What differentiates the students who take a gap year off between high school and college or university, and the ones that don’t? Is it true, as some people suspect, that the kids who do are just lazy and reluctant to behave responsibly and make something of their own lives? What sort of reasons could these young people have for not going on to university after they graduate, especially if they’ve already been accepted by a good school?
The answers, of course, are as varied as the young learners themselves. But one answer is that they are often simply burned out. For twelve long years of public school, their entire childhood, in fact, they and their mothers and fathers have probably been focused on them getting good grades and being accepted at an excellent school. But Jim Bock, Dean of Admissions at Swarthmore College, said in 2008 that he thinks this single-minded focus on creating the right image and grades, even during the summers between terms, is part of what has led to student burn out and the popularity of the gap year. As Bock put it, “Summers have disappeared completely…so I actually think the gap year may be the new summer.”
Some parents who have really pushed their children so they would get excellent grades all through public school and be accepted by one of the better universities might find that this strategy has backfired. By engaging these young people in this adult preoccupation, all through their young lives, mom and dad might simply have overwhelmed them. The students may need the chance to learn some independence and replenish their energies before finally going to university or college.
Whatever the case, many elite schools have now recognized that burn out among students is a serious problem. For example, Harvard actually recommends to its accepted applicants, right in the acceptance letter, that they consider deferring their attendance for a year so they can start refreshed when they do arrive at school. Yale happily allows its own successful applicants to take a year off. And Princeton has even started a “Bridge Year” program to send freshmen out on service trips.
Human nature being what it is, there is no doubt that the motivation to take a year off for some students is just laziness and the desire to goof around. Yet even among those, the underlying reason might be the same burn out and the need to refresh for a time. And many others simply want the chance to be independent and learn to make their own decisions, possibly for the first time in their lives. After their gap year jobs or travel experiences, a large percentage return home to start on their degree, having grown into mature, responsible adults.
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