How to Organize Your Gap Year

As you’ve probably read in countless recent articles, Malia Obama is taking a gap year and will attend Harvard in 2017. Gap years or post-grad (PG) years have grown quite common and we have many requests from students and parents for advice on gap year planning.

According to the American Gap Association,  from 2014-2015, there was a 22% increase in the number of students taking gap years.

When pondering a gap year it’s important to understand there are two approaches:

  • When a student is accepted to college and then requests a one-year deferral (as Malia did).
    • If you’ve already gotten in to a college there is more leniency around pursuing interests you might not have a chance to explore in college. For example, we had a student who attended a year of cooking school in Paris.
  • When a student does not apply to colleges in senior year, because she knows she’ll take a gap year, and applies to colleges the following fall.
    • If you are applying to colleges for the first time, your gap year almost HAS to be academic –courses abroad, a college level program, etc. You must explain what you did on your year off.

Regardless of the two approaches to a gap year, colleges care about what you do during that time.  This applies to when students ask for permission (once accepted to a college) to come a year later than planned, and even more so when applying a year after graduation –as she must convince colleges it was a choice as opposed to not being accepted to her top choice colleges.

A gap year student must find ways to show, in each scenario, how she is planning on exploring her main academic interests or has explored her interests in that year off.

During a gap year, a student might pursue research in a lab OR take college courses in a unique program, or with a particular professor in his or her area of academic interest. Another option might be to volunteer for a startup creating a product or service that links to the student’s specific academic interests. It’s important to consider how the gap year experiences will connect to college goals. A successful gap year is not a break from academics but an opportunity to show you can be productive, still academically engaged in some form, and better prepared for college coursework/experiences. Gap year pursuits typically entail international travel with a scholarly purpose, working, volunteering, taking college courses, conducting research, or pursuing a more structured PG program (such as the PG program offered at Northfield Mount Hermon).

One thing to bear in mind is that a gap year can be pricey, and financial aid exists but is hard to come by.  That said, there are opportunities to fund a gap year including the Back A Gapper Scholarship and the Fund for Education Abroad. We’ve seen students launch KickStarter campaigns to help fund their plans.  A few years ago we received a letter from a friend’s daughter who was a junior in high school interested in acting.  It was a pitch letter, a fundraising appeal asking if we would like to buy shares in her superstar future.  It was incredibly clever and for a certain contribution she promised tickets to her Broadway debut, slightly less, got a name on the bottom of her new tap shoes.  You get the idea.

If you’re considering a gap year, we urge you to think about what will be the most productive plan on your path to a successful college career.

We offer the following gap year essay example from a student who took a gap year and then applied to college. Note how the student described her year and the unique path it paved for college.

Gap Year Sample Essay

             Acting and singing were a pivotal part of my life in high school, but like most kids I was so busy with academics, athletics, and other extras that I didn’t have time to hone the craft as I would have liked.  Taking a gap year, I thought, would give me time to explore both the academic side of theatre, as I will study theatre history at X University next semester, and the performance side.

             I was lucky enough to spend this fall at The National Theatre Institute, which is part of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut.  Through the intensity of the regimen, the rigor of the classes, and the creative pressure of the collaborative process at NTI, I strengthened my craft and theatrical vision. Within the first week I was rehearsing late into each evening and two weeks in I was working scenes outside of the curriculum with peers in my room every night. 

           Jerzy Grotowski states, “The one goal of all humanity, its true mission, is to achieve mastery before the flower of youth fades.” I realized, after spending this fall at NTI, that I am in my “flower of youth” and there is possibility of mastery during this time in my life.  I know now how definite the return is on effort: The more work I put in, the more I can take away.  

            The motto of the O’Neill Center is “Risk, fail, risk, fail again.” Getting over a fear of failure is an incredible lesson I’ve taken from NTI.  It’s impossible to learn without failure, and to avoid failure is to mar my own education. Throughout high school I made sure to succeed at whatever I was doing.  But I can see now that I failed to fail. Risks are how we truly learn who we are and what we can do. I risk it all every day when pursuing the craft of acting. When working on a scene in which my character cries, what happens if instead I throw a chair against a wall? What if I run into my scene partner’s arms?  I’ll never create great work without first knowing my boundaries. Once I’ve gone all the way, once I’ve failed, then I can find true success. 

            An artist’s most powerful attribute is versatility. As an actor I must strive to amass knowledge and abilities to best serve the director in his or her vision of what the playwright intended. At NTI, I was given the opportunity to play every role in a production. I directed pieces, designed sets, managed sound and created costumes. Each class at NTI gave me skills I could directly apply to the next class that day. In the morning I might design a set for The Bacchae and learn about bodies in space. That afternoon in Contemporary I would apply that sense of space to a movement piece I created, or how I staged a theatre in the round scene in my Shakespeare class. The following day I applied all of these elements when I directed a scene from Angels in America.

            Every actor and actress I met this fall, from Broadway to the Royal Shakespeare Company, said the same thing: “An artist never stops learning.” I am eager to learn much more about theatre history next semester at x University and am eager to be part of a vibrant college theater department next fall.

Gap Year Resources

Teen Life Gap Year Programs:

USA Gap Year Fairs:

Brown Gap Year Resources:

Harvard College Gap Year Advice and Info:

URochester Gap Year Resources:

Yale Gap Year Resources:

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