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Parenting: teens

Malia Obama part of growing wave of US students taking a gap year before college

Increasingly, high-achieving students in the US are doing what many in Europe have long done - take a year out before starting university. So what are the advantages, and the limitations?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 1:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 1:17pm

Malia Obama’s decision to take a year off before attending Harvard University in the autumn of 2017, announced by the White House at the weekend, reflects a growing trend among high-achieving teenagers to pursue other interests and get a respite from the academic grind that has come to define high school for many young Americans.

The Hong Kong pupils taking a gap year to recover from primary school

It will also provide her with a chance to experience college as the glare of the presidential spotlight has begun to ease, giving her a level of freedom that the daughters of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did not have on their respective campuses.

Malia, the older daughter of US President Barack Obama, has not decided what she will do during her year off, according to someone familiar with the process who asked for anonymity to discuss the private decision. “She has yet to even graduate [from high school], so she’s going to take time to think about her opportunities,” the individual said.

Harvard and many other prestigious US universities now encourage applicants to consider taking a “gap year” before starting college to alleviate the stress and burn-out that often result from their pressure-filled high school years.

Between 80 and 110 students defer matriculating at Harvard each year, according to Harvard’s website, double the number it reported four years ago.

An essay co-authored by Harvard’s dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, titled Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation, suggested that the constant “chase for the prize” has deprived America’s young people of the breaks they need while growing up, and problems can develop once they start college.

“Faced with the fast pace of growing up today, some students are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviours,” he and two colleagues wrote, noting that students themselves have suggested that a break after high school can be a remedy. “It can be structured or unstructured, and directed towards career, academic or purely personal pursuits. Most fundamentally, it is a time to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one’s accustomed pressures and expectations.”

American universities including Princeton, Tufts and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have formal gap-year programmes, which give students the option of participating in a structured year of service abroad or in the United States, depending on the institution.

But taking a gap year is still unusual, according to Bruce Vinik, president of Vinik Educational Placement Services, “given how driven students are ... to get to college, to graduate in four years and not to fall behind their friends and classmates.”

“It will certainly bring more attention to the idea it’s an option,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s going to lead to a huge increase.”

Five things to know about a gap year

How it works: Not all American universities allow it, and policies and programmes vary. Upon receiving their admissions letter, students may request delaying their entry for a year – or in less frequent cases, two years – outlining what he or she plans to do during their time off. In Harvard admissions letters, students are actively encouraged to consider taking a gap year. Once approved, during that year a student may need to provide updates or otherwise check in periodically to the university as a way to affirm their activities and continued interest in the university.

Interest in the US is growing: Gap years have long been popular in Europe, and more recently have begun to gain traction in the US. There are no official statistics kept on participation, but the American Gap Association found in surveys it conducted that about 30,000 to 40,000 students each year take advantage of the programme. It said in 2015, participation increased about 22 per cent from the previous year. The group reports that anecdotally, interest has been growing via participation in gap year fairs that promote the programmes. Still, the percentage of students who defer admissions for a year or more remains very small – generally 1 per cent or less of an admitted class.

What students typically do: Many students opt to spend some time abroad studying, learning foreign languages or volunteering with charities, according to a 2015 report by the American Gap Association, which cited students’ desire to experience personal growth, see the world and take a break from the traditional academic track.

Popular destinations for students according to the group were parts of Central and South America, Israel, India and Australia. But many students also reported doing volunteer or political campaign work, taking classes, travelling or doing outdoor adventures in different regions of the US.

Advantages of a gap year: Students who took a gap year typically say they entered college feeling more recharged and focused, while universities say those students often arrive on campus as better leaders – more civically engaged and motivated.

Anecdotally, “students come away much more mature and take their studies more seriously, and they are more assured of what they want to do major wise”, said Jeffrey Selingo, author of the book There Is Life After College. More important, Selingo said, they know what they don’t want to do.

Limitations: In part due to cost, students who take a gap year typically come from higher-income households, according to the American Gap Association. But Ethan Knight, executive director of the group, notes that some institutions, including Tufts University, Florida State University and the University of North Carolina, have begun to offer some forms of financial aid to give cash-strapped students exposure to a broader range of experiences before college as well.

Knight also advises that a gap year isn’t right for everyone. He says a student might not be a good fit if he or she doesn’t have a clear plan of learning or enrichment activities during the time off, or doesn’t feel that they are academically burnt out and are looking forward to classes.

“If a student really lights up at the prospect of going to college, then he or she is ready,” Knight said.