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Gap Year Before College

Make The Most Out Of The Gap Year When Your Child Opts to Take Time Off before college

From the moment her first son was born, Annie Kelly of Amherst, Mass., expected he would excel in school and then go on to the college of his choice. "It never entered my mind that this wouldn't be his path," she says. Today, Kelly's son has found a niche between high school and "the next thing," building houses and serving on soup lines as a member of AmeriCorps.

His experience is typical of a growing number of young people who are opting to take a gap year – or two – before deciding on college. Gap-year opportunities for volunteer service, internships and travel are proliferating, as are Web sites devoted to making the most of the gap-year experience.

What Teens Think

Teens offer almost as many reasons for taking time off after high school as there are opportunities to do so:

  • They don't know what they want to study.
  • They're sick of sitting in a classroom.
  • They'd like to explore the realities of a career, through practical work experience, before committing to a major.
  • They're not sure college is for them, period.

Dr. Brad Crenshaw, a neuropsychologist from Amherst, Mass., says that, in his experience, the reasons teens opt to take time off fall into two categories, the most pertinent being the pressure of academia. "It can be a killer," he says, noting the rising incidence of suicide on college campuses. "A kid coming out of high school has already spent seven hours a day, for 12 years, tolerating intense scrutiny and judgment. He, or she, might be saying, 'I need to back away. Find out what it is I want to do.'"

The second reason Crenshaw cites is the narrow preparation high school offers. It prepares kids for college, he says, but what if a teen wants to work on cars or be a chef? They may have been discouraged from pursuing these interests in school, but now they're asking, "How do I want to spend my life?" or "What is most practical?"

What Parents Think

Discovering college is not on your teen's agenda can unnerve even the mellowest of parents. Kelly admits she experienced a huge insecurity attack when her son decided not to pursue the traditional high school-college-career track. "There's so much pressure from everyone – the media, advisors, parents and neighbors – to stay the course and follow the path defined by our society," she says.

College offers a structured environment with a wide range of opportunities to explore. "A parent can be anxious about a child missing these opportunities," Crenshaw says. "It's legitimate for parents to ask, 'How else am I going to prepare my child for life?'"

Crenshaw advises parents to take a deep breath and listen to their teens. "A lot of kids come out of high school more confused than directed," he says. By listening to a teen's feelings and ideas, parents can open the door to a dialogue. The question, "What kind of journey can we start together?" is more productive than angry ultimatums, he says.

When Carol Cochrane's daughter announced she wanted to transfer to another school halfway through her first semester at college, Cochrane, a physical therapist in Amherst, Mass., encouraged her to take time off instead. "I was afraid she'd wind up not going back to school, but I was more worried she would transfer without being really sure what she wanted," Cochrane says.

Many parents fear that a teen who doesn't go straight to college, or who opts to take time off in the course of their studies, will get permanently derailed. But the time to explore possibilities outside academia can help teens connect, or re-connect, with what fires their passions. Cochrane's daughter thought she might like to work with either animals or young children. She answered an ad for a receptionist in a vet clinic, and was quickly promoted to vet tech assistant. She is now applying to animal science programs. "It was ideal," Cochrane says. "It made her decide what she wanted to do."

The Benefits

A survey of public and private colleges and universities around the country, including Stanford, Smith and Oberlin, found that schools are not averse to applicants who have taken a gap year. What they are interested in is how the prospective student spent his or her time. Work, community service, internships and travel are all viewed as legitimate activities that may, in fact, lead to a more productive college experience.

When teens postpone college, they must find a replacement for the structure that has governed their life since childhood. "There may be some scrounging around to figure out 'What can I do?' but it's an opportunity for self-definition and exploration of a whole range of careers that high school doesn't address," Crenshaw says.

Crenshaw offers an example:

A young man went to South America to make films, and then returned to write grants for more film ideas. "He came back on a career path and enrolled in a film school, where he was way ahead of the game," Crenshaw says.

Away from the classroom, teens gain confidence as they tackle the practical life skills of managing the rent, cooking and putting gas in the car. They can take pride in the way they perform in a real-life context and develop a sense of how they fit into the adult world.

The new ideas, situations and people teens encounter outside the academic world also foster emotional and intellectual growth. Kelly is amazed by her son's maturation in just eight months with AmeriCorps. "Stubborn is just too understated a word to describe him growing up," she says, but through working on service projects with others, living at close quarters with them and being responsible for and to them, her son has, at last, learned the art of compromise.

How You Can Help

Teens do need assistance in planning a successful gap year. Both Cochrane and Kelly helped their child research opportunities and acted as sounding boards for their teen's ideas. "What a parent has to offer, at this point, is not so much authority as wisdom and experience that can be imparted," Crenshaw says. "Kids are smart. They're going to have some ideas of their own."

As with selecting a college, researching the possibilities for a gap year can be daunting, initially. Googling "gap year opportunities" brings up hundreds of sites. The easiest way to get started is to set a time frame – say, two weeks – and have your teen visit two sites a day, taking notes on those that spark his or her interest. If your teen has a focus, such as volunteer work abroad or community service in inner-city schools, the search will, automatically, be narrowed. But even if your child has no specific direction, visiting a half dozen sites will start to define for him or her what appeals and what doesn't. Ask your teen's high school counseling staff for a list of organizations that offer gap-year opportunities, or check out these Web sites:

  • Action Without Borders
    Jobs, volunteer opportunities and internships around the globe
  • Postponing College a Year-Not Quite Ready for CollegeAmeriCorps
    Service projects in education, public safety, health and the environment; Stipend; College tuition vouchers
  • City Year
    Ages 17 to 24; Community service and leadership development; Emphasis on literacy tutoring; Stipend; College tuition vouchers
  • Dynamy
    Ages 17 to 22; Residential program; Mentored internships; Urban and wilderness leadership opportunities
  • Gapyear
    Opportunities clearinghouse; Global volunteer and paid work; Travel planning and advice
  • Habitat for Humanity
    Volunteers build decent, affordable housing in 90 countries.
  • Teaching English as a Second Language
    Offers internationally-recognized TESOL/TEFL teacher training certification; Job placement assistance.
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