Mind the Gap

HERO_givingback_magazineFall2023.jpg
Mind the Gap
Emily Livelli, GDS Director of College Counseling

WHEN WE BEGIN OUR COLLEGE COUNSELING MEETINGS with juniors, it is customary for our team to ask each student to talk about whether they want to go to college and why. It typically throws the student a bit off guard (and it can terrify some parents!), but that’s exactly the point. In a community where 99% of graduates go on to college, it’s important to interrupt assumptions and dig into the “why” behind that choice. Just running from one checkpoint to the next does not set young people up to make mindful decisions about their futures. We want them to slow down and consider all of the possibilities–including whether they want to go directly to college after high school or whether they want to consider a year off, or a gap year. 

Most years, between seven and 10 GDS seniors opt for the gap year. (Out of a class of 130, that’s not an insignificant number!) They use the time to immerse themselves in travel, work, community service, and a host of other activities that help them recharge and develop key life skills. What we hear back from these students is overwhelmingly positive. Many of them report that the experience boosted their confidence, improved their communication skills, and taught them how to be more flexible and self-reliant, especially when challenges arise. 

Taking the less charted course can sometimes feel uncomfortable. Students worry about veering off the conventional path, and so do their parents. And they’re anxious that taking a gap year means “missing out” on the first-year experiences that their peers are having, which is natural. But the feedback we receive from gap year alumni and the emerging research on the topic does not bear out these concerns.

In fact, several studies suggest that students who take a gap year thrive in college in terms of motivation and grades. Researchers at Middlebury College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that students who took gap years at both institutions had higher grade point averages than their non-gap year peers. A more recent study at both schools found that gap year students’ GPAs exceeded expectations when compared with projections based on their past academic record. And the positive effects continued throughout their college years, according to an online post by Bob Clagett for the Gap Year Research Consortium (GYRC), which consists of college admissions deans and researchers who are gathering data on gap year outcomes. 

Maddie Feldman '23 (right) with friends at a waterfall in Yilan in northern Taiwan.

“On average, most students who take a gap year end up performing at higher levels than would have been predicted,” wrote Clagett, the GYRC coordinator, who previously held high-level admissions jobs at Middlebury and Harvard University. “Other studies have shown that they are also not only more likely to return to an academic track after their gap years, but they are also more likely to engage meaningfully with their college courses.”

The Appeal of a Gap Year

The precursor to the gap year was the “Grand Tour” of late 17th century England, during which aristocratic teenage boys explored art, history, and culture in Europe as an extension of their formal education, Joe O’Shea wrote in his book, Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs. The modern-day concept of a gap year took off in the United Kingdom in the 1960s and then Australia and the rest of Europe before gaining traction in the United States within the past decade. 

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic helped further popularize that option as many incoming freshmen chose to take gap years rather than start college online. Their younger peers took notice and leaned into the gap year possibilities, which include robust offerings that range from pricey structured programs to more moderately-priced (or even free) experiences.

Asha Adiga-Biro ’23 opted for the latter. For the first semester of the 2023-24 school year, Asha is working on organic farms in the Netherlands, Greece, France, and Italy in exchange for room and board, an arrangement brokered through an organization that connects volunteers with farmers in order to promote more sustainable farming practices. “It was a way for me to explore different countries without having to pay a lot of money,” she said. 

Asha Adiga-Biro '23 (right) cooking for guests at an ecohostel in Groningen, Netherlands 

Asha Adiga-Biro '23 (right) cooking for guests at an ecohostel in Groningen, Netherlands 

Asha had been thinking about a gap year since her junior year after speaking to GDS alumni about their experiences and seeing online posts about their adventures. What Asha hopes to gain from her travel is a sense of independence. She wants to prove to herself that she can tackle challenges on her own, outside her comfort zone. “I wanted more time to figure out who I am and what I’m capable of,” said Asha, who is headed to Bowdoin College in fall 2024. “I think a gap year will help me feel more prepared and less anxious about college.” 

Jacob Ali Korde ’22, who recently completed his gap year, said he definitely experienced moments of loneliness as he watched his GDS friends post online about college life. But the moments were fleeting, and he has no regrets. After four long years in the demanding GDS environment, Jacob wanted a break and a taste of the “real world,” he said. For six months, he worked at GDS as a Technical Assistant at the Lower School’s tech bar, helping students and teachers with their tech needs. He later traveled to New Zealand and then Vancouver to visit his grandmother before taking another job at the Strathmore Music Center. “Taking a gap year made me more excited to go to college,” said Jacob, now a first-year student at Macalester College. Working made him more organized, he added, and having to fill his downtime in the evenings or between jobs forced him to think about his interests and what makes him happy.

When you spend a year traveling, working, volunteering, there are different expectations, and you end up developing muscle memory on how to address problems. T. Peaches Valdez, Wellesley College Administrator

What Colleges Are Saying

At GDS, we’ve found that colleges generally support, and sometimes even encourage, a gap year. Some may want more information than others about precisely what the student plans on doing with that time. But most seem to recognize that they will get a more mature and eager freshman through their doors if they allow applicants to defer for a year. 

“Gap years enable students to build a more practical toolkit in order to better troubleshoot or solve problems,” said T. Peaches Valdes, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Wellesley College. “When you spend a year traveling, working, volunteering, there are different expectations, and you end up developing muscle memory on how to address problems.”

The University of Michigan is also open to gap year requests from admitted students. “I don’t think there’s ever a situation where I would advise against it,” said Jody Gore, the university’s Assistant Director of National Recruitment and Alumni Relations. And for decades, Harvard’s letter of admission has proposed that students take a gap year. On its website, the university says it “encourage[s] admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way,” adding that between 90 and 130 students choose to defer each year. 

Some universities and colleges even add financial sweeteners to entice students to go that route. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers an $8,000 stipend for its selective Global Gap Year Fellowship. At Duke University, students can request $5,000 to $15,000 to support a gap year; at Princeton University, a select number of newly admitted students can take part in a nine-month, tuition-free overseas program; and at Florida State University, any student who applies for a gap year is automatically considered for a scholarship of up to $5,000. 

O’Shea, author of the Gap Year book and dean of undergraduate studies at Florida State, is a huge fan of the gap year, arguing that it has the potential to expand a student’s known universe and challenge their understanding of themselves and others in ways that even the best-intentioned classrooms cannot. “Often you see students who struggle in higher education because they don’t have a sense of purpose and direction,” O’Shea told U.S. News & World Report last year. “Gap years–because they give students a broader sense of the world and their place in it and how they can contribute–help to supply and empower students with the kind of motivation and purpose that can animate their entire college experience.”

Maddie Feldman ’22 vouched for that. Through a U.S. State Department program, Maddie spent a year studying Mandarin in Taiwan–on Uncle Sam’s dime–before starting her freshman year at Princeton this fall. After taking the program’s Mandarin classes during high school, she wanted to build on what she had learned in order to enrich her studies in college, where she hopes to major in international relations or information technology.

“I did not expect to gain the qualitative skills that I ended up gaining, such as flexibility,” Maddie said. The language barrier forced her to get creative when conveying her needs. (“I had to communicate with body language and emotions in ways that are more than just what’s coming out of my mouth,” she said.) And the cultural norms and local bureaucracy sometimes tried her patience. (“I learned to go more with the flow, which is tough for me,” she said.)

In today’s fast-paced society, pausing and asking “why” is a powerful practice. We want our students to ask themselves why they want to go to college, what they hope to gain from that choice, and how they can maximize their experience when they get there. Sometimes the right answer is to stop, pause longer, and spend a year off the educational track. Sometimes it isn’t, and going directly to college is the best next step for a student. Either way, developing a practice of reflection can benefit students at all stages, and we are thrilled to see so many students embrace the path (slightly) less traveled. 

Mind the Gap
  • College Counseling