Consider Taking a Gap Year, and Bring Your Zeitgeist to College

By Kate Duey

Kate Duey is a private college counselor serving gifted students. She has worked with students on traditional schooling paths, home schooled students, community college students, and students seeking accelerated or early college entrance. Kate is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School. She has a Certificate in College Counseling from UCLA.

Gifted Students Enjoying Balance!What happens if a student graduates from high school exhausted? AP classes, standardized testing, extracurricular activities, sports, music, community service, research projects…and all of those college essays! What if they worked so hard they can’t remember what they like? Are they ready for four or five or six more years?

Among gifted high school students, it is especially important to remember that giftedness is innate to a person, and we should embrace the whole student by supporting their intellectual, social, spiritual, emotional and physical growth. When a gifted student’s high school years disproportionately emphasize intellectual development, the whole person is neglected. Refreshing all parts of a gifted student’s self helps to focus his or her intensities in ways that work with and for the student.

For graduating high school students who find themselves exhausted, an intentional pause to decompress and plan their next steps – a “gap year” between high school and college –could be a viable option. They often enter college with better perspective, more maturity, chronological alignment with his or her class, and enthusiasm for an old or new interest elevates the student’s whole experience.

Taking a gap year does not mean the student does not apply to college as a high school senior; they absolutely should. As a high school student, he or she has access to the teachers and counselors who will write letters of recommendation, grades and test scores are in hand, and good reference materials to search for college are easier to access. Definitely apply! Then, defer.

As a college counselor working with gifted high school students, I’ve twice seriously advised a gap year. One student considered extreme mountaineering, the other living in Europe with extended family. (Admittedly, neither did it.) I’ve talked about it with every student who has an interest in studying foreign languages. Among our tabloid friends, Prince William and Kate Middleton took gap years. Kate spent much of hers studying Italian. Every year, fifty to seventy students defer entrance into Harvard College for a gap year. In 2006, Harvard reported some of the focuses of those gap years:

  • Backpacking
  • Caring for grandparents
  • Writing the Next Great American Novel
  • e-commerce startup
  • Figure skating
  • Kibbutz life
  • Language study
  • Military service
  • Mineralogy
  •  Music
  • Political campaigns
  • Reading
  • Special needs education
  • Sports
  • Steel drumming
  • Storytelling
  • Swing dancing
  • Working to save money for college

Parents often worry that, by detaching from a year-to-year academic progression, their child will fall behind. Colleges seldom see it that way, and many letters of admission come with the option of deferring for a year. Once in college, students are often encouraged to take a year off, and college student counseling centers freely offer advice about opportunities. Splitting the difference, some colleges offer mid-year entrance, allowing the student a “gap semester.” American University and Brandeis University have formal off-campus programs for first-year fall semester.

A year off can center around any endeavor. Now that average student indebtedness at graduation is $25,200, saving for a year before college can create more flexibility after college. Another opportunity is more family time, especially with grandparents, which may have been sacrificed for academic achievement.

Some parents and students prefer a structured year. There are many services which will match a student with a gap year program, and a quick internet search will yield many. Also, think outside of the box; my personal favorite was a year at Austin Community College studying blacksmithing.

A gap year can make for a more interesting student, capable of adding more to the academic community. Best of all, students can discover their passions and capture their zeitgeist before they begin college.

Has your child considered taking a gap year? Please share your experience in the comment section below.

Kate will be discussing college admissions at our next Gifted Child Parent Meeting. The talk will take place at 6:30 pm on February 13, 2013, at the IEA Learning Center, located at 625 Fair Oaks Avenue, Suite 288, South Pasadena, CA 91030 (across the hall from the IEA main office). Please RSVP to We hope to see you there!

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9 responses to “Consider Taking a Gap Year, and Bring Your Zeitgeist to College

  1. I think a gap year may help a student think about what he/she may want to do in his/her life for a career, and may be the first real opportunity for one to get in touch from working adults in the real world on a daily basis, through an internship. It would be great if one may use this time well to form a solid foundation for the next stage.

  2. Practically no adults say they wished they had rushed faster through college…but so many say they wished they had taken time to discover what they enjoy and do best before they dove into the college scene. Perhaps employers and grad schools could start favoring students who took a gap year, and then the concept would gain some serious support! Thanks, Kate, for reminding us that the gap year can be a cross-training year for gifted and all students.

  3. A gap year might also help a student lay the groundwork for finding a summer job during the first summer after starting college.

  4. I think most students would benefit from a gap year. Many students go onto college directly after high school because it’s expected or they don’t know what else they want to do. We have declining 4 year graduation rates and skyrocketing student indebtedness. Anything that better prepares students to be successful in college is good. A year spent away from a traditional academic structure can provide significant opportunity for introspection and goal development, making the college experience more likely successful and yielding a better return on investment (both financially and time-wise). With longer life expectancies (and later retirements), what’s the rush?

  5. In a simple and short article you put this idea into perspective. Because of this, I am going to present this idea to my son –who is sophomore in high school. Unlike many of his friends he stayed on track so he is the “correct” age for a sophomore. So even more so, he has no reason to rush into the college track which often ends with a need to “find a job” after he gets out. Thanks Kate!

  6. It might be particularly difficult for a gifted child to voluntarily step out of the academic structure within which he or she has been so successful. But that only makes the experience more valuable. Maybe that is why so many of the elite colleges have long supported and encouraged it.

  7. Oh, how I wish I’d taken a gap year. I rushed through college and abandoned my original major, Biology Pre-Med, for Literatures in English after my freshman year when the going got rough. It’s a decision I don’t totally regret but I honestly think I would have perservered in Biology had I been a little older and wiser. There is so much pressure on students to transition directly from high school into college but I think many would find themselves more motivated and better-grounded if they took a gap year.

    My cousin is a prime success story. In high school, he nearly didn’t graduate with his immaculate test scores due to depression and lack of interest in school. He took a gap year as an AmeriCorps member, working with middle school students in an environmental program. There he found his confidence, happiness and motivation to pursue further education. He enrolled in college the next year and after tranferring mid-stream, ended as a very successful UC Berkeley Engineering graduate with a lucrative job with an internet start-up.

  8. As a high school teacher, I wholeheartedly agree. Many of my seniors are ready for college and have already discovered their interests and talents but there are also quite a few who could benefit from some more life experience to help guide them. I took two years off in the middle of my undergraduate degree and when I came back to school I had a much better idea of what I wanted to do with my life AND I was a much better student. It’s so important to pick the path that works best for us individually and not just feel like we have to follow a certain trajectory because that is what everyone does.

  9. I think a gap year can be a GREAT thing, for the right child. It is not for everyone, but particularly a bright motivated student can have remarkable experiences that would only enhance their academic life and help them make better choices. I wish I had done it!

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