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Monday, August 10, 2009

The Gap Year

My eldest daughter recently made a decision which goes against the typical high school senior's way of thinking. She has opted, with our encouragement, to take a gap year. Rather than continue without a break after 13 years of school (K through 12) and proceeding to 4 or 5 years of college, she has decided to take a full year off between high school and college.

Initially she was going to take a six-month break but decided a full year would be more significant and worth while. Part of what prompted this is she is one of the youngest in her class of 2009, her birthday is in October and she is only 17 years old. Most of her friends are already 18 years old, able to vote, and driving. She does not have her drivers license yet, and has a bit of maturing to do. So this opportunity is sort of like catching the delayed start of kindergarten on the back-end.

We talked to many relatives and friends who have college-aged children as well as parents who held their children back when it was time to enter kindergarten. When our daughter was of age to enter kindergarten we had no idea we could delay her start date and hold her back, we were just following the process of enrolling her in school at the right time based on age cut-off (which is December 2 in California). But as the years passed and we realized there were children 1 to 2 years older than our daughter, we considered that we may have done her a disservice. In a book called "The Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, he discusses this phenomenon based on date of birth and the relationship to a person's success.

Fortunately, this was a decision that had a chance to be revisited in what many Europeans and Australians call a Gap Year. More and more universities in the United States are also encouraging incoming freshman, once they've been accepted, to delay their entrance and consider a gap year. Harvard and Princeton encourage all incoming freshman to consider it. And when you think how long our children will be working once they graduate from college, what is one year in the big scheme of things?

Many parents fear that a gap year will make their child complacent and lose the drive to go on to college. But studies have found the reverse, that those who opt for a gap year are often more focused, have a higher graduation rate than those students who opted to go to college immediately after high school graduation, and have a clearer sense of what they want to do. Those who opt for college immediately after high school are often so burned out that by the time they enter college they party too hard, lose focus, have failing grades, and end up coming back home or dropping out. Some take an unplanned gap year (or more) instead.

What has been interesting are the stories we have heard from our friends and family who had circuitous routes before their own college graduation. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law both started out at smaller colleges before transferring in their junior year to a larger university where they ended up meeting. It did not impact their college experience and both are highly successful today. In my own case, I actually graduated early from high school thinking I did not want to attend college. But my older sister convinced me to apply to the University of Maryland where I majored in Asian Art History. That degree did not result in a high paying job, so I went back to college to get a second Bachelors degree in Computer Science. I was 25 by the time I graduated and secured a great job at a company where I worked for 24 years. My husband attended Drexel University in Philadelphia. Drexel is a co-op school which includes a year internship and pratical experience. Employeers find that those students are better prepared than those who go straight from high school to college and graduate without any practical experience.

In my estimation, my daughter will learn more, mature more and experience more in these next 12 months than if she were to go straight to college after graduting from high school. Currently she is already lined up with several volunteer jobs which will provide experience in her chosen field of art and illustration. We are excited with her as she jumps in to this next year. Stay tuned as I'll blog about her notable experiences in the next few months.


  1. If she is thinking about volunteering some excellent advice can be found at: http://ethicalvolunteering.org.

    If you are looking for a company that offers excellent gap year opportunities with the highest levels of support and experience that take a look at Quest Overseas.

  2. Thanks for your suggestion! I will check this link out. I definitely think travel and volunteering is the way to go, to make the typical ego-centric child break out and look beyond themselves. Thanks!


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