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Taking Time Off Abroad

What Is the Gap-Year Advantage?

The Gap-Year Advantage

When The Gap-Year Advantage authors Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson’s 18-year-old son, Adam, told them he was not ready to go to college, it threw them for a loop. With more than 40 years of combined experience in the fields of education policy and practice, they were accustomed to the traditional path of education—and their son already had been accepted by a number of selective colleges.

But Adam had other ideas. Inspired by a graduate of a school in his district who had taken time off before college to participate in a City Year community service project, Adam wondered what other options might be available to him if he deferred college for a year.

As they write in their introduction, “[Haigler] recalled how, more than 20 years earlier, as a principal of Heathwood Hall in South Carolina, several of his students had questioned whether they were ready for college...yet.” At that time, Haigler met Cornelius “Neil” Bull, an educator and visionary, who Haigler and Nelson say “made the case that there were alternatives to going straight to college for students who were prepared to choose them.”

As Haigler and Nelson began researching their son’s options, they found that Neil Bull’s vision had grown into the Center for Interim Programs, LLC, located in Princeton, NJ, and Cambridge, MA. Interim helps students design and implement customized gap-year strategies, which is what the organization did for Adam, who undertook a variety of experiences, including living with a host family and teaching in Costa Rica as well as working on an environmental preserve in New Zealand.

What Haigler and Nelson discovered was that their son not only gained practical teaching and Spanish skills during his time off but that “the growth, maturity, and perspective that he gained were numerous ways.”

Adam’s story is not unique. Haigler and Nelson say that they’ve rarely encountered stories about students’ post-high school choices as powerful as those of students who have taken time off before or during college. “They have been able to learn more about themselves, and, at an age when many still call them kids, they have given back to the world in ways many adults could not even imagine,” they write.

Mont Saint-Michel France
Taking a gap year overseas to study, volunteer, or travel long-term is now recognized as very beneficial personally and academically in the long run.

Their son’s experience sparked the idea for The Gap-Year Advantage, which draws on the stories of dozens of gap-year students who they’ve met and interviewed, as well as the experiences of dozens more families, counselors, program leaders, teachers, and other educators. In addition to these stories, the book provides practical advice and resources for those considering a gap year—and for their families—including a 7-step gap-year plan to help parents and students structure meaningful, affordable time off.

Haigler and Nelson are well qualified to assess and report on the value of the gap year. Haigler is a nationally-recognized expert in workplace and adult literacy, having worked at the federal level on the U.S. Secretary of Education’s senior staff as Director of the Adult Literacy Initiative and Director of Adult Education. In the area of education, Karl has taught at the university, community college, and secondary school levels and was principal of a high school that, under his leadership, was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a national school of excellence. Nelson served eight years on The White House policy staff, including as Associate Director for Education Policy. She also served as Vice President and Executive Director of the Center for Workforce Preparation, the not-for-profit education and training affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Gap year” is not a new term for Transitions Abroad—students have long written participant reports about their valuable time off and Susan Griffith covers the subject in her article on the The Allure of the Gap Year. But many Americans are not familiar with the concept. It’s far more common in Europe, especially in the U.K., than in North America. But the gap year has been gaining momentum and was popularized in 2001 when Prince William volunteered in Chile with Operation Raleigh during his gap year. It has been increasingly accepted by colleges and universities, even the most elite. Harvard’s letter of admission strongly recommends that students consider it and will defer admission. William Fitzsimmons, Harvard Dean of Admissions, says, “We believe that students use their opportunities in college much more effectively if they have had some chance to get some perspective and get away.”

As you’ll find in The Gap-Year Advantage and in our resource section (page 56), there is no shortage of options for motivated, independent high school students interested in getting off the beaten path to take meaningful time off before college. Options can be as affordable or as pricey as students choose and cost can often be offset through work, fundraising, and scholarships. Many students settle on a year that combines volunteering and work. Educational travel though formalized study programs is also available.

You can order a copy of The Gap-Year Advantage: Helping Your Child Benefit from Time Off Before or During College via

Sherry Schwarz: There’s been a lot of press about the pressure on today’s students to prepare from an early age for the best colleges and universities. Can you comment on what seems a backlash movement toward "time out or burn out?"

Karl & Rae: There are a number of reasons students may choose a gap experience. A primary one is students’ being burned out after running on a treadmill for most of their lives to amass the grades, extra-curricular activities, test scores, and recommendations to get into the “right school.” Harvard’s admissions officers have described these students as potentially having missed out on their youth and following poorly defined future goals. This pressure may be exacerbated for today’s students and their families by the increasing competition to get into top colleges and the rising cost of post-secondary education.

SS: What is the difference between a gap-year plan and just “goofing off” before college?

Karl & Rae: The gap-year journey is designed to open minds and opportunities for students on their path through higher education and beyond. A gap plan that includes focus and goals can be meaningful and purposeful, leading to personal growth and a renewed perspective on the world and the value of education. Without a plan, students may tend to simply “hang out” as days turn into months and the prospect of attending college seems irrelevant. Parents’ major concern when faced with gap options for their kids is that they won’t attend or return to college; a plan can help ensure that higher education is the primary objective.

SS: Why did you write The Gap-Year Advantage?

Karl & Rae: For educators who have long been interested in opening doors for students, the gap-year option has been of great interest. We began collecting information on the challenges and the resources available to families working through the process. After considerable research, we didn’t find a comprehensive one-stop source for U.S. parents and students that included programs, logistics, and profiles of gap students and their families. We also discovered there is little solid research on gap students—the number of U.S. "gapers," college policies, impact of gap experiences.

SS: What were the main resources you used to help Adam research his options?

Karl & Rae: The Internet, of course, was one of the first stops. As students and parents will discover, there are an overwhelming number of gap options. See, for example, the Quaker Information Center's—a free, searchable database of programs (or see Gap Year options on the site). After initial research, we chose to work with a consultant, Holly Bull, President of the Center for Interim Programs, who had the experience, program knowledge, and skill to help focus Adam’s interests and goals. Then there was additional research as logistical issues emerged—things like healthcare, program specifics, financial and tax issues—that we have collected and summarized in the book. Along the way we met gap students and their parents who shared their experiences and lessons learned.

SS: Our readers may be more familiar with the model of college and university study abroad, where advisers help students prepare for their overseas experience. What kind of planning and preparation do we need to do when working with recently graduated high school students?

Karl & Rae: When working with younger and less-seasoned students, research and planning are invaluable. If working through a program, research will include the program’s structure and supervision, credibility and track record, and references. A student’s comfort with living arrangements (e.g., staying with a host family vs. with a group of peers), language familiarity, and length of a gap experience may become priorities. Gap families will have to consider how to address logistical issues such as healthcare, travel, communications, finances, and transportation, among others. With younger students, there may be an increased likelihood of some homesickness in the beginning and readjusting to their community when returning. Parents will also want to ensure they have an accurate itinerary and related contact information.

SS: You’ve spent most of your lives working in education. What are the biggest objections to a gap year and why do you think it’s so difficult to change the status quo even when students themselves attest to the value of time off?

Karl & Rae: Our book is a response to a perceived need for kids to have options, either before attending college or during college, to do something constructive to enhance their formal learning experiences. So it’s probably a stretch to say that we are trying to challenge or change a “mindset”: parents’ expectations and wishes for their children to pursue and complete higher education are not misplaced. As we say in the book, we think that there should be more of a focus on success in college, not just on access to college. With more students—and parents—seeing the benefit of gap-year experiences as complements to their life goals, which include formal schooling, we think that such options will gain more credibility in the U.S. among high school and college educators.

SS: What are the personal benefits of taking a gap year before college?

Karl & Rae: Benefits for high school graduates participating in a gap experience include greater confidence, independence, and maturity; increased passion for learning and a focus for their education; a better perspective on themselves and the world; and increased practical life skills—like communicating, problem-solving, handling stress, managing money, cooking, cleaning. A longitudinal study of AmeriCorps’ participants found positive results in areas such as education, life skills, civic engagement, and employment.

SS: Are there critical questions parents should ask of prospective gap-year programs and of colleges?

Karl & Rae: Parents are likely to have a different set of questtions of a prospective gap-year program than their child. These may include asking for information on the track record, credibility, and stability of the program; supervision, structure, and safety; references from other families whose children have participated in the program; where fees go, particularly if the program is a not-for-profit; if fees are tax deductible; steps that are in place in the event of an emergency. Questions for colleges will focus on their policies and procedures for gap students—deferrals, whether a student can earn academic credit, experiences with other gap students, etc.

SS: Should students who know they want to take a gap year apply to college first? What are the pros and cons of applying before or after a gap year?

Karl & Rae: Most counselors, educators, and families we spoke with recommend applying to college before taking time off. Many colleges will defer admission if presented with a reasoned gap-year plan within a logical timeframe. Students’ gap experiences may propel them to different colleges that are more in line with their “post-gap” vision and goals. In this case, families may risk losing a security deposit. Other students chose a gap year after they were not accepted to college. In any case, applying and re-applying to college should be an integrated part of a gap plan.

SS: For those who worry that students will have trouble adjusting to formal education again after a gap year, what would you say?

Karl and Rae: Gap students will enter college with a different perspective on the world than that of a typical freshman. They may be more passionate about learning than their counterparts. Students may gravitate to schools that attract and support gap students, find students on campus who have had similar experiences, or choose classes and professors that match their interest. Given that gap students are confident and resourceful, they generally will find their way to make the most of formal education.

SS: What was the biggest surprise or reward you discovered from Adam’s gap year?

Karl & Rae: The most significant reward of Adam’s gap-year experience has been his emergence as a self-directed and emotionally balanced young man. He has a refined sense of the value of education and sees himself now as a much more serious student. His experience in college thus far has confirmed that he has a more definite sense of purpose for being in school than those of his fellow classmates. While he is still exploring different courses of study, he has a clear goal in mind. He sees himself as capable of choosing from among options and pursuing those options that include internships and other opportunities for service that will keep alive his connection to the world beyond the school’s walls.

Related Topics
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Gap Year Academic Study Abroad
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The Allure of the Gap Year
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