More students opt for a gap year's opportunities

May 15, 2005

More students opt for a gap year's opportunities
By Ben Gose, Globe Correspondent | May 15, 2005

You've heard of the ''safety school." Is the ''safety year" next?

Students have long applied to a backup college in case their applications to elite schools don't pan out. Now, some are choosing a year off after high school -- for foreign travel, community service, or both -- to burnish a resume and perhaps increase the chance of getting into a highly selective college.

But will a year spent interning in Ghana, or volunteering in Appalachia, really help a student get into a competitive college? It could, but it's no guarantee, advocates for gap year programs and college admissions deans say.

''The truth is, sometimes people are better candidates because of the year away," said Williams Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid.

But Fitzsimmons cautions: ''Don't do it for that reason. The odds of getting into any of the highly competitive universities are very long indeed."

Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, believes students' chances for admission do improve after the year off, an approach that remains the most common with students from affluent families.

''It puts you into a whole different basket as far as the colleges are concerned," said Bull, whose company has offices in Princeton, N.J., and Cambridge. ''When you think about what colleges are looking at, it's the same old, same old -- head of the yearbook, blah, blah, blah."

Others in the admissions field say that students whose hearts are set on a particular university -- even after being rejected in high school -- should instead go to another college, earn top grades, and reapply as a transfer student.

''College coursework, rather than some experience students may have had on a gap year, would more commonly be the differentiating factor," said Judy Hingle, director of professional development at the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

Still, Bob Gilpin, president of Time-Out Associates in Milton, which help students find experiences and programs during their year off, said the escalating competition for Ivy League slots is boosting his business. Harvard University admitted a record-low 9.1 percent of undergraduate applicants last month, and Yale, Princeton, and Stanford Universities admitted fewer than one in eight applicants.

Gilpin said he has received twice the number of inquiries this spring than he has at the same time in any of the last three or four years.

But, Gilpin said, a ''nirvana experience in some exotic locale" isn't as valuable as other benefits of the gap year, such as demonstrating a commitment to community service and having second semester grades from senior year for the application.

''It's also a magnificent opportunity to redo standardized testing," he said.

Bob Quist, director of guidance and counseling at Lexington High School, said only about two or three students out of 400 Lexington graduates per year take a year off before college. A common reason they do so, he said, is to improve their admission prospects. He's working with one student this year who was devastated that she didn't get into a specific program at her favored college.

''She's now seriously looking at gap-year programs as a way to put herself in better stead," Quist said.

Taking a year off to get into a good college worked for Cris Nunez, who also was trying to deal with a black mark on his school record and prove to admissions officers that he had matured. Nunez was kicked out of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in March 2004 for smoking marijuana in his dormitory room. That spring, all nine colleges he applied to rejected him.

For the past 10 months, he has worked in Alaska for the Red Cross. He reapplied to colleges, touching on his expulsion and his Red Cross experiences in the application essay.

The University of Chicago, which rejected him a year ago, admitted him the second time around. This fall, Nunez will attend Swarthmore College, which he hadn't applied to while in high school.

''Had I gotten kicked out and just sat around for a year doing nothing, it would have been terrible," Nunez said. ''But I really made the most of it."

The majority of students who take a year off have already lined up a college before their gap year starts, counselors and others say.

Mariah Peebles, who graduated a year ago from Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, was burned out with class work by her senior year. After gaining admission to Harvard, she deferred enrollment, and worked with the Center for Interim Programs to design a year abroad.

She completed a language-immersion program with a family in France, backpacked around Europe, took a sailing course in Mexico, and rounded out her travels by volunteering at an after-school program in Peru and an orphanage in India.

''We are insular here on the Vineyard, and this year gave her the chance to see the world," said her father, Rufus Peebles, a psychologist. ''She's a much more mature young woman."

Ross Thuotte, a senior at Brookline High School, began thinking about taking a year off after learning about population growth and the AIDS epidemic in Africa in his environmental science class.

''We talk in my class about ways that people can help, but we don't actually do anything," Thuotte said.

He's headed to Senegal this fall to volunteer. He'll live with a family, take a language course, and choose how he wants to get involved locally, either through tutoring children, fostering AIDS awareness, or encouraging ecotourism. He will attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the fall of 2006. When he ran his plan past an admissions officer at UMass, she quickly signed off on the year away.

''She said it would add to the classes that I end up in, since I'll be able to share my experiences with other students," Thuotte said.

The Boston Globe

updated: 8 years ago