While Lauren Clark's classmates were filling out college applications, the 18-year-old senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, was making her own plans. Instead of enrolling in college right away, Lauren opted to take time off. The following year, when her peers were freshmen, Lauren flew to Ghana for three months to teach English and math to schoolchildren and help build a one-room library. After spending the winter holidays at home, Lauren left again for a three-month trip to Italy where she studied Renaissance art. The time away, she says, was invaluable.
"I know it helped me get into the college I wanted," says Lauren, now a 21-year-old sophomore at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. "I got personal letters from admission officers about the work I had done." Her experience prepared her to enter college with a confidence and self-assurance normally lacking in college freshmen. And, she says, it helped shape her future. "I'm double majoring in international relations and economics. My traveling taught me a lot. There's a lot going on outside the U.S. that I want to be involved in."
In Europe, taking a "gap year" is a common practice. Instead of heading straight to college after graduation, students take a year-long sabbatical that allows them to travel, explore special interests, volunteer, work a job, or perform community service. In the United States and Canada, the idea is steadily catching on as students, before, during, and after college graduation find they need time to recharge their batteries before entering the next phase of their lives.
"Colleges find that students who have made this choice are more mature when they arrive on campus," says Judy Hingle, director of professional development for the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Virginia.
As the price of college education skyrockets, more parents are supporting the idea of a gap year because they want their children to be focused when they get to campus, says Hingle. Lauren's father, John, said, "We thought it was a good idea. Lauren met people who can't afford to get beyond grade school. It enhanced her ability to appreciate college."
Students can gain the same appreciation by taking on a full-time job during their year off, says Randall Hernandez, senior assistant director of admissions for the University of Oregon. "When they work right out of high school, students realize the importance of pursuing college. Through interaction with coworkers, they learn how limited their options may be otherwise."
Some people worry that kids who take these breaks will lose interest in college, but Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, an independent company based in Princeton, New Jersey, that helps students plan trips, says that's rarely the case.
When Lauren first approached her parents with the idea about spending a semester in Ghana, she says, "My dad was a little nervous about sending his only daughter. But I convinced them it would be okay. They know me and they know I enjoy school and I would return. I got more of a reaction from my friends and their parents who said, 'You're taking a year off, you're never going to return. You'll never get a degree.' I laughed at them. I said, 'I am doing this as a stepping-stone.'"
Lauren formulated her plans after meeting with Bull. As a counselor, Bull matches individuals with domestic and international programs that run the gamut, like a study program in Nepal and an experience interning in theatrical public relations in Manhattan. Some of the programs pay a stipend for the students' services; others provide only room and board. A few are more costly.
"It can be anything from working with the deaf in a school to following up on language fluency," Lauren says. "We have students going to Chile to work in orphanages. They go around the world from one program to another."
Although many of her clients are students in that interim year between high school and college, Bull also works with college graduates who are looking for a break before heading to graduate school or into the business world. "The job market is terrible, and they want to get some experience. It's a practical time for them to test the waters before making a big commitment to a career."
Karl Kaesemeyer, of Denver, just started law school after a year-long adventure that took him from working as a ranch hand on the Hawaiian island of Oahu to being a house tutor at a New Zealand boarding school. At 24, Kaesemeyer graduated from Haverford College just outside Philadelphia.
"The ranch was fantastic," he recalls. "My time was spent doing all sorts of general ranch work. I built fence, cut grass, painted, drove a Bobcat, used chainsaws, fixed piping and plumbing, chased and branded cows." But it wasn't just practical ranching skills that he came away with; he believes he gained the most from cultural experiences. "Any time you are uprooted from a comfortable life and thrown into a relatively foreign environment, you are forced to survive and adapt. This is the real benefit of immersing yourself in other cultures for an extended period of time, and it is what I took away from my time at Dillingham Ranch."
Such worldly experiences let high school students and others develop into mature young adults. "On so many levels, there is a maturity you get when you travel on your own," says Bull. "Just getting on a plane and navigating the world is maturing. These kids have primarily only been in a school setting. They're around the same age group. They can do it half asleep. Then they get into situations like these that are so different, dealing with different cultures, being sensitive to issues. The people they meet aren't like what they are used to. The year off is a great opportunity. After the experience, kids come back excited to learn."
If your child is considering a gap year, discuss these points before making this important decision together.
Ultimately, it all boils down to having a plan. Chances are your child will accomplish much more with a plan than without one. Experts recommend that students pursue the college search and application process while still in high school and begin planning the year off then. Once accepted into college, he can ask that his admission be deferred for a semester or a year.
Planning a gap year? Whether you want to go with a group or customize your own adventure, here are some places to get ideas and advice:
All contact and service information were accurate at the time of publication. Contact each organization for the most up-to-date information.