Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: The Gift of a Gap Year

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Dear readers,

This is an unabridged column I wrote for GRAND Magazine.

An administrator at an elite college with 17 years experience has observed a decline in what she calls college readiness: “Our students are academically talented, but over the years I have found them to be less and less emotionally and behaviorally prepared for college life. Many are immature and make irresponsible or inappropriate decisions. I think many of them would benefit if they deferred attending college for a year.”

More and more college administrators are advocating for a “gap year,” defined by the American Gap Association as “A structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, learn from different cultures, and experiment with possible careers.  Typically these are achieved by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, or working”.

For example, Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford University, and the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, posits that because of parents over-directing, overprotecting, or over-involving themselves in their kids’ lives, “I began to worry that college ‘kids’. . . were somehow not quite formed fully as humans. They seemed to be scanning the sidelines for Mom or Dad. Under-constructed. Existentially impotent”.

Another example: Parke Muth, former admissions officer at the University of Virginia and currently an admissions consultant, often encourages kids to take a gap year. He makes the argument that “the best investment [parents] can make in [their] kid’s college education might be to delay that education . . . to travel, work, learn a new language or pursue independent study”. He maintains that this gap year can help many college-bound young adults be more independent and well-adjusted, attributes that will serve them throughout their lifetime.

It must be noted there is resistance to the idea of a gap year, especially from parents. They fear their gap-year child will: be perceived by others as a loafer or a goof off or as having problems; waste time and money; lose their academic knowledge and skills; lose their desire to go to college. However, to this last point, research and data indicate that 90 percent of students who took a gap year returned to college within a year.

Another important factor impacting a gap year regards how the gap year is financed. Some gap year kids find work and self finance; others are loaned the necessary funds by parents and/or grandparents; some are partially or totally funded by parents or grandparents. Many gap year kids live at home to keep expenses down, while some get into a rental with other gap year kids. (Visit this site to read firsthand accounts of gap year experiences from students, parents, and educators. Note: One of the programs referenced in the comments as TBB, is an acronym for Thinking Beyond Borders.)

For those interested in learning more about a gap year, Google “gap year programs” for numerous resources and organizations for information, including: data, and statistics about gap year experiences; comments from gap year participants; lists of colleges and universities by state and their deferral policies; detailed steps for planning and following through on a gap year; specific national and international gap year programs; funding options, such as scholarships and work-study programs.

Another outstanding resource is TeenLife’s “Guide to Gap Year Programs and Advisors”, which includes 437 gap year programs, organized according to four possible areas of interest: academic; adventure/trip; community service; travel/culture. TeenLife’s CEO & Founder Marie Schwartz encourages families to take a close look at this option. “Recent research among gap program ‘alumni’ shows that these experiences deliver on the promise  — more than 95% of participants reported greater maturity, self-confidence, and communication skills.”

I close with reader Pat Knapp’s comment in response to a NY Times Op-Ed column by David Brooks, “How Adulthood Happens”. It is lengthy, but I include it in its entirety because it speaks directly to college-age kids about the benefits of a gap year.

“Here’s a thought on becoming an adult. Don’t go to college — at least not right away. Go and get a job somewhere, and don’t even think about finding yourself. Let yourself find you. Meet people who are different than you, from a different age and economic class. Grub out an existence, work your tail off, find out what it means to work with others and actually sell yourself to an employer or an industry. Do it for a couple of years, and THEN go to college. Yes, it will be tough to resist all pressure — from parents and peers and all the fancy marketing materials from all the fancy colleges and universities — but resist.

“And wouldn’t it be refreshing if a couple of the top students at a particular high school, maybe a national merit finalist, just said, ‘nope, going to get a job.’ The experience might even be worthy of a terrific essay, one that will eventually get you into one of the top universities in the country. And guess what? You might even have some money in your pocket to help pay for some of the tuition or your books, which is one really big step toward becoming an adult.”

It seems a gap year could be of benefit to many college-bound young adults. As noted, parents and grandparents can play an important role in helping the young people in their lives learn more about a gap year, explore whether it is a viable option, and help support its implementation in a variety of ways, both emotionally and financially. A gap year can translate to a growth year.

As parents and grandparents contemplate holiday gift giving, perhaps funding, or partially funding, a “gap year” would make the ideal gift for a child or grandchild.

Note: Readers are invited to listen to Dr. Gramma Karen’s interview with, “Turn the Page” host, Hemda Mizrahi. Dr. Rancourt’s topic is: At Home or At Work: It’s All About Relationships. The interview aired on October 16, 2015.

(VoiceAmerica™ Internet Talk Radio. The World Leader in Internet Talk Radio.)

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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