Mar 24th

To Gap or Not to Gap

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by Martha Stabler

To gap or not gap, that is the question being mulled by many graduating seniors across the Bay Area right now.  And it’s not just the kids who are debating this option.  Parents must also consider the social, emotional and economic issues involved in the decision to delay matriculation to college.

Gap year is a concept borrowed from the U.K. where it is customary for student to take a year after high school to work and travel before continuing on with their studies.  Over the past decade or so it has slowly caught on  in the U.S. and current figures say that approximately 2% of our college bound students will defer their start in order to take a gap year.  As the idea has increased in popularity, a small industry has grown to meet demand.  In fact, “Gap fairs” promoting various programs ( have multiplied fourfold in the past four years. The recent college fair in SF featured dozens of organizations offering a vast array of foreign and domestic travel, service and learning options on every continent.  But, before families entertain the prospect of shelling out what can be the equivalent of a semester at college, many will want to know why.

This is the question I set out to answer when my daughter introduced the topic following her November ED acceptance to a small liberal arts school in New England.  At first, my husband and I assumed she’d had too much time to think since her sole application had turned into an acceptance a scant 6 weeks after its submission, allowing for an extended period of soul searching and ruminating on the future.  My husband, ever the pragmatist, pointed out that delaying college for a year allows tuition to increase (generally in excess of the rate of inflation) and would doubtless mean additional expenses in terms of room, board and whatever other interests our daughter decided to pursue.

Was this creamy filling in between high school and college necessary?  In the recesses of our brains lurked a holdover notion from our youth that time off was for “lost, unfocussed” kids who weren’t ready for college—an impression shared by many past generations, but one that is being challenged.  But surprisingly, the practice was actually promoted in her acceptance letter and on the website of her new college’s FAQ’s for students, amounting to a tacit endorsement by the school of the tangible and intangible value of the time spent away from formalized academia before returning to, well, formalized academia.  This was a variation on a theme that has not changed for more than a hundred years: grade school to high school to college.  Maybe it was time for disruption of the kind that is being credited with revolutionizing everything from art to finance in the 21Century and, if so, it should be taking hold here. Clearly we needed to know more.

Over the following month, I read everything I could find on the topic; which amounted to a growing body of thoughtful and impassioned gap year support often by admissions directors at the nations “top” schools.  Curious about what was happening here in the Bay Area I began an informal “survey” of high school admissions directors, and parents of high school and college students.  My research methods would make any scientist blanche but this wasn’t science.  I sent out emails, asked at cocktail parties, on the sidelines of sports events and during carpool.  Whose kids were thinking about taking a gap year?  Why?  What would they do?  Whose kids had done it?  What did parents think and what did the high schools whose job it has traditionally been to prepare students to enter college, think?  Well, the results didn’t just surprise me.  They completely changed my view and attitude on the practice.  Here’s what I discovered.

  • A significant majority of parents and college counselors at independent high schools in the Bay Area whom I surveyed said they strongly supported the idea of a gap year believing the benefits outweighed the risks.  Most felt that time off would allow students an opportunity to re-charge, recover from academic burn-out and re-focus before jumping into another intense academic environment.
  • Virtually every student who responded cited “burn-out, mental and physical exhaustion and academic fatigue” as reasons behind wanting to take time off.  Most felt that the time away from the rigors of the classroom would bring perspective and maturity.  In his excellent essay Time Out or Burn-out, Dean William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Harvard College writes:

“…the pressures placed on many children probably have the unintended effect of delaying a child’s finding herself and succeeding on her own terms. Parents and students alike profit from redefining success as fulfillment of the student’s own aims, even those yet to be discovered. Burnout is an inevitable result of trying to live up to alien goals. Time out can promote discovery of one’s own passions.”

  • Jon Reider, Director of College Counseling at San Francisco University High School, sent me the following: I have NEVER seen a student who regretted doing it, if only as a break from the academic routine of the past 12 years, and especially the past 4.  They ALWAYS return to school refreshed, refocused, and motivated. Often, they have found a goal to study for or an intellectual problem they want to solve.  My sample is quite large after 28 years in admissions and counseling.  It is close to a law of nature…

To many, the idea of deferring college brings anxiety. For those parents who are opposed, or open to, but not “sold” on the concept, the fear of their child going off track, losing momentum and even, not going back (to school) is the primary source of concern.  Indeed, counselors at two large public SF high schools cited a fear of students not going on to higher education as their main objection–gap year as a gateway to future of drifting and unemployment.  Still, the evidence available shows that this fear is unfounded for the majority of students.  A recent study puts at 90% the number of students who matriculate after a gap year.  In order to decrease the risk of dropping-out, most high school college counselors recommend applying and gaining admission to college before requesting a delay.

However, data collected by colleges with significant numbers of students taking gap years report that not only do they have higher college GPAs than those who don’t, their grades are better than would have been predicted, based on their high school performance.   At Middlebury College in Vermont and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, for example, undergraduates who had taken a gap year before enrolling in college had, on average, a GPA .1-.4 higher than would have been expected.

And then there is the question of what a gap year should be.  My inquiries produced a spectrum of gap year activities with service and travel the most common but including forestry work, farming and a variety of interning in an array of fields. Most parents and the majority of high school counselors felt that structure was imperative with a carefully mapped out plan important to success.  Surprisingly, others disagreed.

“From a college’s point of view it really doesn’t matter,” Mr. Clagett said (articles referenced below). “They can stay home and eat bonbons if they want…Gap time – regardless of what one does – combats the “let down” a student feels once arriving on campus, Mr. Clagett said. “There can be this feeling of ‘now what?’ And that can lead to lower achievement, to lower self-esteem. Gap programs nip that in the bud.”  In Jon Reider’s opinion, “…it may be less important WHAT [they do] with the year than that [they] simply [are] not in school.  Colleges have seen this too, over and over, which is why they are so lenient about granting deferrals.  They really don’t think you can make a mistake.”

It’s important to recognize the role that economics play in gap year decisions.  Up until recently, having the luxury to take time out in any form was available mainly to affluent kids from upper middle class families who were not concerned about financial aid or the additional costs that accrue from travel, room and board and increases in tuition.

This came up in many responses from students, parents and high school counselors.  One counselor wrote:  “The drawback for me is the socioeconomic inequity.  Unless a student is working, it costs money – often a lot of money – to take a gap year.  And, because it costs money, the programs that offer a structured gap year program market to relatively privileged kids.”  Most parents and kids felt the gap year opportunity was far more accessible to kids from wealthy families.  Several students said that although they could count on financial support during their time off, they felt obliged to work for at least part of the time to contribute to travel and other activities.


There are alternatives to expensive programs such as Servas USA /International (free once you have been accepted and paid the fees) and a number of NGOs across the globe that provide room and board to youth volunteers, but airfare, visas and other travel expenses can be costly. In addition, low cost programs such as City Year and National Civilian Corps run by AmeriCorps are highly competitive with many more applications than spots.


The good news is that, recognizing the value of gap year, some colleges such as Princeton and UNC Chapel Hill now offer fully subsidized programs to low-income students. Tufts will offer incoming freshman the opportunity to do a year of virtually all expense-paid international or national service before starting college.

Like all life decisions, each student and family will decide what is right for them, but as the gap year option grows in popularity and practice, it may soon become as commonplace here as it is abroad, and for good reason.  As Anna Quindlen’s daughter remarked, it prevents the four C-s, a narrow cycle “from cradle to college to cubicle to cemetery.”

Further Reading:

Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation, William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Harvard College and colleagues, (Harvard website, 2011),

As Jan. 1 Application Deadline Nears, an Argument for a Yearlong Breather,Robert Clagett, New York Times Blog: The Choice (Dec. 27, 2011) (

The Gap Year: Breaking up the “Cradle to College to Cubicle to Cemetery” Cycle
Rebecca R. Ruiz, New York Times Blog: The Choice (Sept. 24, 2011) (

Delaying College to Fill in the Gaps, Sue Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal (Dec. 29, 2010),




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