CONSIDERING THE ‘GAP YEAR’

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BY PETER VAN BUSKIRK

“Do you think it would be okay if I took some time off before going to college?”

It’s a question that comes up with surprising frequency as students grapple with their post-high school options. And, while the questioner seems to be seeking validation around the idea, there is often an implied and even deeper concern about how colleges themselves might regard such a strategy.

I would like to address the notion of taking time off or the “gap year” at two different levels. First, I will lay a philosophical foundation for the gap year discussion. Then, I will take a look at “if” and “how” the gap year might be beneficial.

Conceptually, the question of the gap year fits within a broader consideration of what seems to be a required sequence of experiences that young people must follow in their academic lives. The lockstep begins with pre-school and, for many, extends right through graduate school. It’s as though kids are placed on a conveyor belt that moves them through a series of prescribed exercises that systematically measures their needs, fills them up with the things they “need to know,” tests them and, assuming they have acquired a “minimal level of mastery,” stamps them as fit for promotion.

While the educational chronology is presumably geared to the developmental and academic needs of each age-group cohort, it often fails to accommodate the kids whose progress along their respective learning paths requires different measures.

Consider, for example, the young woman who desperately wants to accelerate her progress toward high school graduation because, by age 14, she has exhausted the curricular offerings of her school. Or the young man who is “young” for his eighth grade class. Like many others whose academic tracking puts them ahead of their peers, each is struggling to weigh the desire to remain stimulated intellectually with the need to grow socially and emotionally in age-appropriate ways.

Unfortunately, ours is not a “one size fits all” system that works comfortably for everyone. It is important to remember, then, that the best interests of the young person may not always be defined by the chronology. As parents and educators, we need to remain vigilant in support of those interests even when doing so means taking them out of the lockstep of the conveyor belt.

It is within this context, then, that many families consider the “gap year.” While some students are understandably concerned about their readiness—academic, social or emotional—to move immediately into college, others simply need to be able to step back and breath deeply before taking the next step into life as a full-time college student. Yet others are able to realize some pretty cool personal enrichment opportunities related to travel, service, or work.

I believe the answer to the gap year question is quite simple.

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