Should Your Child Take a Gap Year?

Malia Obama is bringing attention to a wise option for many kids. For yours?

Posted May 04, 2016

CollegeDegrees 360, CC 2.0
Source: CollegeDegrees 360, CC 2.0

Malia Obama is taking a "gap year" before becoming a freshman at Harvard.

Should your child take one? And, if so, how can s/he make the most of it?  A gap year or semester is well suited to:

  • Students who could use real-world broadening. Most high school graduates have a narrow world view. They've spent most of their life behind a desk. A well-crafted gap year can broaden perspective. One example: Your child plans, perhaps with your help, a productive road trip—for example, driving across country to visit rural preschools nationwide and record the experiences in a text, image-, or video-centric blog. Upon return, your child works—paid or not—at a location that exposes him or her to careers of interest, for example at a sports medicine clinic and/or an elected official's office. Afterwards or simultaneously, your child, perhaps with your guidance, might start a simple business or find a nonprofit opportunity consistent with his or her values.
  • Students who are burned out on academics. Nationwide, almost 1/3  of college freshmen fail to return for the sophomore year. Only 59% graduate even if given six years. A semester or year doing things other than sitting behind a student desk may help.
  • Students who will thrive without the structure of school. School tells you: "Show up Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 to 11, read pages 78-206 by Wednesday." Repeat for four or five courses each term. Even in a well-structured gap year, a student must be self-motivated enough to follow-through. For example, if during a gap year, the teen chooses to party the night before and shows up unprepared or not at all at work, the employer can't give a failing grade.
  • Students whose parents can, per the above, help structure an interesting gap year, or pay a private firm that plans a student's gap year.
  • Boys. Boys, on average, have a hard time sitting all day in class and certainly have a lower college graduation rate. So boys may particularly benefit from a gap semester or year.
  • Whether the college allows "deferred admission." That means that the college your child plans to attend allows admitted students to take a gap year (often termed, "deferred admission," and will thus hold the child's slot until the student completes the gap semester or year. That's the case at Harvard and a small number of other colleges.

Even if your child's first-choice college doesn't offer a gap year, it still may be wise to do one. When your child applies again to college, if the gap time is being spent wisely, s/he'll have an excellent chance of being readmitted. S/he will also have a better chance of being admitted to a more selective college. The latter is only sometimes a good idea: Some students are better off being a big fish in a less selective pond.

  • Students who need to fill academic gaps.  A gap year can also be used to attempt to fill academic deficits to increase the student's likelihood of success in college. Such gap years are usually termed "a post-graduate year." In general, I'm  not a fan of those. If 12 years of academics doesn't prepare a student for college, then the 13th is more likely to increase academic burnout than to significantly enough improve academic performance. It may be wiser to consider post-high-school options other than pursuing a bachelor's degree: community college, formal apprenticeship, starting a business, the military, or learning a trade or business at the elbow of a master.

Gap year or gap semester?

For some students, a gap semester may be wiser than a gap year. First and obviously, a student might not need that long a refresher. True, s/he'd have fewer classmates starting in the spring semester but that probably wouldn't be so disadvantageous as to justify lengthening the gap experience. Another advantage of the semester-long gap experience is that there's less time to forget what was learned in high school. Also, if away from school for only a semester, the chances are lower that the student will forgo college altogether. Of course, whether the latter is good or bad depends on whether, for that child, going to college at that point in his or her life is the wisest option.

Update:: Do see the excellent reader comment below from "Your Reader in Pennsylvania." It gives other good reasons to consider a gap experience.

The takeaway

Malia Obama's taking a gap year will, no doubt, increase interest in that. For most kids, I believe that's a good thing. Too many students go straight to college and, sick of having been a student for so long, do poorly or per the cited statistics, drop out,  And even if they graduate, without the refresher and broadening that a good gap experience can provide, they will have received much less value from their often staggeringly expensive college education than they otherwise could have.

Consider a gap experience. As Abby Falik, who runs Global Citizen Year, said, it could more accurately be termed a launchpad experience.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.