Gap Year: Should You Take One?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – While most students in his high school class were busy settling into their college dorms and purchasing textbooks for their freshman courses, Zander Rounds was embarking on a year-long adventure that would take him to eight different countries around three continents and back to the U.S. again for a tour of the East Coast.

Rounds, who graduated from Brookline High School in Massachusetts in 2009, decided to buck the traditional path of education and deferred his acceptance to Georgetown University for a year so he could enter an international program hosted by Thinking Beyond Borders, one of the better-known organizations catering to those students who take a year off between high school and college.

“I had a really strong desire to explore the world and break with the normal track,” said Rounds, who is now finishing up his freshman year at Georgetown.

Sure enough, he studied international development in Costa Rica, took agroforestry lessons in Ecuador, pursued public health in South Africa and education in China, all while living with host families in each country. These experiences were more than eye-opening for him, and when Rounds finally made his way to Georgetown he decided to switch from the school of Arts and Sciences to the Foreign Services school so he could pursue a certificate in international development.

Though many students in the U.K. and Australia take time off between high school and college, it’s relatively uncommon for American students to follow in Rounds’ footsteps and take this gap year. Just 1.2% of college freshmen in 2010 had taken a year off after high school, based on surveys conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute, but according to those in the education planning business, even that small number represents a big increase in popularity from several years ago.

“We’ve seen gap years go from being an unheard of option to a much more mainstream option in recent years,” said Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, the first independent gap year counseling group in the U.S. Bull notes that when the company launched in 1980, no one she spoke with even knew what a gap year was. Now, she says, “I don’t need to explain what a gap year is to people, I just have to tell what programs are available.”

Indeed, the number of programs available to students during their year off has increased significantly in recent years. Kathy Cheng, who helps run USA Gap Year Fairs, a national organization for advertising gap year programs, notes that when the fairs first launched five years ago, there were just 12 participating programs. That number has since tripled, she says.

Part of the reason for the gradual shift in popularity is that several prominent universities like Harvard, Princeton and New York University have come to embrace the idea of a gap year. Harvard’s office of admissions actually “encourages” incoming students to take time off and notes that some 50-70 students defer admission each year (though this number includes students who opt to do a two-year tour with the military.) Princeton, for its part, actually took the initiative to partner with several international organizations to place incoming students in meaningful programs abroad for a year before coming to campus, a plan they refer to as the “bridge year” program.

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