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Posted at 1:14 PM ET, 03/ 3/2010

Gap year planning time; Sidwell hosting gap year fair Saturday

By Valerie Strauss

About 15 years ago I asked John A. Blackburn, the late, great admissions director of the University of Virginia, what he thought about students taking a gap year before starting college.

He surprised me by saying that he wholeheartedly encouraged students to take a gap year. Why? Because, he said, it gives kids a chance to travel, work or try something they might never have an opportunity to do. The time also offered students who had intensive high school programs a chance to relax. De-stressing, he said, was not unimportant before starting college.

Since then, more admissions directors embraced the concept, and today I believe most support the idea.

For high school seniors who have applied to college, now is the time to be thinking about whether or not to take a gap year.

Some schools now help students plan how they can have a productive gap year without sitting in a classroom on campus.

Princeton University, for example, started a “bridge year” program in which admitted freshmen can spend a year doing community service abroad before starting classes.

Harvard University has an office that helps admitted students plan a gap year; at this site, you can find a list of web sites with different programs.

There is some evidence that the number of students taking gap years is increasing in the United States, and it remains popular in Australia and Britain, where about 25 percent of students are believed to take gap years. (In Britain, studies show that the worldwide financial downturn has reduced the numer of students traveling abroad during the gap year, though it has not changed the number of students taking a year off. Now many of them are working.)

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 30% of freshmen in U.S. four-year colleges and universities leave before sophomore year. There are a lot of reasons for that, but for those who find themselves burned out, taking a year off before starting college can be important.

It is generally recommended that high school seniors planning to take a gap year apply for college as freshmen and then ask the school they plan to attend to grant a deferrment.

The key to a successful gap year is planning. Taking a break from stressful academic work doesn’t mean taking a break from everything. Colleges that give students the time off expect them to do something worthwhile.

And for parents, there are a number of considerations, including how much it costs to fund an adventure during a gap year and then four years (or more) after that.

There are a lot of resources on the subject. If you live in the greater Washington D.C. area, there is a gap year fair this Saturday at Sidwell Friends School in the District, from 1-4 p.m.

There are a number of web sites that help you think about the issues involved in a gap year, and provide links to programs that help.

Here are a few:
USA Gap Year Fairs
Gap Advice:
College Bound Gap Year programs
Planet Gap Year
Gap Year
And you can find a lot more links at this site, University Visitors Network

If you or your child has had any experience with gap years, or you have some advice for other families, please write a comment or to me at


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 3, 2010; 1:14 PM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions, gap year  
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I would be interested to find out parents' views on gap years -- as recently as 2002, my folks were adamant that I go straight to college and go straight through it since they were afraid for some reason that if I didn't go then I never would (and college was simply expected in my family).

I took a rigorous senior year, was on the honor roll through the entirety of HS, and kept an A/B average in college (even graduating a semester early thanks to AP credits from high school).

But in hindsight I kind of wish I had taken a year off in there somewhere and either worked or saved up for a really awesome trip. There are countries I haven't seen that I still would like to experience and unfortunately the confines of work and rent and the necessity of one for the other that I've run into since graduating from college mean I'm not taking any extended trips anytime soon.

Posted by: | March 3, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

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