April 18, 2004

For some high school seniors, it's a tough decision: Should they spend the next year hiking the rain forests of Costa Rica, volunteering with poor children, or taking a job that might lead to a future career?

They have already made the big choice: to take a year off from college. A growing number of American students, copying a common practice in Europe, are deferring the start of college. No organization keeps national data on the trend, but college admissions officers and high school counselors say they have noticed more students opting for the year off.

Supporters of what is known abroad as a "gap year" say it allows students time to mature and develop a clearer sense of their interests. Others say deferring the start of college may work well for some teens, but not for others.

Taking a year off may summon images of tooling around the continent on mom and dad's dime, but students are not spending their time idly. Many of them are trying to get real-world experience before they go to college.

"It gives students time to really reflect and really get a broader sense of the world before they begin their college career," said Judy Hingle of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "A number of students have adopted this kind of plan or see the value in it. Most colleges see the value in it."

Jamie Kidder, Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, has some reservations.  "One of the most important reasons it would be a bad reason to take time off is you simply lose your academic momentum and motivation," Kidder said.  Taking time off also can raise parents' fears that students may become so seduced by the "real world" that they never go on to college, said William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard's admissions dean.

For families of limited financial means, it can also be hard to see the value of spending money on travel or an alternative program rather than investing money directly into a college education. But Fitzsimmons said that, in his experience, the benefits outweigh potential drawbacks.
Even at the highly-competitive Harvard, 50 to 70 students annually defer the start of their freshman year, he said.

"I actually think taking time out in whatever form it is will mean that in the long run you'll become greater at whatever you want to do," Fitzsimmons said. "This is not a 100-meter dash. This is what we hope is a marathon."

Jake Wiesner, 19, said he would have been miserable if he had gone straight to college after graduating from Cambridge Rindge & Latin last year.  Wiesner wanted to get a better sense of his interests, so he got an internship through Dynamy Inc., a Worcester company that matches students ages 17 to 22 with internships.
While some teens have to persuade their parents on the idea of a deferment, Wiesner said his parents supported his plans immediately.  Like other teens in the program, Wiesner is experiencing living on his own by sharing an apartment with other interns. He also is taking sociology at nearby Clark University.

As a part of the Dynamy program, Wiesner has tried two internships this year. He is currently working as an intern at the Flagg Street School in Worcester, where he helps teachers with students with special needs.

Wiesner said taking time off before college can be a great experience for students who are disciplined and mature enough to tackle the challenges they will face.  "I would recommend it for kids who have a lot of initiative and who are truly interested and not just looking for something to do," he said.

The Cambridge teen has applied to Antioch College, where he hopes to study film and screen writing - a career he developed a taste for after an internship at WCCA-TV. He said he feels much more prepared for college because he gained confidence through his internships.
"It's being able to realize how much is out there if you just dig a little deeper, and how much is out there that no one told you about," he said. "It's just opened my eyes to possibilities."

Bob Gilpin, president of Time Out Associates in Milton, has advised more than 3,000 students during the past 15 years on the ways they can spend a year between high school and college. Gilpin, a retired history teacher and adviser at Milton Academy, reaches many students who are thinking about taking time off through his website, www.whereyouheaded.com.

"A year off tends to give [students] a chance to gain perspective on things they may be interested in majoring in at college and reassess their situation in ways they couldn't do in the hectic pace of high school and, particularly, senior year," he said.

Colin Hall, co-author of a book about taking time off before college, spent a year traveling in East and Southern Africa before attending Amherst College.  To pay for the travel, the Chicago native sold hot dogs at a concession stand and worked on a construction project at the new Comiskey Park.

Despite his parents' fears that he would not follow through on his college plans, Hall did. He graduated from Amherst magna cum laude, then earned a master's degree in business administration at Stanford University. He now works for a private equity firm in London.
In an e-mail from London, Hall said he had no regrets about waiting a year before he went to college.

"I knew that college would always be there, it was an option that wasn't going to disappear," he wrote. "I also knew that once I started working it would become increasingly difficult to take a year or two of my life to go off the beaten path and pursue dreams and adventures of my own making."


Do you want to take a year off after high school before heading to college?
Here are some factors to consider:

Purpose: Be clear about why you want to take time off and what you hope to get out of it. The best way to win over skeptics is to lay out what you will be doing and what your goals are.

Cost: Some programs may be inexpensive while others might cost as much as a year's tuition. Do as much research as you can and don't forget to consider housing and travel costs.

College applications: It is easier to take advantage of counselors and other resources when you are still in high school.

If you are taking time off to build a stronger application to a school that initially rejected you, make sure you can explain how that extra year made you a better candidate.

Sources: National Association for College Admission Counseling, Time Out Associates, (www.whereyouheaded.com) Dynamy Inc. (www.dynamy.org)

by Rhonda Stewart, Globe Staff , Boston Globe

updated: 13 years ago