when it becomes clear that salary and job growth are limited without a college degree. A job may also help a student develop time management and social skills that will be useful in college.

For students who don’t need to earn money but want to explore career interests, a structured program like Dynamy may be the way to go. The program starts with a wilderness course, then places students in apartments and arranges three nine-week internships. Students also have the option of participating in a college credit seminar.

Another option is to get involved in a volunteer project. AmeriCorps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps, offers opportunities to mentor at-risk students, build homes, provide disaster relief and assist in community development. The program provides a living allowance, and after completing service, students receive a grant of $4,725 for college.

Then there are the volunteer opportunities abroad, like coaching football for children in South Africa, teaching English in Russia or maintaining trails in the rainforest in Brazil. There are so many ways to make a difference in the world while at the same time gaining self-esteem and a new perspective.

While it’s not for everyone, for the right student, a gap year can be the best path to a successful college experience.

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