The history of the gap year, typically the year between high school and college, is long and varied. It was first ‘named’ in the ‘60s in the UK when Nicholas Maclean-Bristol created Project Trust that sent three volunteers from the UK to Ethiopia. The primary purpose for these post-World War II teenagers was to promote peace and understanding, in hopes of preventing another great war. Several gap year companies were subsequently formed and several still play an important role today.
The first gap-year company in the US was created in 1968 in Worcester, MA – Dynamy – with the goal of building young peoples’ self-confidence, encouraging an exploration of their passions and developing a deeper understanding of the importance of community.
Since those early days, the notion of high school graduates having the ability to complete a year of community service, travel, education, enhanced global understanding and the development of greater self-awareness, before entering the college classroom has grown in import and popularity. Here in the United States, it has been much slower to catch on because parents were anxious that their offspring would end up walking away from their university place, and colleges were nervous that their bills might not get paid if many first-year students failed to show up for class.
Now, those fears have proven to be without merit and many more parents and colleges are encouraging their students to consider taking a gap year. This year, with the uncertainty surrounding the reopening of colleges in the fall of 2020, a greater number of students than usual are contemplating taking a gap year.
The benefits of a gap year are tremendous. Students may remain close to home, volunteering locally, taking an evening class in a foreign language, caring for aging relatives, or working to make some money for college – or all of the above! Others with greater resources may choose to travel overseas to work with endangered animals or impoverished communities, staying with a family and learning a new language. Some students choose to participate in an organized gap year program either overseas or within the US, while others split the year between six months of work and six months of community service. Many types of students pursue this year of personal growth from good students to those who struggled in high school. Today’s teens are often so pressured, so busy, and can become burnt out and need a break before returning to the classroom. Colleges want students to arrive ready to learn, and many may need some downtime before hitting the books again.
In 2015, the National Alumni Survey revealed that 92% of students who completed a gap year gained both important life experiences and grew personally. The former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College, Bob Clagett, created a methodology for tracking the academic rating of incoming gap year students and found that those who completed a gap year attained higher college GPAs than those who didn’t, and even higher than what would have been predicted by their high school achievements. Clearly, this is an option that benefits both the colleges and the students.
A great way to start researching options for a gap year is to attend one of the USA Gap Year Fairs. As of this writing, the 2019 events have been completed but this link will update to 2020, as soon as it becomes available. Watch this space! If an organized gap year fails to entice, then local/national options abound. One example is City Year that provides service opportunities in many parts of the country. Students may choose to seek out an internship or employment within a field of special interest. They can work with animals, indulge their passion for creating art, study a new language abroad, get their hands in the dirt, or learn more about other cultures in an immersion program.
It is important to stay on the college train in high school, just like your peers. Start your college search in 9th/10th grade, do visits and research in 11th grade, work on essays before 12th grade, submit your applications and make your decisions, just like your peers. During your college visits, you might even chat to someone in Admissions about your ideas for a gap year program. The information will be added to your file and will be of interest during application review. Once you have accepted your offer of admission, you will need to write to your college to formally request a one- or two-semester deferment. You’ll still have to pay an enrollment fee to hold your spot but let them know quickly so your seat can go to someone on the waitlist. Enrolling in another institution is never permitted during your gap year, but other than that, the world is your oyster and almost anything is possible. So don’t hesitate – be brave, branch out, grow and you’ll be richer in every way.