Gap Years: A Less Travelled Road to College

There’s a rule that says all high school seniors must attend college about three months after their high school graduation, right? Wrong! While most GDS graduates do choose to head off to college soon after their high school graduation, some don’t, preferring instead to follow that famous road less travelled and wander off on a gap year. Good idea? I think it’s one worth considering.

A gap year is a period of transition between high school and college. Gaps can be as short as a semester or as long as a full year away from traditional academic study. Don’t think of gap years as “time off”; they are, rather, opportunities to explore, to grow, and to think before the start of one’s post-secondary experience. Think of gap years as the time it takes for the yeast to rise before the loaf goes in the oven; time to mature, time to reflect on one’s high school experience, and just maybe: how to make more of one’s college years.

There are many groups offering gap year programs. These programs come in all shapes and sizes: international travel programs, language immersion programs, wilderness or oceanic adventures, outdoor leadership schools, internships or a job in a field of interest, or community service projects, to name just a few. They can be group oriented or highly individualized…it’s up to you.

All kinds of students opt for a gap year: they range from top students who may feel “burned out” after a rigorous senior year to students who have struggled throughout high school and want to pursue something new and different before heading off to college. Or maybe a gap year is the answer for students looking for a bit more purpose in their education, or for those who realize they aren’t quite ready for college and don’t want to waste time or precious financial resources until they feel more focused on what to study in college.

Research has shown that students who take a gap year tend to perform better than students who enter college without a sense of purpose. Many—probably most—selective colleges are highly supportive of gap years: they believe students who come to campus after a year away from traditional academic work are more acutely aware of what college has to offer than many of those who enter their freshman year undecided about what or how to study.

Danny Klain, GDS Class of 2015, took a gap year before enrolling at Claremont McKenna College in California. During the first half of his gap year, Danny worked in the City Year program in San Antonio, Texas tutoring 9th and 10th graders in algebra and helping with their behavioral skills.

“City Year took every ounce of my ambition and effort every day, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for a second,” he wrote. During the second half of his gap year, Danny worked at a Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress, where he worked on issues of access to higher education: “The experience allowed me to form my own political opinions, a very important skill to gain in a year like 2016.”

What did Danny learn? “I spent a good portion of the year living on my own, far from the GDS bubble. I came away with new perspectives and knowledge that I could bring with me to college. I came to college more confident, more purposeful.”

Leni Hirsch graduated from GDS in 2013. Her gap year experience was different, but the result was similar. Leni spent a year on a work exchange at an outdoor center in New Zealand. She says that heading off to New Zealand was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but she credits her parents for planting the seed: “They gave me the option, and I thought, ‘why not?” When Leni returned home and enrolled in college (Harvard) in the fall of 2014, she just felt more excited to be there—and she joined the outdoor club right away!

And that’s precisely the point. Gap years may not be for every student, but for those who choose them, they can be exciting, fulfilling, even life-changing. Don’t get me wrong: college can be all those things, too, but what’s the rush? The college of your choice will still be there next year!

(There’s a Gap Year Fair at Wilson High School on February 7, 2017. Check it out!)

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