Only in today’s topsy-turvy college admissions process could a year spent surfing in the tropics boost your chances of getting into your school of choice.
Today, college admissions officers are giving extra consideration to applications with “gap years” on them, and more and more students are using these year-long pre-college stints as a way to make themselves stand out. Though there's no hard data on exactly how many students are doing it, colleges, counselors, and travel-abroad consultants all say they see it as a rising trend among high school graduates who want an extra edge in the admissions process.
“There’s definitely a small but growing population of students choosing that route,” says Brad MacGowan, college counselor at Newton North High School outside of Boston. That figure could grow this spring: President Obama’s stimulus package includes incentives that will take effect in 2010—like increased funding for Pell Grants, and additional tax credits and federal work-study money—which could convince students to postpone college for a year in anticipation of those benefits.
Graduating in a year with record applicants, seniors choosing to opt out of the admissions rat race this spring can only be putting themselves at an advantage. Learning a second language, volunteering at a medical clinic in Latin America or even just trekking through Europe will surely help candidates stand out when they do apply. And if your grades slipped senior year, for instance, completing an academic program successfully can serve as the perfect do-over.
"Admissions officers are looking for cool and unique kids who've shown they're independent thinkers," says Gail Reardon, director of Taking Off, a Boston-based consulting firm. "Gap years can be used in essays to demonstrate maturity and passion you can't get from just going to high school."
Schools are also increasingly providing incentives to encourage prospective students to do a gap year. Hotchkiss, the elite Connecticut boarding school, now has an on-site gap year coordinator. And starting this fall, Princeton will fund a year of public service abroad for newly admitted students before their freshman year. Other colleges, including Harvard, have in the past offered waitlisted applicants spots if they agree to take a gap year.
It’s all about selling yourself as someone who takes initiative and does extraordinary things, says Holly Bull of the Center for Interim Programs, the U.S.’s oldest gap year consultancy.
“You’re building a great resume,” says Bull. “You can intern for a newspaper in New Zealand for three months. Work in a medical clinic in Latin America. Or get EMT certification. I scrubbed out shrimp tanks in Hawaii because I thought I wanted to be a microbiologist … You have created a full life you’re excited and passionate about, and that comes through to admissions officers.”
Many admissions officers agree. “Students spend summers now doing less and less interesting things, trying just to get into college and not having any fun,” says Jim Bock, dean of admissions at Swarthmore College, which has seen the number of students deferring for a gap year double in recent years. “We fully support taking some time off to get focused and ready to learn again.”
Of course, gap years can be pricey. Holly Bull charges a one-time $2,100 fee for her services. One new service-project program, the Global Citizen Year, modeled loosely on the Peace Corps or City Year, costs $26,277 for nine months. But financial aid is available, and there are other plans, such as interning for your local congressional rep, that are less expensive. Plus, the money can be seen as a down payment on a more productive freshman year: “Parents are usually equally concerned about wasting money on a year of college if their child isn’t ready,” says Holly Bull of the Center for Interim Programs, the U.S.’s oldest gap year consultancy.
Although college deposits are due this week, it’s still not too late to decide to do a gap year. Bock says students usually notify his office of their wish for a deferral through June 1. Programs also still have spaces—Global Citizen Year, for instance, is accepting applications through May 15.
Meanwhile, here’s a glimpse at some great gap year adventures and the how-to to ensure that’s what you’re getting:
Your options are growing “It used to be certain locations were hot, but these days everyone’s been to China or India or Latin America. Now [working with] animals are a really big thing. Or working with your hands, whether it is building houses or guitars or boats. We have one student working in the film studio in New Zealand where Lord of the Rings was filmed. And one doing a photography safari of wildlife in Africa. Learning languages, such as Hindi and Mandarin, is still popular. It’s amazing what’s out there to try.”— Gail Reardon, director of gap-year consultancy Taking Off. Reardon charges $1,200 to $2,000 for her services
But consider your reasons for taking the year off carefully “We ask students who want a deferral to get a parent’s and counselor’s signature, because this isn’t a year to apply to the colleges you wish you’d gotten into. If you don’t want to come, withdraw—it’s only fair to the folks on the waitlist. And we discourage students from taking off the year to work to make money for school. We tell them, ‘Come here and work in a campus work-study job.’ School is going to be even more expensive a year later.’”— Jim Bock, director of admissions at Swarthmore College
A gap year might be a harder sell off the waitlist “One of my kids who was admitted off the waitlist at Washington University wanted to take a gap year. Wash U said no—once you’re off the waitlist, we’re counting on you to come. I called the dean myself, and the answer was 'This is not how we do things.' But then the kid, who had a great plan in place, called and convinced them to say yes. But that doesn’t always happen.”— Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School
Learn to make music—and teach it “I have a passion for music and play several instruments, so what I ended up doing first was going to work at a music-production workshop in Ohio. I learned how to record live bands, produce their music, and even how to record it onto records. Then, in November, I left for Costa Rica, where I studied Spanish. After Christmas, I went back for an internship at a local school in the Monteverde Cloud Forest—the most amazing thing I’ve done in my life. I naively agreed to be this school’s music teacher. I ended up teaching eight different grade levels from preschool to sixth grade. I brought down 100 music recorders and various percussion instruments. For the really little kids, I planned basic music classes on rhythm, tempo, and dancing. For the third to sixth graders, I decided to teach them to play the recorder.
When I graduated high school, I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. But I learned over the year that I can do anything that I put my mind to. Now I also don’t think I want to be a music teacher, and I won’t be an education major at school. It saved me the time to focus on other subjects.”— Caitlin Payne, 19, from Arlington, Virginia. A client of Center for Interim Programs, Payne will attend New York’s Iona College in the fall
See many corners of the world “I have not finalized my plans yet, but I am hoping to get into a program called Where There Be Dragons. The program that I would do would be in Bolivia and Peru. On this program we will hike in the Andes and Amazon as well as stay with local families and study Spanish. An independent study is required—I am not sure what I would do for that, but it ranges from jewelry making to medical research.
In the winter, I am hoping to go to an orphanage in Tanzania, and in the spring, I am deciding between a couple of programs. One is an art program called John Hall Venice, and the other is a Spanish program called El Casal. John Hall Venice spends time in London and Venice studying art, while El Casal is a home-stay program located in Barcelona. Both of those are whole-semester programs. [Or] if I do not do a whole semester, then I think that I will do multiple short-term programs, such as Global Routes and African Impact. Both of these are community-service programs that are located all around the world. I also have family who live in Belgium and know of a program that works with mentally disabled children by using horse therapy. The kids learn how to communicate and follow directions.”— Leslie Muzzy, 18, a senior at the boarding school St. George’s in Newport, Rhode Island. A native of Houston, Muzzy plans to start at Colorado College in 2010
Chart out a plan “I’d wanted to take a gap year since sophomore year. I just didn’t feel ready for college and I wanted to narrow down my interests. I started in Paris because I always wanted to learn French. I rented an apartment off Craigslist, and went to school four or five hours a day. I had a lot of time to entertain myself—something people should consider. But I was having such a great time in Paris, I really didn’t think about the next semester. I just kept putting it off.
I ended up as an intern, working for the nonprofit Project for Government Oversight in Washington, D.C. ... Unfortunately, my interests didn’t narrow but expanded, and it’s been even harder to pick a college.”— Grace Bowden, 19, from Austin, Texas. She is undecided about where she’ll attend school come fall
Be an instrument of change “We’re still building our first class, but one of the real distinctions of our program is it is entirely service-based. Participants spend seven months in Latin America, Asia, or Africa after intensive training in the U.S. around global hunger, poverty, AIDS, and development work. Be an assistant teacher at a local school, or work in a health clinic or on a microfinance project. We’re empowering students to, while abroad, be citizen journalists. We hope to provide the tools to shift policy conversation in the U.S. They’re posting to video blogs, communicating with K-12 classrooms, and the capstone project is for spreading awareness in their home communities.”— Abby Falik, director of Global Citizen Year
Learn Italian—or surfing “From September to December, I did a cultural immersion program in Siena, Italy. I did a home-stay, living with an Italian family. On the weekdays I studied Italian, and on the weekends we traveled all over the country. Then this winter I spent a month in Costa Rica at the School of the World, where you can study surfing, photography, Spanish, and yoga. I did a little of everything. Next week I go to London to intern for Parliament.
Traveling outside the States has been really eye-opening. You meet so many different people. In Costa Rica, especially, I met a lot of people who had quit miserable jobs and were taking a break. It showed me I never want to be there.”— Sam Park, 18, Chicago. A client of the Center for Interim Programs, he’ll attend Indiana University in the fall
Gain perspective “In my second semester, I did a small language-immersion program in Barcelona, worked at the local English-language newspaper as an intern, and worked at a local bilingual day-care. I was all over town, seeing and getting to know the city.
It’s really about living in the real world and seeing there’s more than academia. It’s a hard transition from high school to college. Especially to Yale, where everyone got straight A's in high school. I have perspective. It’s not the end of the world that you got a B- on a final. I am much more comfortable with who I am. I don’t let my fears hold me back like some of my classmates.”— Zoe Bockius-Suwyn, a Yale freshman who took a gap year last year in Costa Rica and Barcelona
Find enlightenment in India “Here’s how one of our 13-week programs might play out in India: For nine weeks, you live with a host family. Of the other four, one week might be a mediation retreat in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Another is for education travel, to see the Taj Mahal and Calcutta and Delhi. The other two are for mountain exploration, to get out and see the country’s natural beauty.
But students spend the bulk of their time in Varanasi, the City of Light. Mornings start with yoga and language instruction. From noon to dinner, they do an independent study project, service, or internships. If you’re interested in, say, folklore, we might set you to study with a local scholar of the Bhagavad Gita. You may volunteer at a local orphanage. Or the internship might be with a local musician who you want to study in-depth. Meanwhile we’re bringing in people to speak on a huge range of topics. A Muslim woman who dresses in ‘perda.’ A street chai vendor. Scholars from the local university to discuss politics. Musicians playing instruments you’ve never heard of.”— Chris Yager, director of travel-abroad program Where There Be Dragons. The 92-day program costs around $10,000, not including airfare, which can run between $600 and $1,600
Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health, and education since 2005.