Why taking a year off, during or before college, might offer the greatest life lessons.
Meet Zach Hofeld. Six-foot-two, Hollywood handsome and ripped (as the girls say), he’s sitting at an outdoor table in downtown Winnetka discussing the past year of his life. “I always equated taking a gap year with a negative,” he says as he looks down, hands clasped, elbows on his knees, to collect his thoughts.
When he finally looks up though, the twinkle in his brown eyes promises the happiest of endings. “But now I know that a gap year is like starting life. This has been the best year of my life.”
Taking a year off—a gap year—is common practice in Europe and Down Under (namely Australia and New Zealand), but it does not yet enjoy the same acceptance and prestige in the United States. However, each year more Americans embrace gap years, and Hofeld’s experience demonstrates why.
American youth—especially those who grow up in the highest-achieving and most affluent neighborhoods—often benefit from the decompression, perspective and self-awareness that gap years offer.
Furthermore, the most elite universities have watched too many students disconnect and drop out. A student tour guide during a recent Stanford campus tour referred to the school’s growing concern about the sophomore dropout rate.
In 2002, Harvard University’s dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, published Time Out or Burn Out, which forcefully advocates for students to “take some sort of timeout before burnout becomes the hallmark of their generation.”
Fitzsimmons and Harvard now practice what they preach, by encouraging every admitted undergraduate student to consider Harvard a five-year experience and take a gap year before or during their Harvard tenure.
Fortunately for Hofeld, Harvard offered him this opportunity. His gap year followed his 2006 graduation from New Trier High School. He starts at Harvard, where he will play varsity baseball and possibly basketball, this month. As Hofeld’s letter of admission explained, “In previous years, students who have taken time off prior to freshman year have been among the most outstanding members of their Harvard classes.”
So what does a future Harvard graduate do with a year off? For Hofeld, the “gap” experience included four months studying and traveling in Europe, followed by internships with his father’s law firm, the American Cancer Society and the Obama For America presidential campaign.
But his mother’s February death from a long struggle with cancer clearly honed an attitude that launched Hofeld into a more meaningful, as well as successful, life.
“Last summer, the best part was the down time, “Hofeld explains. “I relished just vegging out.” Again, he grimaces, leans forward and drops his head.
When he sits up though, he exudes energy. “This summer, that’s what I hate! I see all my friends doing it,” Hofeld smiles. “I understand, but hey…I want to tell them, ‘Do something, get moving, get involved, make a difference. You are young. You’re energetic. People have power to change things.”
Experts contend that gap years aren’t just for high-achieving students, and in fact, they aren’t just for students, period. “We help plan gap years for anyone age 14 to 84,” explains Holly Bull of the Center for Interim Programs, which is based out of Cambridge, Mass., and Princeton, N.J.
“Anyone, and everyone, can benefit from a gap year,” she says. Nonetheless, the majority of her clients are students.
Bull particularly enjoys the reaction of potential clients when she first describes the gap-year concept. “There’s literally a physical shift that you get to see. It’s wonderful. People choose—create—their lives for themselves, often for the first time.”
She continues, “They aren’t tested or graded, just asked to choose activities that make them feel connected to and valued by the wider world. That is why gap years are so successful.”
Bull describes the four types of students that they routinely help. A small percentage of them are high-powered students like Hofeld, but she says most clients fall into the following three categories: decent but uninspired students; really bright students who haven’t done well in typical academic settings; or kids with learning differences.
“A gap year allows these students to gain a sense of self-confidence and take that back to the classroom,” Bull continues. “They are motivated for the future.”
That gap years are expensive and only for students from wealthy families is a common misperception. “Gap years can save money in the long run,” Bull explains. “Think of all the kids who spend five or six years in college or those who graduate with a major that they never use.” CIP also awards need-based scholarships to help cover fees.
Hofeld did not use CIP’s services, nor has he met Bull. But their hopes for the future are the same. Like the administrators at Harvard, they believe that every student should be encouraged to take a gap year. And as our country’s growing population of disconnected and unhappy kids learn about gap-year successes like Hofeld’s, those hopes seem destined to come true.