A Gap With Credibility

September 10, 2006

Adam de Havenon was a bright student in high school, but that wasn't obvious in his attitude or on his transcript. Just one of 12 colleges accepted him, and as his freshman year at Colby approached, he says, "my parents realized I wasn't really going to take advantage of the money they were going to spend. When they brought up the idea of a year off, I jumped for it."
Instead of heading to campus that fall, de Havenon split a 12-month hiatus between teaching in rural Kenya and working in Australia, including a stint as a park ranger. "By the end of that year," he says, "my attitude toward going to college had changed 180 degrees."
The year off "changed his life," adds Adam's mom, Georgia de Havenon. He had been "a struggling student, and now he's in medical school." His uncommon experience may have even helped him get in. In his essay for Brown Medical School, where the 28-year-old is now a second-year student doctor, he wrote about the village clinic he had set up while in Kenya.
Other students and parents share the de Havenons' sentiments about a gap year, which some educators have long recommended. Harvard Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons, for example, says taking time off helps students refocus and recharge for the rigors of college--and also fosters their emotional and intellectual maturity. Harvard's deferral rate of 4 percent to 5 percent of incoming students per year is among the highest in the nation.
Parents often worry that students will "lose their edge" if they delay school, Fitzsimmons says, or that the siren song of the real world will lure them away from higher education. If anything, the opposite may be true.
"Kids who do a gap year," says educational adviser Robert Gilpin of Time Out Associates in Milton, Mass., have experiences that "most of our matriculating population doesn't have." They're "a year wiser and a year smarter," adds James Bock, director of admissions at Swarthmore College. "They're ready to work."
Not all schools think gap years are a good idea; some don't allow them, and there's no guarantee that every student who applies will get one even at gap-friendly colleges. But many will grant incoming students a deferral if they have a good reason for the request and a plan for what they'll do. Harvard goes a step further; it raises the option in its acceptance letters and, in some cases, insists on it. Academics-oriented Tiana Wong of Lexington, Mass., never considered postponing college until Harvard offered her that choice or nothing. At the last minute, she found a position in Boston helping with urban restoration for the service program City Year. "I'm so lucky this is the opportunity I decided to take," she says. The rising Harvard sophomore recently returned to City Year's office--for a paid summer job.
What students do depends on their interests and their budget, but options run from studying aboard an oceangoing schooner to working on an organic farm (box lists ideas). The most valuable thing many students may do with their time off is hone skills in a foreign language, Gilpin says. "For five grand [in program expenses], you can probably get yourself up to something approaching reasonable fluency," he says.
Educational consultants such as Gilpin and Gail Reardon of Boston-based Taking Off, who counseled the de Havenons, offer families help in planning a gap year. Their fees, often about $2,000, exclude the costs of organized programs, which can run as high as a year's tuition at a private college if the gap year involves academics or foreign travel. But the year doesn't have to cost anything at all. By living with an aunt, Wong covered her expenses with City Year's modest weekly stipend--and she earned the program's standard $4,725 educational award at the end of her year of service.
Some people see long-term advantages in taking time off. If the experience enhances a student's life skills and maturity, it can help in the post-college job market, says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder.com. A compelling tale about what the student got from the experience, she says, is "a story that every interviewer, every recruiter is going to want to hear."
Others claim that taking a gap year helped them reapply to a college that previously turned them down; de Havenon eventually transferred to Yale, which had once rejected him. But Rae Nelson, coauthor of The Gap-Year Advantage (St. Martin's Griffin), cautions, "Most professionals don't recommend doing [a gap year] just to position yourself and improve your resume. There has to be a greater sense of purpose."
For Nelson's stepson, Adam Haigler, that purpose was to explore the world. As a high school senior in Winston-Salem, N.C., he took time off even though it meant giving up a slot at Wake Forest University.
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by Ben Harder, City Year

updated: 13 years ago