Is a gap year before college too risky?

Parents in Shanghai (From Little Star Magazine, Shanghai), asks:

Our oldest son just graduated from high school two weeks ago. Instead of going to university this fall, he has decided to take a gap year. He says he wants to pursue his other dreams before going to college to study chemistry. Although we know some students take a gap year before college, we are still a bit worried that his decision is too risky. We thought it would be better for him to pursue his other dreams after university or in the future. What do you suggest?

I am in favor of gap years, and I will tell you why in a moment, but I need you to know that I’m not the only person who feels this way. A few years ago, the dean of admissions for Harvard College, Bill Fitzsimmons, was asked what he would like to see happen for those select students who had managed to gain admission to that elite institution. He recommended that every student consider taking two years off from school before coming to Cambridge. It was his belief that given all the demanding academic work that his applicants had done in high school, they needed the life experience (and refreshment!) that would come from being out of school, that it would enable them to return to their academic work with renewed energy and commitment. A few years ago, when I ran a day-long workshop for the college admissions counselors of the eight largest boarding schools in the Northeast U.S. (Exeter, Andover, St. Paul’s, etc.) I asked the college counselors how they would change any aspect of the college admissions process if they could wave a magic wand and make it happen. Their universal recommendation was that the vast majority of students take a gap year before going off to college.

In my experience, a lot of seniors, especially the hardest working students, are pretty burned out by the time they finish high school. They have been on an academic treadmill since at least the age of five, and perhaps even earlier. They haven’t been able to make their own decisions, structure their own time, or make their own choices. Many are simply tired of school. In spite of being wonderfully accomplished in their academics, they do not feel very useful in the world. For such students, the experience of travel or work may give them a feeling of competence and maturity that they cannot get in school.

High school graduates from Australia and New Zealand typically take a gap year and travel before going to university. I meet them all over Asia, waiting on tables, working in hotels. The daughter of dear friends of mine took a gap year in Paris before going to college. She had to manage her own money, live in an apartment, attend an immersion French course, and meet people from all over the world, among other things. My friends reported that it was as if she had matured two years in the space of nine months from that experience.

You mention the "risks" of a gap year. I would say that there are risks in sending an unmotivated boy off to college. Many more boys than girls flunk out of freshman year in college. College students in the U.S. are surrounded by the heaviest drinking segment of the American population (a third of U.S. college students get seriously drunk once a week). If a young man is not psychologically motivated for college, he can become depressed, go socially wild or simply be an indifferent student.

I think you need to honor your son’s request for a gap year. At the very least, talk seriously with him about what he might do, does he want to work or travel, where would he go, with whom would he go, etc.? Ask him whether he would be socially lonely without the automatic group of friends that a college dorm provides. Help him think through what the year might be like. There is a chance that, after talking with you, he’ll find that he suddenly prefers college or he may become more excited about what a gap year offers. I believe that he’ll have a more successful year if he feels that he is choosing what he wants to do.

The one thing I can assure you of is this: I have never, in my entire career as a consultant to independent schools in the U.S. and international schools, ever known a student who failed to start college after taking a gap year. There is no risk at all of a gap year leading a student a loss of interest in education. Indeed, working a low-level job often increases a young man’s motivation for education.