With the ever-growing support of highly touted institutions around the nation, the once unheard-of notion of taking a year off between high school and college is becoming more and more common. Known as the “gap year,” these 12 months can be spent doing a number of activities, from traveling to volunteering. Universities like Harvard and Princeton are strongly encouraging their students to take this breathe of fresh air outside of the classroom. These schools recognize that such students will come to campus more focused and mature and will have a better sense of what they want to gain from their education.
In fact, Princeton believes in the importance of this academic break so much that they are aiming for 10 percent of their future freshman classes to embark on what they’ve coined as “bridge year” service programs. These nine-month programs, in countries like Ghana and Serbia, provide students with greater international perspective and intercultural skills, along with opportunities for personal growth and appreciation for service. Plus, for incoming students emerging from intensely competitive high school environments (sound familiar?), this program “will give students a respite from the pressure to excel and achieve academically,” says Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman.
This concept isn’t one solely used by Ivy League universities. In fact, New Trier Township High School was a pioneer, being one of the first schools in the United States to host a gap year fair. Families now flock to the Winnetka campus from not only North Shore communities, but also surrounding states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Linda Connelly, a post high school counselor and gap year coordinator at the school, launched the fair in the late ’90s. “It was an initiative of the administration because they wanted to have another option for our students besides college,” she says. “So we did a small program just for seniors and invited five organizations to come speak to our families. We had maybe 100 people attend, if that.” Since then, the fair has grown to host 33 gap providers and attracts more than 400 people.
Similar to the increase in the size of the fair, New Trier has witnessed growth in the number of students taking advantage of these programs. “We started off with just two or three kids doing a gap year, now we’re up to maybe 40 who choose that option,” says Connelly. “Families are now more comfortable coming into their initial junior year appointment and saying, ‘We want to talk about colleges and want to apply, but we’re really thinking a gap year will be the right fit.’” While that is true, 95 percent of New Trier seniors still go onto a four-year college and 3 percent to a two-year school, leaving a very small minority within the high school’s enormous classes of more than 1,000 considering other options.
“On the North Shore, it is difficult for parents and students to deviate from the ‘conveyor belt’—the standard progression to college,” says Sally Erickson, Lake Forest resident and mother to a current gap year participant. “But we need to start thinking differently about the progression from high school to college.” Erickson previously worked at Lake Forest High School and has seen it all, from students reluctantly going off to college and not doing well to other students embracing the gap year concept and loving it.
Erickson’s daughter, Phoebe, is currently on a Rotary Exchange year in Campo Grande, Brazil. There, Phoebe is living with several different families and is immersed in the culture and language. Like some gap year participants, the trip changed Phoebe’s college projectile. In her senior year, she had also applied to college and deferred her acceptances to decide on the following year in Brazil. “She ended up at a school that has a Portuguese professor, whereas before she wouldn’t have picked that one,” Erickson says. “She originally was going to another school in a bigger city and a better climate. I think her new decision shows the maturity she has now.”
From her daughter’s and other students’ experiences, Erickson has two tips for a successful gap year. The first is to start planning early, preferably during junior year. Many of the programs are competitive and have early deadlines, so the sooner a student starts applying, the higher likelihood of acceptance. Plus, it’ll make the student feel much more comfortable when they’ll be able to say what gap year program they’re doing while the rest of class has chosen colleges. The second recommendation is to pursue something that interests the student. From volunteering to cultural immersion, there is a vast variety of options available.
Meaghan Falvey, 2010 New Trier graduate, spent her last year in Ghana and Nepal with an organization called Projects Abroad. Going into the program, she knew she wanted to study medicine, and after working in a hospital and an orphanage abroad, she has further honed in on her aspirations. “Now I’m thinking of maybe doing Doctors Without Borders or working at a Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia,” Falvey says. “I have a better understanding now of just how much those doctors are needed.” After such an outstanding experience this past year, Falvey thinks all her classmates should take a break from academics. “I believe everyone should take a gap year,” she says. “I never felt that I wasn’t ready for college or any of that. I was driven to take a gap year because you learn so many things by living that you can never learn in a classroom.”
Another 2010 New Trier grad, Grant Hertel, is having a similarly extraordinary experience on the Where There Be Dragons’ “Life Along the Mekong” program in Asia. Living in Cambodia and traveling north to Laos and China has fulfilled his dreams of traveling and really finding out who he is before heading off to college. Hertel was also allotted time to finally delve into his music and learn the guitar. “I achieved all of my goals…I better know who I am, and that makes all the difference,” he says. “I went from being mildly excited to take the next educational step into college to literally tense in anticipation to dive into my college years.”
And, like Falvey, Hertel is only more interested in his majors now. “I originally planned to study music and biology, hoping to swing a double degree,” he says. “That dream hasn’t changed, only intensified. I can guarantee if you take a year to do the things you want to do—follow the things you’re interested in—you won’t be disappointed. You’ll only find more to love.”