Should You Take a Gap Year Before College?

Ian Frisch
·9 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Town & Country

The chairlift rose up and over the trails and ravines, everything covered in snow. I zipped my coat up to my chin, cinched its sleeves over my mittens, and adjusted my goggles. The peaks of Park City stretched out all around me. It was December 2005, six months before my 19th birthday, and I had snagged the first chair of the day—just after 7 a.m., the sunlight still low and slanted, a sharp wind coming down the mountain. This wasn’t a holiday vacation, however; I had just moved from my small hometown in Massachusetts to Salt Lake City as part of a gap year between graduating from high school and enrolling at Champlain College, a private liberal arts school in Burlington, Vermont, where I planned to study writing.

We didn’t call it a gap year back then—I always referred to it as “taking a year off”—but the intention was the same: to be a snowboard bum for a winter, experience the real world, and take a break from the rigors of academic pursuits. A couple of friends and I had moved out west together. We saved our money, rented an apartment sight unseen, packed our cars with the bare essentials, waved goodbye to our mothers, and hit the open road, with the hope of seeing what adulthood had to offer. It was a carefree time: barely an adult, out in the world, overcome with optimism. Anything was possible.

300% Increase in gap year students among incoming freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.

The gap year is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the wealthy and elite have been embracing the concept for centuries, partaking in what was once called the Grand Tour, essentially a worldwide road trip centered on embracing culture, tackling hands-on experiences, and exploring worldly affairs. The option to put off college largely fell out of favor during the late 20th century, as diving directly into one’s studies became more important than having real life experiences, but the gap year has recently gotten renewed attention, with the likes of Malia Obama taking a year off to dip her toe in the world of film production before enrolling at Harvard, and before her, Prince William traveling around Belize, working on a dairy farm in the UK, and building houses in Chile before heading off to St. Andrews in Scotland.

“I very quickly realized that it wasn’t for me,” says Jacob de Rothschild, 21, of his initial enrollment at the University of Southern California. He paused his studies to intern at his cousin’s venture capital firm in New York City. “I was personally invested in it, and the whole idea was tangible,” he says. “I thrived in that environment.” He has now completed his gap year, and he’s gearing up to finish up college—but this time at Columbia University. “I’m excited to go back,” he says.

Taking a gap year is certainly a bit unorthodox. “Falling behind” can become a scarlet letter, the gap year a risk that college will be put off indefinitely. But the concept of what constitutes an acceptable path to adulthood changed in 2020 due to one highly unexpected variable: a global pandemic. “The isolation and lack of social engagement is driving people to consider a gap year,” says Jane Sarouhan, co-founder (with her husband Jason) of J2Guides, a gap year counseling company. “It’s a great time for students to pause and take the reins of their lives and have a character-building moment.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how crucial immersive experience is—especially for young adults. “I think we’re going to see a bump in gap year students for the fall 2021 semester,” says Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association. “They could say, ‘I’ve been sequestered for so long that I want to spread my wings.’ I think we are in for a swell.” This is what prompted Clara Cantor, a senior at Professional Children’s School in New York City and a dancer at the prestigious School of American Ballet, to plan her own gap year for the 2021–22 academic year.

Cantor began her ballet training at age two, was accepted into the School of American Ballet at six, and at nine made her Lincoln Center debut in The Nutcracker. “I pretty much just slid around the stage in a hoop skirt, but it was a totally magical experience,” she says. She has split her time between high school and ballet, with the expectation that she would pursue dance full-time upon graduation, but the tunnel vision this required has led her to toy with the idea of taking a year off. “I do feel as if I’m a little behind socially, because I have dedicated so much time to dance throughout high school,” she says. “Covid made me really sure that I want to take a gap year.”

Cantor isn’t alone. “Penn has seen a 300 percent increase in gap year students for incoming freshmen,” says Nina Hoe Gallagher, director of research and evaluation of ImpactED at the University of Pennsylvania. “These are all preprofessional, Ivy League kids, but with the pandemic there’s this big increase. It’s becoming more acceptable, even in more rigorous academic environments.” The research firm Foundry10 found that 16 percent of students whom they surveyed took a gap year for 2020–21, as opposed to 3 percent in 2018.

Allie Vaandering, a private gap year coach, says her phone has been ringing constantly. “A lot of the calls I get are from kids who are living at home and doing online classes, and it’s just not fulfilling them. They feel they’re wasting time,” she says. “There have been kids who say, ‘I want to become a doctor or a lawyer,’ and you get really stuck into that life, starting school right away and then getting your master’s or PhD. It’s been amazing that some of these kids are saying, ‘Maybe now is my time to travel around and then start school after.’ ”

There are other benefits besides scratching that pandemic-induced itch to get away. In 2015, before coming to Penn, Gallagher worked as a researcher at Temple University, where she prepared a report for Gap Year Association on how taking a year off affects students. Her results were striking. Delaying college was associated with better grades, and more than 80 percent of gappers said they would recommend taking a year off to others. “It’s an indicator of being self-directed and highly motivated,” Gallagher says. “It’s a myth that kids who take a gap year never go back. No evidence supports that.”

80%
Percentage of students who have a gap year who would recommend it to others.

Personally, I felt excited to head off to college after my year away. I was eager to learn again. (I graduated in three years, with honors.)

While nearly all gappers cite the desire to achieve some semblance of personal growth as the main driver of their decision, there are many options for what you can actually do during a gap year. Myriad travel programs exist, but building your own adventure (as I did) or landing a work exchange position are also possibilities, depending on your ­budget. Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado, even offers a program in which students take a gap year as part of their undergraduate degree. “I have worked with families with a $2,000 price target, and I have seen families spend more than $35,000,” Sarouhan says. “When a family has a larger budget, they will be able to pursue experiences that are more formalized, but there are loads of low-cost work exchange opportunities.” She cites AmeriCorps as one of the most popular.

Laura Gjuzi, 20, who grew up in Lanciano, Italy, landed a nanny gig in Leeds, England, last year. “I think being an au pair gives you a lot of things, and it’s not only a job but a cultural exchange, in a way. You can learn a new language for free and learn new skills,” she says. “If you want to be more open-minded and start your studies in a better way, it’s important to take a year for yourself.” For 20-year-old Californian Mira Dhingra, a sophomore at Georgia Tech University studying product design, the pandemic made her quickly reevaluate her priorities. She decided to take the 2020–21 year off. “I realized that this would be a great time when I didn’t have to be superbusy with chasing grades, and I could explore my interests, both in my career and personal life,” she says. Dhingra landed a remote internship at Duet, a web-based nonprofit that helps refugees—a position that was available only because of the pandemic. “I am proud that I have made the most of my situation,” she says. “It took a lot to let go of the path I had set for myself, but it’s been a huge period of growth that I didn’t anticipate.”

Parental support is pretty much a requirement for taking a gap year. Before the pandemic, Clara Cantor encountered enthusiasm from her father Steven Cantor, a documentary filmmaker, but apprehension from her mother Sonya Gauthier, a product designer at Tiffany’s. “My mom is more into the traditional route of going straight from high school to college,” Cantor says. “But I think Covid made my desire to take a gap year more accessible to her. She agrees that college won’t be the same in the short term. It makes more sense for me to take a year off to see what I want to do, so I can gear my studies.”

Cantor hopes to land an internship in choreography—or perhaps film production, like her father, or a combination of the two—with the aim of eventually making ballet more approachable and accessible to a wider audience. More than anything, however, she wants to grow as a person during her time off. “In ballet, we are always told what to do,” she says. “During the gap year I want to develop myself as a leader.” She applied to Brown, her first choice, and was recently accepted. Now all she has to do is defer—and tell the school she’ll be up to campus in a year. She just needs a little time off.

This story appears in the March 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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