Year off before college not just slacking

It was hardly the average teenager’s idea of a good time. Gerrit Lansing spent his days shoveling out a barn and crushing grapes under the hot Mediterranean sun.

But Lansing calls the year he took off before college one of the best things he ever did. Burned-out and aimless after high school, he spent part of the year working on a farm in Greece in the mornings, then taking afternoon classes that helped him develop a love of classical poetry.

Some advice for students considering a “gap year” between high school and college:

* Research the deferral policies of the colleges to which you are applying. Some colleges may not allow admitted applicants to defer at all, and many of those that do have deadlines for deferral requests.

* Carefully research programs you’re interested in. Talk to other participants and ask detailed questions about health and safety issues.

* Remember that some companies catering to gap-year travelers are more reputable than others and be prepared. Gail Reardon, founder of Taking Off in Boston, which advises students on gap year projects, recalls two students who were never met at the Shanghai airport by a British company they had signed on with.

Associated Press

“It gave me time to just sort of figure myself out and what I wanted to do and what I was interested in,” said Lansing, now a junior classics major at Sewanee, the University of the South, a small college in Tennessee. “I felt coming into college I was just a step ahead.”

Many college admissions officers support the idea. While cautioning that a “gap year” between high school and college isn’t for everyone – and that just goofing off isn’t worthwhile – they say many students who take one return more confident and self-aware.

“Students feel this sense of ownership over their time,” said Paul Marthers, dean of admission at Reed College in Oregon, where an unusually high number of incoming students, about 10 percent, defer admission. “They made the decision.”

Still, the popularity of gap years appears to be increasing only modestly if at all. Most of a dozen or so colleges contacted in the last week said the number of students who defer admission is relatively small, and flat year to year or even declining as an overall percentage.

Experts say the increasing stress of college admissions makes parents nervous about any kind of unusual path.

“These are families that somehow see this as not part of the grand plan,” said Gail Reardon, who founded a Boston company, Taking Off, that helps students plan gap years. Adds Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania: “Not wanting to break stride is the American way.”

But experts say that as the admissions process gets more stressful, the case for a gap year gets stronger. Colleges generally encourage the practice – as long as students who have committed to one school don’t use the extra year to apply elsewhere. Since the 1970s, Harvard has used the letter it sends to admitted applicants to advise them to consider a gap year. Some, like Sarah Lawrence, have sent similar letters after realizing more students than they expected planned to show up in the fall.

Generally, schools make students submit a proposal beyond “lying on the beach,” but often little more is required.

Of course, instead of deferring, students can just postpone applying to college – and their gap-year experiences could make them more attractive candidates. But there’s a momentum to the process that makes it easier to apply in high school, and parents’ concerns about getting off track are understandable. Lansing’s parents backed his plans, but insisted he have a college lined up.

Gap years need not be a luxury for the rich. Some students use them to earn money for school. Many programs offer scholarships or compensation for labor; AmeriCorps offers a living allowance and education funding. Reardon says anyone would be hard-pressed during a gap year to spend the $30,000 or more many of them would be paying for college.

Besides, “if you look at the investment of the first year of college when your kid is not ready to go,” Reardon said, “it’s money well spent.”

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