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Taking a Year Off Before College Can Be Worthwhile
By Justin Pope - Associated Press - July 11, 2005

It was hardly the average teenager’s idea of a good time.  Gerrit Lansing spent his days shoveling out a barn and crushing grapes under the hot Mediterranean sun.  But Lansing calls the year he took off before college one of the best things he ever did.  Burned-out and aimless after high school, he spent part of the year working on a farm in Greece in the mornings, then taking afternoon classes that helped him develop a love of classical poetry.

“It gave me time to just sort of figure myself out and what I wanted to do and what I was interested in,” said Lansing, now a junior classics major at Sewanee, the University of the South, a small college in Tennessee.  “I felt coming into college I was just a step ahead.”

Many college admissions officers support the idea.  While cautioning that a “gap year” between high school and college isn’t for everyone—and that just goofing off isn’t worthwhile—they say many students who take one return more confident and self-aware.

“Students feel this sense of ownership over their time,” said Paul Marthers, dean of admission at Reed College in Oregon, where an unusually high number of incoming students, about ten percent, defer admission.  “They made the decision.”

Still, the popularity of gap years appears to be increasing only modestly if at all.  Most of a dozen or so colleges contacted in the last week said the number of students who defer admission is relatively small, and flat year to year or even declining as an overall percentage.

In other countries, notably the United Kingdom, gap years are for more popular and an entire travel industry has grown up around them.  About 11 percent of all British students take them, according to Tom Griffiths of www.Gapyear.com, and as many as a third do at some prestigious prep schools.  Employers there look beyond degrees and at life experiences when hiring new graduates, he said.

In the United States, however, experts say the increasing stress of college admissions makes parents nervous about any kind of unusual path.

“These are families that somehow see this as not part of the grand plan,” said Gail Reardon, who founded a Boston company, Taking Off, that helps students plan gap years.  Adds Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania: “Not wanting to break stride is the American way.”

But experts say that as the admissions process gets more stressful, the case for a gap year gets stronger.  Colleges generally encourage the practice—as long as students who have committed to one school don’t use the extra year to apply elsewhere.  Since the 19702, Harvard has used the letter it sends to admitted applicants to advise them to consider  a gap year.  Some, like Sarah Lawrence, have sent similar letters after realizing more students than they expected planned to show up in the fall.

 

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