It makes sense that not everyone is ready to go to college at the age of 18. After all, children don’t learn how to crawl and walk and talk and read at the same ages—why would they be ready to date or drive or go to college at the exact same time? The rite of college immediately after high school graduation simply might not fit everyone’s needs and wants and level of maturity.
As an alumni interviewer for my alma mater, I remember interviewing one brilliant young man who asked me in a trembling voice, “Will I have to leave home? Can I go to college and still stay here?” It was clear that he excelled at meeting the intellectual requirements of academic and scientific research. What was less clear was how he would operate outside of his comfort zone and navigate socially in a new space. College left him feeling vulnerable. Even though he knew the college he was interviewing for was in another state, emotionally he was having trouble processing the idea.
With high schools offering performance tracks and high-intensity environments, the pressure is on for our high school students to excel and meet college admissions requirements. But there’s not much focus on what they will do when they get there or after they graduate. Taking time off can feel out-of-step with what society is telling them to do, and being forced to take time off can be downright humiliating.
For that reason, Damour recommends these students take some time off or do a gap year before entering college.
“People don’t just take gap years because they’re not living up to the standards, but questioning them,” says Kathy Cheng, Director of Admission at Dynamy, an internship and gap year program in Worcester, Massachusetts that offers hands-on experiences, mentoring and apartment living. “They learn how to advocate for themselves. They develop life skills to start creating lives they can feel really good about and take responsibility for and own.”
“Most people can do college,” agrees Holly Bull, a gap year counselor and President of the Center for Interim Programs in Princeton, New Jersey. “But not everybody knows why they are there or what they want to do.” Bull took two gap years—one right after high school, and another after her sophomore year in college. Determined to be a marine biologist, she was “headed off to Oahu to scrub out shrimp tanks” when she realized that the work might not be for her. Gap years, to her, are valuable learning experiences—not a year to goof off, but to develop a sense of self and self-confidence that can’t be measured.
To Bull, the benefits of taking a gap year are evident: “What we’re seeing is that these students are much more prepared to transition from home to college, and from college into the work world. On lots of practical levels, they’re just much more prepared. They’re clear, they’re motivated. They have higher GPAs and they take less time to finish college. One college admissions director actually said, ‘We’d like to see 20 percent of our freshman class take a gap year.’ That’s because they’re far more plugged in and connected. Gap year students perform better and are better students on all levels.”
“These are phenomenal kids,” says Cheng, “who are taking a positive step towards figuring out what they want to do. So much of academics is following one step after the other and not necessarily knowing why you are doing it. There might be all sorts of reasons why a student might want to take a gap year, from learning how to grow as a person to needing more self-confidence. It’s just a huge array.”