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The Pros and Cons of Taking a Gap Year

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Illustration by Abby Musial

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Like most of her classmates, Sanford School alumna Serena Rubin went through the rigorous process of choosing the college that was right for her. Today she is happily studying for a career in the music industry as a sophomore at the University of Southern California.

But before her college career began, Rubin did something unusual. She decided to take a gap year, a 12-month sabbatical between high school graduation and her freshman year in college to learn something about the world—and herself. She joined a small group of other gap-year students from around the United States in a program that allowed her to work in such Southeast Asian countries as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam doing jobs that ranged from home construction to teaching children.

“I wanted to do service work overseas, but I wasn’t sure my college major would allow me to do that,” Rubin says. “So far, it’s the best experience of my entire life. I loved it.”

While some students like Rubin are opting for taking time between high school and college, school officials aren’t seeing it become the first choice for all graduates.   

I wanted to do service work overseas, but I wasn’t sure my college major would allow me to do that. So far, it’s the best experience of my entire life. I loved it. —Serena Rubin, Sanford School graduate

“I thought after [former] President Obama’s daughter Malia took a gap year, I would see a lot more students wanting a gap year, but that hasn’t been the case,” says David Toomer, director of college counseling at Tower Hill School. Casey Zimmer, Sanford’s director of college counseling, agrees that only a few students are taking advantage of the opportunity.

“Currently, I’ve got a graduate from last year enrolled at [Delaware Technical Community College] in the one-year automotive program because that’s a hobby of his and he wanted time out from ‘traditional’ academic work to pursue this interest,” Zimmer says. Another student, he says, took a yearlong trip to Israel to explore her family’s heritage.

Although there are no official studies about who takes a gap year, the Gap Year Association, which helps students find and apply for gap-year opportunities, estimates that between 30,000 to 40,000 American students pause their formal educations for a year, and that 90 percent of these enroll in college the following year.

“We get about 30 requests from the incoming class of about 4,300 students,” a less than one percent rate, says Doug Zander, the University of Delaware’s executive director of admissions. As with most universities, Zander says Delaware tends to look favorably on cooperating with students who have been admitted but who want to wait a year. “If they are participating in an experience that is enriching from a curricular or co-curricular perspective, the gap year is generally approved,” he says. Rubin says USC worked with her to take a gap year and still receive the financial benefits she would had been granted is she had gone directly from high school to college.

If [the students] are participating in an experience that is enriching from a curricular or co-curricular perspective, the gap year is generally approved. —Douglas Zander, University of Delaware executive director of admissions

Parents and guidance counselors say they have two primary concerns—that the gap year will not be used wisely and that students will decide not to enroll in the freshman class once the year is over. “Will it be a purpose-filled plan or just taking a year off to travel the world?” asks Cape Henlopen High School college counselor Kristin Clifton. Clifton now has one student who plans to take a gap year if he receives an internship at a stable to see whether he wants to study to work with horses.

“There are loads of kids that would profit from a gap year,” Zimmer says, “but frankly, I think gap years fall into two categories: one, those kids who cannot pay for a gap year and thus spend the year living at home, working and saving money, and, two, those kids who come from wealthy enough families that they can afford to go do something extravagant while they ‘grow up’ a little bit more.”

For Rubin, she says her service work in Asia offered her a great learning experience and a lifelong bond with a new group of friends. “Those of us who were in Asia got together the following year for a trip to Montreal,” she says. “This year, we’re thinking about New Mexico.”

Published as “Mind the Gap” in the April 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.