The gap year

More students taking time off before college to travel, volunteer

It’s becoming more common for high school students to defer heading to college right away. Instead they are opting for a “gap year.”

Gap years offer newly-minted high school graduates non-academic adventure, a way to explore an unusual interest, or an opportunity to volunteer or serve the community before going on to college.

Gap years aren’t just for rich kids. Emily Foecke, a 2008 Southwest High School graduate, saved her babysitting money from when she was 11 to be able to afford a gap year in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to work with at-risk street families. After working with families that lived in rat-infested huts, and seeing the carnage of heroin addiction up close, Emily said: “Life back here at UW-Madison will never, ever be that hard. The personal lessons I learned from that total self-reliance have made me push myself harder and dream way bigger.”

Will Bellaimey graduated from Southwest High School in 2006 and from Middlebury College in 2010.  

“I recommend taking time off to anyone and everyone,” he said. “Even if you spend your time working a job to save money for college, that time away from schoolwork will make you appreciate the amazing gift of four years at college so much more. Don’t worry that you’ll be missing out while others enjoy college. You’ll find it’s just the opposite.”

Bellaimey spent three months in the fall of 2006 in Peru, teaching English in a tiny rural village and living with a host family.  

“I went with a very bare bones program from England. They set me up with a family, drove me up to the school where I’d be teaching, introduced me to the principal, and said ‘Here’s your new English teacher.’”

He was given classes with more than 40 teenagers. “It was incredibly hard work, teaching 10 hours a day to boisterous kids who would throw mud at me when rain transformed the dirt floors,” he said. “And I’d be lying if I said that all or even most of my students learned a lot from me. But a few did. And I learned the most of all.”  

After teaching in Peru, Bellaimey spent two weeks traveling independently in Bolivia in Chile, and then spent the month of January coaching Southwest’s Nordic Ski team before starting at Middlebury in February 2007.

A recent survey of 300,000 first-time freshmen at four-year colleges and universities found 1.2 percent waited a year to enter college, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Frank Sachs, director of college counseling at The Blake School and former president of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, said that gap years are rising in popularity.  

“I have several students this year who are actively investigating doing gap years,” he said.

Gap fairs promoting various programs (usagapyearfairs.org) have multiplied fourfold in the past four years, to 30 nationwide.

Students who have been on gap years say it changed their whole college experience. Blake grad Ella Mitchell combined a gap year program in Morocco with an internship for a Nashville music company.  She volunteered for several weeks in Costa Rica at a home for people who had HIV/AIDS, and finished her summer before college working at a local garden center and nursery.

“One of the main reasons I decided to take a year before college was to give myself a chance to breathe and really figure out what my academic interests were before jumping into more school,” she said. “I know a lot of my friends felt that they wasted their first year of college because they had no direction, but after my gap year I felt rejuvenated and actually excited to get back into a formal learning environment.  My gap year also taught me how to be proactive and manage my time better.”

Bellaimey said his experiences helped him be more prepared for college.

“Adventure was reason enough to take time off, but I think the real payoff came after I got to Middlebury,” he said. “Taking time off and especially working in a poor community halfway across the world put my education in perspective for me, and snapped me out of the routine of academic grind that I had become accustomed to in high school.”

Grades also seemed to matter less.

“I felt ownership for my education as I hadn’t before,” he said. “I started learning for its own sake, and that made my college years so much more enjoyable.”

Gap years aren’t for everyone, however. Without planning, young people could end up spending a lot of time on their parents’ couch.

Sachs said it’s important that the idea for the gap year comes from the student.

Jean Sherwood, the guidance counselor at Southwest High School who worked with Bellaimey and other students, recommends applying to college with your high school class and deferring your start date, rather than applying during your gap year. “Part of my advice is research it, figure out what you’re going to do and at the same time, and apply to colleges, because it’s much harder to do that at a distance.”  

A gap year may also make sense later, for students who need a break from college or have graduated.  

Aza Erdich, a 2007 graduate of the Breck School who is now a senior at Dartmouth College, took a year off between her sophomore and junior years of college.

“I was talking to the former director of the Native American Studies Program, Michael Hanitchak, telling him how stressed I was getting at Dartmouth, and he said… ‘Why don’t you take a break?’ it was a sort of a revolutionarily simple idea… I believe it was the best decision I’ve made since I came to college.”  

Aza worked in a bookstore, spent two months hiking in Utah’s wilderness, and then returned home to Minneapolis, where she illustrated a textbook in her native language, Ojibwemowin.

For the student who’s willing to try a different, less traveled, road, a gap year can be a life-changer.

Sarah Schewe is a junior at Dartmouth College. She took a gap year after high school and paddled the Arctic for 49 days, volunteered with maternal health workers in Uganda and Tanzania, and studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris to work on her French proficiency and her cooking.


Tips on preparing for a Gap Year

“The Gap Year Advantage,” by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, educational policy experts and parents of a past gap-year student, is a guide to making the most out of the experience. They have a new book due out later this year, “Gap Year, American Style” based on a study of 280 students and former students who took gap years during the past decade.

Brainstorm and network with your teachers, family and friends.

Check out organized gap year programs; talk to past volunteers or interns to ask about their experiences, including provisions for safety.  

Make sure to schedule work time into your year; your experiences will mean much more to you if you’ve contributed to the cost, and working provides new grads structure and an understanding of how to succeed in any job.  

Be sure to check with colleges on their deferral policies; taking a year off means you’re no longer a full-time student, and that may make you ineligible for some scholarships.