Live and Learn: The Advantages of Taking a Gap Year

Want your kid to ace college? Make him wait for it. —Liz Suneby

Photo by Neal Peters Collection

In August 2008, Joanna Benoit watched with a hint of regret as her former classmates at Nashoba Regional High School loaded up their cars and headed to college. Though Benoit had been accepted to UMass Amherst, she’d opted to delay her studies for a year to work at a local bank.

Pausing between high school and college was once a luxury reserved for kids globetrotting on their parents’ dime. But now students from all backgrounds are taking a so-called gap year to gain invaluable experience as members of the workforce. Peter Jennings, Concord Academy’s director of college counseling, advises his students to consider a pause. “Fundamentally, the difference between high school and college is the difference between ‘What do I have to do?’ and ‘What is possible?’” he says. “Gap years encourage the thinking of the latter, which often helps students become better college students.”

Undergrads who take a year off before starting school also net better grades. In the TeenLife Guide to Gap Year Programs, Robert Clagett, senior admissions adviser at Middlebury College, writes that this practice can be a key indicator for collegiate success. “Some of the most selective institutions in the country have actively encouraged students to consider the benefits of a gap year,” adds Jennings. Harvard and Babson, for instance, both allow one-year deferments.

Benoit’s decision to delay enrollment came after her mother, Jennifer, detected signs of burnout in her daughter as high school was winding down, and encouraged her to wait to begin college. “Joanna approaches everything she does with energy and enthusiasm,” her mother says. “But I noticed a definite lack of both as the departure date for college was nearing.” Working as a bank teller may not sound as exciting as exploring Europe, but it has its rewards. Benoit ultimately used her earnings to finance a trip to New Zealand, where she volunteered for a few months.

Now a senior at UMass, Benoit expects to graduate in May. And she isn’t afraid of life beyond the ivory tower. “Many of my friends at UMass are terrified about their prospects after graduation,” she says. “Not me. I feel prepared and excited.”

Liz Suneby