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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Consider a Gap Year by Matt McGann '00

Deferring enrollment is an option you may want to consider.

As I do each year about this time, I’d like to talk a bit about deferring entry to MIT, also known as taking a gap year.

My hope is that you will at least consider, just for a moment, taking a gap year (read on for details). If you are a member of the Class of 2011 and would like to request a one-year (or sometimes two-year) deferral from starting at MIT, you can send a letter outlining your plans to our office:

Office of Admissions
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue, Room 3-108
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307

We will grant a deferral for almost any reason. Come up with somewhat of a plan, and you’ll probably be fine. Some members of the Class of 2011 are deferring to spend a year in Israel, others to do intensive music study. What you do is up to you.

A couple months ago, Anthony wrote an excellent post on this very topic:

So you got into one of the best, most stimulating and resource-rich universities in the world. Welcome – MIT’s an amazing place (no matter what you’re here to study), and I bet you’re really eager to come – not just for Campus Preview Weekend, but to start your academic and life voyage as a freshman this fall semester. You’re probably already planning your summer, the changes from home to college … what to bring, how you’ll spend those last days with friends and family, perhaps visiting your favorite childhood haunts in a last bid to say goodbye. But what if you held off on all that?

Sounds crazy, right? – because you want to get away from your parents as soon as possible, start your own life, and not be told when to go to bed and what not to eat… well, whatever the reason, college is a way to leave home that’s accepted by both your friends and your folks (no matter how conservative), and you’re all ready to GO. It feels like the “right thing to do,” because after high school, don’t all good students go to college? And besides, what else would you do to prepare for that promising future you’ve always dreamed of (and, no doubt, the one everyone *expects* you to have)?

Let me ask you something else: if you had an entire year to do anything you want, with unlimited time, no expectations, no SATs or class ranks or gossip or student club presidencies to get in the way… what would you do? Let’s just pretend that after you graduate, instead of just returning to school in the fall, you finally get to work on that dream project, tinker in that lab, or spend a year overseas (all expenses paid) teaching something you know and learning everything you never knew all at the very same time. And you’d wake up every day knowing that MIT’s just down the road.

A couple years back, the Associated Press has a nice story about “gap years” that was picked up by news organizations across the country. Since two years have passed, you’ll have to visit an archive to read the full story, but I’ve pulled out some choice quotes below for comment.

Many college admissions officers support the idea [of deferring admission for a year or two]. While cautioning that a “gap year” between high school and college isn’t for everyone — and that just goofing off isn’t worthwhile — they say many students who take one return more confident and self-aware. […]

Generally, schools make students submit a proposal beyond “lying on the beach,” but often little more is required. The University of Chicago says it will grant deferrals for almost any reason as long as students don’t apply elsewhere.

“It’s reached the point where a lot of us in admissions are talking about ways to get students to just kind of relax,” said Martha Merrill, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College.

We at MIT are among those college admissions officers who are supportive of students taking a gap year. And, like the University of Chicago (and many other schools), we’re happy to grant deferrals to most any proposal you might have. Also, we agree with Connecticut College’s Martha Merrill — as you’ve probably read on these blogs, we’re quite interested in finding ways of making college admissions and the high school to college transition less stressful and frenzied.

“Gap year” is a bit of a loaded term, I think, with images of British aristocracy vacationing in the south of France coming to mind. But during my years in admissions, I’ve seen students take some time before starting MIT for many great reasons. For example, one of my favorite students spent a year as an EMT in Israel before his freshman year. This gave him a lot of perspective on the world, and when he got his first bad grade at MIT, he knew that it wasn’t a disaster, but rather an indication that he might want to reexamine his study habits and try a little harder next time. No crisis. Ultimately, his impact on MIT and the students around him was great, and his mentorship, with the help of his gap year’s perspective, was invaluable to many students here.

The article also addresses the different kinds of gap years:

Gap years need not be a luxury for the rich. Some students use them to earn money for school. Many programs offer scholarships or compensation for labor; AmeriCorps offers a living allowance and education funding. Reardon says anyone would be hard-pressed during a gap year to spend the $30,000 or more many of them would be paying for college.

I’m not writing to say that all students should take some time off before starting college. But I do think that there is a bit of a stigma about such plans in many areas of the country, a stigma that should be eliminated. The AP writes:

In the United States, however, experts say the increasing stress of college admissions makes parents nervous about any kind of unusual path. “These are families that somehow see this as not part of the grand plan,” said Gail Reardon, who founded a Boston company, Taking Off, that helps students plan gap years. Adds Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania: “Not wanting to break stride is the American way.” […] “I don’t think there’s any rational explanation to just run to college,” [Gerrit Lansing, a student who took a gap year] said. “There’s no reason. It’s just what everyone does.”

Yesterday, my friend Shaun over at the blog The International Counselor did a gap year entry, focusing on an extraordinary gap year tale about a future Stanford student:

Parents often worry about kids taking a year off between high school and college. My parents worried when I announced that I was moving to Australia for a year. They feared I would never go to university (I did) nor return home (I did, at least for a time before itchy feet got me moving). Taking a gap year is a wonderful opportunity to focus on something important to you. Take Samantha Larson. Stanford happily deferred her admission for a year. Her plan: Climb Chomolungma also known as Mt. Everest. And she did. Not only that. She became the youngest person to completed the seven summits challenge–summiting the highest peak on each of the seven continents.

Some of you who attended Campus Preview Weekend may have attended our panel discussion on gap years, featuring four MIT students who have done it (including Anthony). My take away was this:

No one ever regrets having taken a gap year, but plenty of people regret not having taken one.

The bottom line here is that it is okay to slow down. Life, college, career — it’s not a race. Feel free to write me if you need more information about taking a gap year, I’m happy to help.

30 responses to “Consider a Gap Year”

  1. Anonymous says:

    First!!!

    Students should evaluate all their options thuoroghly, well done, Mr McGann…

  2. anon says:

    Matt,
    What do most students taking a gap year do about medical insurance?

  3. Riley Hart says:

    I wish I had taken a gap year back in 1984-85. I had a great college experience anyway, but after graduation, it was jarring to face a life that wasn’t either school or school vacation for the first time since I was 5! I would have been more confident had I done something other than school, for more than two months in a row.

    I hope that someday, the “gap” year will become the norm, and the people who will be asked to explain their choices will be those who go straight from high school to college.

    Thanks for this post.

  4. I’ve been toying with this idea in my head. I’d like to get farther in my pilot’s licensing and stuff, and catch up on everything, but I’m not sure..

  5. Anonymous says:

    How do you feel about a semester or a year off while in college?

    Thanks!

  6. Aaron says:

    Same question-what about taking a year off after we have more of an idea what we want?

  7. Amy says:

    Am I right to assume you would have to reapply for financial aid after your gap year?

  8. Omorx says:

    What about a transfer student, can he take a year off, too?

    Also, for a student admitted in say this year, for example, as a transfer student, what class does such a student belongs? 2011 or 2010?

    Finally, I understand that a student requires an average of 3 hours after class for 1 hour of in-class, preparing for such class to get an A letter grade, in a US college. Does MIT require the same, more than this or much more than this? (I’m trying to imagine how demanding MIT in comparison with other college/university).

  9. Carmel '11 says:

    ANTHONY: HOLD UP wait a minute.

    “…or spend a year overseas (all expenses paid) teaching something you know and learning everything you never knew”

    ALL EXPENSES PAID?
    Was that a hypothetical situation? or what? if you take a gap year, MIT helps you pay for it?!

  10. Anthony says:

    There are a number of scholarships available – MIT doesn’t provide specific support, but Matt has linked to a number of sources in his previous gap year blogs, I think. smile

  11. Kari '11 says:

    Carmel:
    No, MIT won’t pay, but there are several organizations out there that will. I’m not sure if its too late to apply, but I’d say if you’re interested you should give it a shot.

    I’ve been torn about this for years and now that it’s real I’m still no closer to making a decision. Recently I was given a letter to my future self that I wrote in a sixth grade english class, and it says explicitly, “do not go directly to college!” and coming out of the gap year panel at CPW I was convinced that I would spend next year traveling.
    But now I have my doubts, and I have a feeling that I might go directly to MIT and, despite what Anthony says, take a break in the middle.
    So who knows best? Kari, age 12 or Kari, age 18?

  12. Karen says:

    From a current-gap-yearer in Taiwan:

    Oh…I can’t sum it all up in one comment. It’s so completely worth it. It’s like meeting yourself all over again to put yourself in a different environment. It really changed my perspective on everything and gave me time and resources to try new things, and decide what I would like to focus on in the future and it’s FUN of course (not that MIT isn’t fun – there’s more than one type) and just. Yes. What a great post…

    if there are any questions about Rotary Youth Exchange, feel free to email me at my shiny new MIT email address…. fig at mit dot edu

  13. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to be bothering you , but a few of us are still wondering what will ever become of the poor, poor waitlisted people. How many will be promoted to the rank of proud MIT student?

  14. Anthony says:

    Hey guys smile

    We talked about taking time off *after* you get to MIT during the gap year panel at CPW – my feeling is that it’s better to take time off beforehand, if you can, because once you’re at MIT you’ll be involved in so many things (academic, social, extracurricular, research, work, …), and you won’t want to leave! smile

    That said, though, if you feel that you’d benefit from some personal figuring-out first — by all means, take time off in between your college years. Actually, one thing that many people do is take on a summer internship or two… it’s the best of both worlds: you don’t disrupt your school schedule, you still graduate on time (if that matters to you), yet you gain significant real-world work experience during your “off” time. In fact, companies that host interns do so specifically to groom future full-time employees.

    Honestly, I think that taking time off during college, at least at MIT, carries a bit of a stigma (unless you have a set plan, like a killer idea for a startup, or maybe a semester or year to travel and learn about the world). There is a general feeling that once you come, you should stay in and finish… the same feeling that probably deters many folks from taking a gap year beforehand. But if you’ve already been accepted to a good school, you can take time off after high school and rest easily, knowing that you’ve got something great in store, yet aren’t interrupting anything.

    To take time off before college, you’ve finished one thing (HS) and are about to start another (MIT), so you aren’t abruptly yanking yourself from any commitments, friends, or communities. IMHO, it’s the perfect, logical transition time to do something else for a while. And people always ask you what you did during your time off, in kind of a longing way, like it’s a really cool thing to do! wink

  15. Raj says:

    will i get some more info
    m from india i ve alwyz drmt to be in mit

  16. Justin, '07 says:

    Re: last question of Omorx:

    Complicated question. MIT’s credit system defines how many hours per week one should theoretically spend on it. Classes are typically 12 units. Two common breakdowns are “5-0-7” or “3-2-7” for 12 unit classes. The first number represents lecture time, the second, lab time, and the third, time out of class studying, preparing, etc.

    As you can imagine, this is very misleading. Many classes are notorious, in good and bad ways, to be over or under rated. Fortunately, there are the wise upperclassmen who have taken the classes before you to advise you and also many times course evaluations that give you an estimate of the effort people took.

    In short, it’s a complicated question since the “demand” of MIT, or a particular course, is a function of many things: the student, the professor, the TA, your other course work, etc.

    A better way to address the “how demanding is MIT in comparison …” is to ask students directly. I think some of these blogs will illustrate the academic life =) Even at a place where most things are referred to with numbers, it’s hard to quantify this question.

  17. Anonymous says:

    hey guys who is new dean of admission

  18. Ying Wei says:

    In my school, there are two school semesters ; one begins in january and ends in May, while the another begins in June and ends in abt the end of October. Therefore, after graduated from high school, i will have to wait for nearly one year before i study at university.I consider it as a gap year, haha smile

  19. madmatt says:

    anon — I don’t know what the common medical insurance solution is for students taking a gap year. Drop me an email if you like, and I can look into things.

    wings — taking a year to pursue flying sounds awesome!

    Anonymous1/Aaron — I think Anthony did a good job, from a student’s perspective, providing some guidance towards your question. Let me know if I can tell you more.

    Kari — good luck with your decision!

    Anonymous2 — expect more waitlist news soon.

    Omorx — I belive transfer students can take a gap year, but cannot continue at their current university or another university in most cases. As for class year, it’s your choice on what you want to consider yourself, and you’ll graduate whenever you complete your requirements.

    Anonymous3 — Stu Schmill is the Interim Director of Admission.

  20. -My- says:

    im looking to take a gap year to gain a different experience. But i’d rather choose the labor project, where can i get more information from? im currently staying in Asia

  21. Zev Chonoles says:

    I’m really, really sorry that this is off topic, but I couldn’t figure out any other way of talking to you.

    Just wondering – is it at all possible to get one of the MIT frisbees that you give out at the receptions? (I came as a guest to the 2005 ISEF reception – Kledin Dobi invited me to come along – and I got a frisbee, but it was stolen about a month ago, and I’ve really been wanting to replace it) Any reasonable price, shipping, etc. is fine with me. If they were available at the Coop website, I would just get one, but they don’t seem to be sold there.

    I appreciate any help you can give me on getting a frisbee, and I might see you at ISEF 2008 (I have a great project on Fermat’s Last Theorem in the works!) Thanks.

  22. lendz says:

    if one goes on a leap year, would you take people from the wait list for a ‘lucky year’ or 2, as sort of a replacement?

  23. lendz says:

    if one goes on a leap year, would you take people from the wait list for a ‘lucky year’ or 2, as sort of a replacement?

  24. Ian says:

    I thought about taking a Gap Year if I don’t get accepted and then applying again the next year. But realizing now that a Gap Year is OK after one is admitted makes the idea even more appealing. Do you think that discussing a gap year during the admissions process would bias the admission decision one way or the other?

  25. '11 says:

    Ian, I don’t think it would put bias on your application. However, I do think that your main focus in your application should be how the college is a match for you and how the resources and opportunities there will help you reach your dreams. I think the gap year plans could be mentioned as a side-plan rather than the main topic. But obviously this is the humble opinion of some 18 year old, take advice of many more ppl smile

    ————–

    Dear Matt, I seriously considered taking a gap year. I decided that it is not for me. I thought about it for a few weeks and intensely for a few days. I am glad I did. smile

  26. Anonymous says:

    Ian–
    If you talk about a kick-ass plan for your year I’m sure admissions would probably a)love to hear about it and b)think you’re a kick-ass person =).

  27. Ronny CHEN says:

    So MIT does support the idea of taking a Gap year! Thank God! I’ve been planning to travel around the world, with my Chinese passport which is gonna be full of visa labels, for years!

  28. Anonymous says:

    I know I’m being annoying… but how soon is soon (regarding the waitlist)?

  29. ingrid says:

    Hi Matt!
    Actually, I had never even considered taking a year off before college. All my high school teachers were so against it. But today it sounds like a great idea. Could you email me some more info about deferring entry and what information I have to send in order to request it?
    Thanks a bunch!

  30. Justin says:

    There is a general feeling that once you come, you should stay in and finish… the same feeling that probably deters many folks from taking a gap year beforehand.