The first time I left the United States by myself was during my junior year of college. Like many American college students, I chose to take a semester abroad, enrolling at University College Cork in Ireland. This experience cultivated my love of international travel; in the 17 years since that first foray beyond our borders, I have visited 32 countries, and I have played a round of golf on six of the seven continents.
Yet my most meaningful experiences from that first trip were not kissing the Blarney Stone nor touring Waterford Crystal nor meeting distant cousins in Wexford. Instead, they came from the best Christmas present I ever received—an unlimited Eurail Pass. While I took my classroom studies seriously, I also found many opportunities to hop on the ferry to Wales or Normandy, where I would pick up a rail line that would take me as far as Scotland, Greece, and Portugal. Most of my study abroad friends did not enjoy this sort of travel latitude, so I ended up taking many trips alone.
Traveling by oneself is an extraordinary way to meet and fall in with fellow travelers, and somehow I always found myself in hostels and sleeper cars with Australians. They were usually around my age or younger, and I quickly learned why they traveled in such numbers. Perhaps owing to the country’s relative isolation, it is customary for Australian students to engage in a year of travel and service between high school and university. It was the first time I had ever heard the phrase “Gap Year,” and I still remember feeling a sense of envy and regret, for the timing of their experience made perfect sense to me.
According to the American Gap Association, a Gap Year is “a year ‘on,’ [as opposed to "off"] typically taken between high school and college in order to deepen practical, professional, and personal awareness.” The practice started in the United Kingdom in the 1970s—because the UK system differs a bit in timing, students completing their national leaving certificate examinations (“A Levels”) would often have seven or eight months between completing high school and enrolling in university. To keep those students engaged and to cultivate a sense of service and global awareness, British organizations began programs that allowed high school students to travel and learn experientially.
In the 1980s, this practice started to appear in the United States through Interim Programs, an organization founded by Cornelius Bull, a former Headmaster at independent schools both in the United States and abroad. In fact, Randolph’s Interim program emanated from Bull’s work in independent schools. The benefits of such a program were clear to Bull, and he described the experience as allowing students to “follow their bliss” for a period of one year.
In the 30 years since American students began taking gap years, the benefits to those experiences have become clear to many stakeholders in secondary and higher education. Gap years require students to take something of a risk, to follow a different, unique path, and to experience the challenge and reward of taking on something entirely new. Many colleges encourage admitted students to consider a gap year; in fact, one of the most compelling arguments for the practice comes from William Fitzsimmons, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard College, through his article “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation.”
Particularly for high school graduates, a gap year gives students the opportunity to reset themselves before attacking the rigors of a college curriculum. Every statistical study available shows how well “gappers” outperform traditional students in their first year of college, for their experience gives them maturity, allows them to see the relevance of their learning in a real world context, rejuvenates their interest in intellectual pursuits that might have been forfeited for the sake of academic and standardized testing obligations, and, in many cases, gives them a much clearer sense of an academic and/or career path.
Over 90% of students who engage in a gap year matriculate to a four-year college upon its completion, and most of those students finish their degrees within four years.
The best gap year experiences invite students to make intentional choices about how they hope to shape their “time on.” Some students and families choose to self-design a gap year experience, perhaps by pursuing employment, following a specialized career aspiration, or traveling independently. Gap years need not be expensive propositions. While the most traditional form of a gap year does involve travel, often to a foreign destination, domestic programs have also gained greater traction in recent years. Whether those programs emphasize outdoor experiences (like NOLS and Outward Bound) or service opportunities (like Americorps or City Year), students and families can find gap year experiences at every price point and with myriad focuses.
Just as every student is different, so every gap year experience can be tailored to meet each individual student’s needs and strengths. Students can literally do anything they want with a gap year, so long as they are the ones who are making the decisions and coming up with plans of action.
As noted above, colleges and universities are increasingly interested in promoting gap year experiences. Places like Middlebury College in Vermont have had a February Admissions program for many years; in fact, being a member of the Class of 20XX.5 is a point of significant pride at Middlebury—graduation occurs when “Febs” ski down the Middlebury Snow Bowl during a celebratory weekend. Similarly, Tufts University offers a 1+4 Bridge Year Service Learning Program that allows incoming students to spend a fellowship year in Brazil, Nicaragua, and Spain. Rebeca Becdach ’16 was recently accepted into this highly selective program and looks forward to her fellowship year as a way to serve internationally and to gain a transformational experience at the outset of her college career.
While Middlebury and Tufts are two examples of highly selective liberal arts colleges that actively facilitate a gap year experience, programs like Florida State University’s First Year Abroad show that these experiences can be meaningful at large public universities; Wheaton College’s GoGlobal Program also allows for international or domestic study experiences for first year students in a faith-based context.
Even if a college or university does not have a formal study away or gap year program, virtually every college and university in the country will grant admitted students a one-year matriculation deferral in order to complete a gap year. Under a deferral agreement, the college or university will reserve space for the student in exchange for an enrollment deposit and an agreement that the student will not enroll as a full time student at another degree-granting institution. Colleges understand that students who take a gap year are much more likely to complete their degree in a timely fashion without transferring; allowing for a deferral means guaranteed tuition revenue for the college in the future.
In our counseling practice at Randolph, we always ask students if they might consider taking a gap year. Increasingly, our students are giving that opportunity serious consideration. While a gap year might not be right for every student, many students in our community, whether they are high achievers or late bloomers, whether they are career-focused or still exploring, whether they have a thirst for adventure or an aversion to risk-taking, should seriously weigh the benefits of taking a gap year between high school and college. Too often, there is a misconception that delaying matriculation will lead to aimlessness or will somehow put the student “behind” his or her peers. Data clearly shows this not to be the case. If Randolph truly educates according to its mission “to enrich families, community, the nation, and the world,” the consideration of a gap year should be something that every student and family weighs during the college selection process.
Being a college counselor at Randolph gives me a privileged glimpse into what comes next for so many of our recent graduates. Their paths are as varied and unique as their personalities, but a common refrain I hear from our young alumni is how much they value and treasure the opportunities they find to travel, to explore, to forge their own path, and to emerge as independent adults. Watching them launch themselves into the world by following their individual paths is one of the most gratifying experiences I can ask for as an educator. In fact, our counseling practice at Randolph is solely focused on this goal—we want each of our graduates to have meaningful and transformative college experiences that will lead them to earn degrees and enter graduate school or the working world. Gap years can often accelerate this process for students, and it is an option that every student and family should consider.
Photos: Mr. Freeman in India in 2007, with friends his senior year of high school, and in Alaska in 2002. While in Alaska, Mr. Freeman learned about ethnography, something he would later apply to his 11th grade English classes at Randolph; you can read about that here.