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On taking a ‘Gap Year’ by Matt McGann '00

Consider taking a year before entering college.

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 2014 and would like to request a one-year (or sometimes two-year) deferral from starting at MIT, it is super easy to do so. On your online reply form on your MyMIT portal, just choose

I will enroll at MIT and I request to defer my enrollment until the term beginning:

And then choose one of

  • September, 2011 (1 gap/deferral year)
  • September, 2012 (2 gap/deferral years)

We will then ask you to write us and tell us what you plan to do. We will grant a deferral for almost any reason (but generally not for continued schooling at a high school or university other than MIT). Come up with somewhat of a plan, and you’ll probably be fine. Some MIT students in recent years deferred to spend a year in Israel, others to do intensive music study, others to read the great books. What you do is up to you.

I should also note that if your gap year plans are not certain by the May 3 enrollment deadline, you can instead select the “Enrolling” option on the reply form, and then you can request a deferral any time right up until Registration Day in September (though I strongly suggest you do so well before that). No worries.

And if you already have submitted your reply form telling us you’re enrolling, again, no worries: you, too, can request a deferral any time right up until Registration Day in September (though, again, I strongly suggest you do so well before that).

Blogger alum 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 few years back, the Associated Press has a nice story about “gap years” that was picked up by news organizations across the country. Since a number of 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.

“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 addressed 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.”

My friend Shaun over at the blog The International Counselor did a gap year entry that I have liked to link to, 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.

From my years in admissions, the overwhelming sentiment from students who have taken a gap year has been:

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.

8 responses to “On taking a ‘Gap Year’”

  1. iso says:

    Matt, how about students who were rejected and still hope to gain admission for next year? Is a year off or transfer the better way to go?

  2. iso says:

    *Next year meaning class of 2015 if year off, and 2014 if transfer.

  3. Ramya '14 says:

    Matt, this is a great post.

    I’ve had a few stray thoughts here and there about taking a gap year before college. But I’ve kind of shooed them out of my mind because it’s not what “good students” do. I thought that after HS I’d have some time, finally, to sit down and do what I love to do without interruptions. Maybe go on an adventure and see the world while I’m at it. But without taking a gap year, it’s like I’m going to have to wait four more years until I have time “away.” I don’t really want to keep waiting for that time to come.

    Then again, if I took a gap year…right now I’m worried about keeping myself from doing nothing. I’d need an awesome structured plan type thing ahead of time, fo’ sho…

    Anyways, I really appreciate these insights.

    I’m still considering it at this point – we’ll see how it goes. It’s great that MIT allows us to send a notice of taking a gap year later on.

    My only concern is that I don’t want to get older during the year I take off – is that possible? Is it a bad thing I feel old already [though I’m not]? Haha.

  4. Ramya '14 says:

    OH!!! I ALMOST FORGOT!

    Matt, I have a QUESTION: *

    Is it better to take a year off before or after you get into college?

    Rephrased:

    Should you apply to college as a senior [the normal way] and request a gap year once you get accepted, or should you take a year off BEFORE applying to college?

    Thanks!

  5. Amethyst says:

    @iso and Matte: Seconded question. I am happily locked in at Vanderbilt, but I am still deeply curious about the idea of taking a gap year. My dad and I have discussed it a lot–time to go back over subjects I wanted to strengthen, read the entire St. John’s College reading list, learn to build robots, do some artwork without stress–sounds really great! But I wonder about how it would affect a rejected 2014/transfer student. Would a student rejected once have any more or less of a chance if they decided to try again the next year? Or does it depend on what they do with the time? For instance, if a student took a year to get an internship with NASA or something, do independent study, etc., and could demonstrate how much they got out of it, would that be a good thing? Again, I am just curious smile

  6. Niki says:

    I’ll happily testify to MIT’s gap-year-friendliness: I’m in Germany right now on a vocational exchange program (e.g. culture, language, and internships) and I had a response LITERALLY fifteen minutes later — despite it being already eleven-something PM in MN, later in Boston — encouraging me in my choice.

    It wasn’t a form letter, either.

  7. VAL '14 says:

    I’ve toyed with the idea of taking a gap year… I just have one question: How do you find all of these sweet internships to do during your gap year (especially those overseas)? I’ve looked at some exchange programs, but I’m trying to make money- not lose it. Can anyone lend me a hand with this?

  8. Another great post on taking a Gap Year. smile

    Ramya, I took two years off and then applied to MIT, but if I had felt prepared enough to apply while still in HS, I would have done so. It takes a lot of stress away during your time off if you know you’ve got a college waiting for you at the end! That said, there is no “right path” for everyone, so see how your academic preparation, test scores, and other things size up during senior year. If you feel that a gap year would benefit you before applying, be ready to talk about how you made that additional year count. smile