Do I need a year off?

September 01, 2004

Do I need a year off
Ever wish you could just TiVo your academic life? You know, put the whole campus thing on pause while you learn to speak Hindi, do conservation work in Costa Rica or just develop your snowboarding potential? You can. These days the idea of taking a year to delay, or interrupt, college is as popular with educators as it is with burned out students.  "I never saw a student, who, after they came back from a year, hadn't improved by the process," says Jon Reider, a high-school counselor and former Stanford admissions officer.

           No national statistics exist, but school officials say increasing numbers of students are taking a year off before or during college. Programs that offer everything from community service in Queens to sunbathing in Belize are on the rise, and most students who take a year tend to be standouts. Harvard, for example, encourages accepted students to take a year off before they even begin, just so they can unwind from the process of getting in. "The results have been uniformly positive," says William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions.

           The benefits can sometimes be more concrete than the maturity that kids pick up along the way. Some high-school graduates take a year off as a strategy to get another shot at the school they really want to attend. Elizabeth (Yauny) Wheaton, 22, a Cornell senior from Hamilton, Mass., delayed college when she didn't get into any Ivy League schools in the fall of 1999. The rest of her family was Ivy-educated, and Wheaton said she felt as if he was "settling" to go to Boston College. She applied to Cornell and reapplied to Harvard and Brown. She spent a year coaching field hockey at her middle school, working for a public-relations firm and taking an African safari while she waited to hear from them. Cornell accepted her (though Brown and Harvard again did not).

           The most common reason students take time off is to "find one's self," as their parents might've said a generation earlier. Christine Shaw, 27, of Corvallis, Ore., says she was an overachieving high schooler but became an "unhappy and confused" freshman at the University of Virginia. She remembers being less successful academically that she'd hoped. "I needed to do something, or the remainder of my college career was going to be pointless," she says.

           That's when Shaw decided to take a year, going off to hike the entire 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail by herself. That's a feat accomplished by only one in 10 hikers who start the trail. Shaw, who hadn't done any hiking beyond childhood Girl Scout outings, became one of them. "I learned I was a million times stronger than I though," she says. Shaw spent her pre-hiking time convincing her parents that a year off wouldn't spell the end of her education. Like many students who interrupt their schooling, Shaw found herself newly motivated on her return to school, finishing a year early with improved grades. After another year off of hiking and traveling, she has enrolled in a doctoral program in environmental science at Oregon State.

           It doesn't matter what you do with your year off as long as you take it, says Bob Gilpin, who's Milton, Mass., company, Time Out Associates, advises students seeking a break. Gilpin sends students to, his company's database. He charges $80 for six months of access to his research lists, but concedes that most students can find programs online on their own. There are programs for students who want to learn to build guitars  ( or boats (, get certified as a wilderness emergency medical technician ( or or work on a Tuscan farm (

           Each school has its own procedures for students securing their place while they're away. Students also need to be aware of the chief downside of sabbaticals: counselors say reentry can be difficult at first for those who left partying behind to pursue more serious goals. Just as it takes time to get used to leaving, it takes time to get used to coming back.

by Linda Strern, Newsweek

updated: 13 years ago