Middle Class Students Can Be Like Malia

I would like to point out, readers, that long before Malia Obama ever commenced her college search and certainly before she made the noteworthy (and apparently newsworthy) decision to take a gap year before entering Harvard, educational consultants like myself were already talking with students about the possibilities offered by gap years. (I even blogged about it in 2014 and there’s discussion of it in my book, Horses for Courses.) But as with anything else, it took the good old-fashioned gap year making headlines as part of the 24-hour news cycle to start everyone talking about it anew. (Honestly, when Prince William took his gap year, I don’t remember it causing such a stir – but then, in Britain, the gap year has long been a standard part of their educational calendar for a large number of students transitioning to university.)

But Malia and William are famous people. They’re also wealthy people. That puts them in a privileged minority and separates them fairly significantly from the average college-bound high school student. So let’s focus on said average college-bound high school student. Is a gap year something you should consider?

Before I can answer that question, I feel it’s important to first outline what a gap year is – and what it isn’t. During a gap year, a recent high school graduate defers entering college for a period of up to one year to immerse him or herself in a life or work experience in order to gain insight, maturity, and a wider perspective regarding the path he or she would like to follow both in college and potentially even in a future career. Common gap year programs include trips to developing nations to become immersed in different cultures as part of volunteer and/or humanitarian efforts, work in America’s inner cities through organizations like City Year, or even to seize educational opportunities through formal gap year curriculum. Work immersion and job shadowing experiences are also common for gap year students – for example, a budding professional equestrian might enter a structured working student program with a top professional to learn about the day-to-day life of someone in the industry – and in some cases, students may utilize a gap year to simply work at a job requiring no college degree in order to earn enough money to pay their first year’s tuition to the college they’ve selected.

What a gap year is not is an opportunity to go on vacation and/or to sit on your parents’ couch and play video games for a year. The goal of a gap year is to gain experience and insight that you can’t get inside a classroom and then bring it back to the classroom with you when the year is over.

Having established the goal(s) of a gap year and outlined how it’s executed, let me now swing back around to the considerations you’ll need to take into account in order to determine if a gap year is something you might want to do.

A gap year is an option for you if:

  • You have no idea what you want to study in college and/or no idea of what career is for you. While “undecided” is the most common freshman major in the United States higher education system so you wouldn’t be alone in your lack of firm direction, research shows that students who take gap years enter college with a clearer sense of both purpose (e.g. understanding of why they should be in college and why a degree has value) and also find that the gap year experience itself sets them onto their ultimate career path. (In one recently surveyed group, 60 percent of the gap year students who responded indicated that it was the gap year that revealed or confirmed their choice of career/academic major.) So instead of wandering around campus taking general education courses for your entire freshman year, you could instead be out doing something that could both point you in the right direction and be meaningful in other ways as well.
  • You’re stressed out by high school. Test after test after test after test. That seems to be the raison d’etre of the high school education system these days and if you’re good at taking tests, there are so many of them to complete (SATs, ACTs, AP exams, state exams – the list goes on) that it seems like you just go from one test to the next ad nauseam. There’s no time to break out of the cycle and you go from testing at school to your extracurricular activities to completing your homework (usually after dark) and then back to school again in the morning. And if you’re a poor test taker, the stress is further compounded. Where’s the time to breathe? Where’s the time to think?! A gap year can offer you that opportunity; you can break free of the cycle of testing and get to know yourself – what you believe, what you want, who you are. And what better way to start the next phase of your education than with a clear, stress-free mind?
  • You think you know what you want to study in college and/or what career you wish to have. Because high school curriculum is so cut and dried (and so test-focused!), there aren’t many opportunities for students to experience life outside their structured educational system unless they know someone who works in the industry they’re interested in who will allow them to shadow for a few days or weeks. (In that way, riders typically have things a bit easier because you have access to trainers, vets, and other horse industry professionals, so you’re more likely to know someone to shadow in the job role you one day wish to have.) But there’s job shadowing for the course of a weekend and then there’s job shadowing for a full year and they are two very different animals; one gives you just a glimpse of what the day-to-day requirements of a particular career may be, the other fully immerses you in the good, the bad, and (yes) even the boring. Only through seeing everything over a longer period of time will you know once and for all if you’ve selected the right path for yourself and a gap year offers that chance.

Mind you, a gap year isn’t a magic cure all for every challenge facing high school students and it’s not an option for everyone. In some cases, formal gap year programs can cost as much (if not more) than a year of college tuition. In the case of work experiences, there’s always the chance that you’ll lose some ground academically (spend a year following your trainer between the winter and summer show circuits and you’ll definitely be a bandage-rolling expert but you might lose your grip on calculus functions) or even that something else will happen in life and you won’t make it to college at all. There are a lot of factors to consider before you make the decision to pursue a year between high school and college, but for many students – even those who are significantly less famous than Malia – it can be fully transformative and the best year of their young lives.

(Is a gap year for you? Contact me and we’ll talk about it – or pick up a copy of my book to guide your college search.)



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