College: Is a hiatus a good idea?

Question: I am thinking about taking time off before starting college. Do you think it is a good idea?

Answer: Taking a gap year makes a lot of sense for students, especially if they are feeling academically burned out. In order to be competitive, students must run themselves ragged in order to stand out in the pack. It is common for students to find themselves in a daze by the end of high school, after years of nearly sleepless nights and the constant juggling of sports, leadership activities, intense relationships and unrelenting academic pressure.

With all the focus on getting into college, students rarely have the luxury of pondering what they hope to achieve once they get there. That said, it is important that students considering a gap year have a specific goal or purpose in mind so that the time is not simply squandered.

The dean of admissions at Harvard, William Fitzsimmons, actually encourages students to defer their admission and take time off before starting college. He feels that a gap year allows students to “sit back and reflect, gain perspective on personal values and goals, and gain needed life exposure.” Indeed, every year 80 students at Harvard take a year off before they matriculate there. Other schools are following suit, with Princeton going so far as sending a percentage of newly admitted students on university-sponsored trips around the globe.

However, some schools still do not allow students to defer. The University of Washington, for example, does not allow students to defer their admission and requires that students reapply if they leave the school at any time.

While most students actually apply to college and gain acceptance before asking for a deferral, it may behoove some students to take a gap year in order to add enriching experiences to their resume and thus increase their chances of admission down the road.

Other students may increase their odds of attending a college if they agree to start in the second semester. The free time in the summer and fall provides opportunities to travel, work or participate in an organized program.

Students considering a gap year need to take finances into account, particularly in today’s economy. Organized programs tend to run between $10,000 and $12,000 per year. However, the costs of such programs should not be a deterrent. I recommend that students leave time to earn some money, so that they may take some responsibility for the costs of a gap year. My nephew, for example, deferred his admission this year to Washington University and saved enough money from delivering pizzas and power-washing decks to support a six-month trip abroad.

Parents often fear that allowing their students to take time off will preclude their children from ever attending school or graduating. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests the contrary. Students often return from gap years refreshed and with experiences and a sense of purpose that will shape their course of study or future career plans.

One highly respected program that students may want to consider is AFS, which runs excellent programs around the globe that combine language immersion and service learning opportunities. Students and adults from Mercer Island have strongly endorsed this program.

Going with an organized program rather than traveling independently ensures both security and structure. On the other hand, students should look for experiences that force them to be at least somewhat independent, as having to think on one’s feet — and even encountering roadblocks — can be an invaluable learning opportunity.

However, no two students are alike, and the ways to spend a gap year are infinite. Since it can be overwhelming to identify an opportunity worthy of a year off, many families are willing to pay a consultant through an organization such as the Center for Interim Programs or Taking Time Off. Consultant fees for these services normally range from $1,000 to $2,000.

Gap years are not for everyone, but for some students, they merit serious consideration.

Joan Franklin is the owner of The College Source, an independent college consulting practice ( She is also a certified school counselor in the Issaquah School District. She lives on Mercer Island and can be reached at (206) 232-5626 or

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