by Benjamin P. Stern, Founder & CEO of IvyAchievement
Taking time off from studies between high school and college (a “gap year”) is becoming increasingly common. Nearly 20 years ago, education professionals at Harvard University (including long-time Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons) wrote a comprehensive argument for why a gap year is beneficial. I encourage everyone to read their piece, entitled Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation, which was originally published in The New York Times. Since the article was written, many colleges have followed Harvard’s lead—as they often do in admissions—and routinely encourage students to take time off. In 2019, the arguments for taking a gap year are even stronger.
I would like to use this article not to re-hash or summarize the Harvard article, but to highlight and elaborate upon considerations specific to international students and their families. First, Part A discusses why international students would benefit from a gap year. Next, Part B addresses common objections families have to taking a gap year. Finally, Part C addresses the few situations in which a gap year might not be advisable. (Click on any of the links to skip directly to that part!)
The majority of applicants to American and Canadian colleges apply when they are still in high school. Traditionally, students who take time off before college first gain admission and then defer matriculation for a year so that they can take a gap year. (I did exactly that, deferring my Early Decision acceptance to Columbia University.) However, nearly all colleges allow students to apply after senior year. For reasons I will discuss below, applying during a gap year rather than the final year of high school makes more sense for international students. It is no wonder this option is becoming more popular!
The main reasons to take a gap year are: (1) it’s healthier both mentally and physically; (2) it makes for a stronger candidate; and (3) it makes students more prepared for college. These factors are especially applicable to international students. Let’s explore each of these independent and individually compelling reasons:
The pressure of high school and the college admissions process is well documented and familiar to all aspiring college students. The Harvard article discusses this at length, including how pressure to get into the “right” school starts in infancy. But international students have it particularly tough.
In many countries, pressure to perform well academically is overwhelming. The United States has no standard curriculum and most top colleges use holistic admissions processes, so there is no single factor that determines admission. (Some states have a Board of Regents that conducts examinations, but these exams are used only for admission to state schools.) In contrast, many countries have national curricula and/or college entrance examinations. For example, India has two national curricular options, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examination (ISC), as well as state-administered boards that mirror the national curricula. The highly competitive Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) determines admission to the top engineering schools, and the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) conducts a competitive exam for entrance to their professional-track MBBS program. Colleges other than IIT and AIIMS often use the top schools’ exams for their own admissions purposes. All students in Vietnam take the National High School Graduation Examination, which is now also used for college admissions purposes (the Vietnamese Department of Education used to conduct a separate entrance examination). China, Korea, and many other countries have national exams as well. These national exams, unlike the SAT and ACT, are given once a year, meaning a minor illness or even just nerves can have a huge impact on a child’s future.
Culture plays an important role too. In countries like India, China, and Vietnam, there is immense cultural pressure to perform well, and kids often feel their value lies in their performance on these board and entrance exams. Each May, I see parents in India posting on Facebook and sharing WhatsApp messages bragging that their child scored well on board exams. Exam coaching centers take out full-page advertisements in newspapers and fill up billboards with names and pictures of their state and national “toppers.” I’ve worked with students who have been beaten with belts, shoes, and even cricket bats for attaining low marks, and parents seem to have no regrets about meting out such punishments. Exam results can directly affect marriage prospects: Indian matrimonial ads will prominently feature “IITan.” There is even an Indian matrimonial site specifically for graduates of IIT and IIM (Indian Institute of Management), featured in The Wall Street Journal. Students from countries with this type of achievement-centered culture face a level of pressure beyond what most American kids face. (First and second-generation immigrant families may relate more.) This means that literature regarding the pressure of dealing with college admissions should be taken even more seriously.
A gap year does not resolve the societal and cultural factors that pressure children and drive stress levels to unhealthy extremes, but delaying the college admissions process until after graduation can help alleviate the pressure. The college admissions process for American colleges involves standardized testing, listing extracurricular activities, writing essays (often 50 or more), and soliciting letters of recommendation. It is very difficult to juggle all these activities while living up to parents’ expectations for academic performance. By allowing their kids to take a gap year, parents can make things a little easier for their children while not compromising on their expectations. In turn, kids will be able to focus on doing the best they can. Taking a gap year simply makes sense for both parents and kids.
Taking a gap year can also improve physical health. Kids all over the world are exercising less and spending less time outdoors. A gap year can give kids an opportunity to be more physically active. Also important is sleep: a well-planned gap year can be challenging and rewarding, yet allow for a healthy amount of sleep for a teenager. Students struggling with their weight can use a gap year to establish good habits, and weight loss is much easier when stress levels are low (and ages 18-19, when metabolism is high). College (especially in rigorous programs like engineering, computer science, and business) is challenging, and kids should enter as healthy as possible. A gap year is a great opportunity to get healthy.
With very few exceptions, a student will be a stronger candidate with a gap year than without one. This is because a gap year leads to better academic outcomes, a more comprehensive extracurricular profile, and more time to work on applications.
The academic benefits to taking a gap year are obvious. American college preparatory schools design curricula and schedules around college admissions. Teachers are aware of the college admissions process, high schools hold college fairs and host college representatives for information sessions and interviews, and exams are scheduled so as to not interfere with admissions. Because American high-school seniors spend a lot of time on college applications and then tend to “slack off” toward the end of senior year, many high schools have introduced alternative senior-year programs, in which students take few or even no classes at all in their senior year. The American holidays of Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November plus the following Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) and the ubiquitous Christmas break (from December 24 until January 1) are conducive to allowing kids to work on their college applications before November 30 and January 1 deadlines (or, perhaps more accurately, deadlines are scheduled to allow kids to work over these breaks from school).
International curricula and academic schedules are geared toward national exams and have breaks according to national holidays. For example, Indian schools begin the school year in April. Midterm examinations are held in September or October, then schools break for Diwali, and then have preboard exams beginning in November or December. This makes it extremely difficult for students to adequately prepare for the September, October, November, and December SAT and ACT administrations, which are the last opportunities to achieve target scores for the application cycle. Vietnamese schools, on the other hand, begin in September but have no holidays more than a day long until Tet, the lunar new year, which can fall out anywhere from mid-January to late February. September testing dates are feasible, but there is little opportunity to work on college applications in the fall. But even if testing is out of the way (I find it rarely is), students still have to contend with juggling college applications and schoolwork.
Not having to worry about international college admissions means students can focus on performing well, which is important for both domestic and international admissions.
A gap year makes a huge difference academically for Indian high-schoolers in particular. Indian high schools tend to evaluate their 11th grade exams as well as their 12th-grade midterm and pre-board examinations harshly in order to encourage students to study harder an improve. It is not uncommon for a student with an 11th-grade final average of 70% and a 12th-grade midterm average of 75% to score in the mid-to-high 90s on 12th-grade final exams. Some teachers go so far as to award no grade above 80% in some subjects! These grades have no consequence whatsoever for college admissions in India, but they are quite consequential for American and Canadian college admissions. Many Indian high schools—even ones where a large proportion of kids go abroad—pay little regard to this fact.
I am often asked by Indian students and parents how to explain or compensate for lower 11th final and 12th midterm and preboard marks. There are various ways to mitigate the impact of these lower scores (such as having a counselor indicate the student’s performance relative to others in the class), but there is only one answer that is 100% reliable: get high marks on final exams and apply next year. There is no substitute for the psychological reassurance an admissions officer gets when seeing scores above 90%. It also happens to be the case that some Indian students do achieve marks in the high 80s and low-90s in 11th finals and 12th midterms, and these students have an advantage in the admissions process. For kids without these scores, taking a gap year can help reduce this advantage. (Note that Indian students with high 11th marks still have an advantage and should still take a gap year.) Although this situation may not hold true in all countries, 12th-grade final results are generally more important than 11th-grade results for gap year applicants.
Taking a gap year also gives students more time to take standardized tests (SAT, ACT, and/or TOEFL). All but a few colleges accept standardized testing in the year after high school. It is much easier to study for the SAT or ACT without balancing test preparation with school, and even knowing that one will have a gap year available to re-take an exam may reduce pressure during exams taken in 12th grade. Additionally, students who take a gap year have the advantage of being able to include the results of AP exams taken after 12th grade. This is a natural time to take them in countries like India, where subject curricula span two years and 11th grade is usually too early to take APs.
Perhaps the most important part of taking a gap year is the opportunity to develop extracurricular activities. To revisit our comparisons with American prep schools, those schools offer copious opportunities for extracurricular activities. Outside of school, organizations offer opportunities for personal development, community service, and general resume-building.
A gap year provides a chance for international students to do something significant that does more than just “pad” their resume. As the Harvard authors explain:
Occasionally students are admitted to Harvard or other colleges in part because they accomplished something unusual during a year off. While no one should take a year off simply to gain admission to a particular college, time away almost never makes one a less desirable candidate or less well prepared for college.
Harvard officials state unequivocally that taking a gap year can increase your chances of getting into top colleges. When they state that “no one should take a year off simply to gain admission to a particular college,” the authors are saying here that you shouldn’t take a year off just to get into Harvard, MIT, or any particular college of your choice. They go on to say that overall, a gap year is likely to make you a stronger candidate, and what you accomplish on your gap year can even be the distinguishing factor that makes a difference between admission and rejection.
For students at international schools with more extracurricular opportunities, a gap year can provide a chance to truly “stand out from the pack.”
Besides making students stronger “on paper,” a gap year allows kids and families to be more prepared for college. Going off to college is an important and major transition for kids and their families. It is a psychologically complex process for kids and parents alike. For most kids, it will be their first time living away from home, except perhaps for a summer camp. It can be difficult to move a few hundred kilometers across a state, let alone thousands of kilometers across an ocean—as most international students do. Students who have taken a gap year will be older and likely more mature and now better able to handle the separation. The gap year itself can (and often should) include time away from home in order to ease the transition. American college kids almost universally spend the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks at home with their families, and many American college students can hop on a plane or even head home for a comfort weekend any other time of the year (and parents can do the same to visit their children). Due to travel times and visa restrictions, international students and parents—even ones who are well-off—usually do not have this luxury. Thus, by easing the transition to university life, entering college after a gap year can foster long-term success.
Because taking a gap year is not the norm for international students, and because parents have a conception of what is “supposed to” happen with college admissions, I often encounter resistance when suggesting a gap year. I will address the most common objections here:
As the Harvard authors noted, “time away almost never makes one a less desirable candidate or less well prepared for college.” The authors have to hedge and say “almost” because it is possible for a gap year to be used ineffectively—for example mostly playing video games and/or engaging in leisure travel without cultural exposure and education. However, this can easily be avoided with proper planning and supervision. There are plenty of great activities to do during a gap year. Here are just a few examples, out of many possibilities:
Given the mental and physical health benefits of taking a gap year, it is very, very unlikely the extra year will be a “waste.” If you have at least a rough plan in place, then you and your family will benefit from a gap year.
We understand that there is societal pressure to advance to the next stage in life. Kids want to feel like they’re growing up and parents want their kids to be “normal.”
High-school friendships, as cherished as they are, usually fade in college as new ones are formed. Even close romantic relationships usually fall by the wayside, as occurs with the so-called “turkey drop” before Thanksgiving weekend, as high-school sweethearts realize the challenges of a long-distance relationship and the opportunities to meet other suitable romantic interests. I can offer some advice for those worried about social life during a gap year:
To kids: It can be difficult to fathom an entirely different set of people in your life, but that is exactly what will happen when you go to college, whether it’s immediately after high school or not. During your gap year, stay in touch with your friends no matter where they are. If you’re home, you’ll get to see them when they come back for breaks; if you’re traveling, perhaps you can visit them. And if you end up attending the same college as one or more friends, your transition will be even easier, as you’ll have someone to turn to for advice and support.
You may also be able to do activities with other gap year students! As taking a gap year becomes more common, it is getting easier and easier to find other kids in a similar situation. Without the pressure of school, you may find yourself forming deep, meaningful relationships that will last a lifetime!
To parents: Your child may take some time to adjust to not having his or her friends around, but you can rest assured that he or she will make new friends in college. Colleges provide orientation programs where they integrate students and provide social activities. Being more mature will make it easier for your child to form meaningful friendships as well.
Finally, if parents and students take the advice of education professionals, taking a gap year will become the new “normal.” By allowing your child to take a gap year, you can be influential in making the whole process easier for your friends and family with younger kids who will be applying in the future.
With proper planning, a gap year will have minimal impact on your finances. If money is a concern, your child can get a job to help with their support. Letting your child take a gap year may even save you money, as several colleges have started to reduce tuition in a reversal of a long-running trend of tuition increases.
Additionally, the academic and extracurricular advantages your child will have make it much more likely he or she will qualify for a scholarship or get into a school that provides need-based financial aid. A $15,000 or $20,000 scholarship will more than make up for most gap-year expenses!
As discussed in the Harvard article, research suggests this is highly unlikely.
Parents worry that their sons and daughters will be sidetracked from college, and may never enroll. Both fear that taking time off can cause students to “fall behind” or lose their study skills irrevocably. That fear is rarely justified. High school counselors, college administrators, and others who work with students taking time off can help with reassurance that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
After four rigorous years of high school and stress, a child is more likely to be “burnt out” and less likely to excel academically. But that doesn’t mean the brain needs to take a break! Gap year activities can and should include intellectual pursuits. The college application process itself will be an intellectual exercise, as your child will be required to write many essays requiring self-reflection, creative thinking, and expository skills. Students who took a gap year almost always are glad they did, and “not being used to school” is a very rare complaint.
This is simply not true. The admissions process is not a contest to see who can handle to most stress; it is a quest to find the most qualified students who will contribute to the campus community. Extracurricular activities are not “hoops” to jump through. Colleges seek out students with unique skills and extracurricular activities because they want kids to participate in extracurricular activities on campus. Trying to “impress” colleges by getting high grades and test scores while engaging in extensive extracurricular activities and working on college applications is the wrong approach. College admissions officers want to see the ability to balance various commitments, but they would much rather see another year of skill development and intellectual exploration. Attempting to do everything simultaneously is a high-risk, low-reward proposition: if you are weak in any area, you will be at a disadvantage in the admissions process. If you are capable of balancing academics, standardized tests, college applications, and extracurricular activities (which is impressive but not particularly rare), then what you are capable of in a gap year could make you truly singular and an even stronger candidate.
This article was almost entitled “Why Every International Student Should Take a Gap Year.” Although a gap year is almost always beneficial, there are a few situations in which taking a gap year may not be advisable:
Recruiting for top athletic programs can start even before junior year of high school (11th grade). Coaches may already have recruited students and secured commitment letters by December nearly two years before college entry (for example, a commitment in December 2018 for September 2020 admission). If you have been recruited and have already committed to a particular program, it may make sense not to take a gap year and instead begin your four years of NCAA eligibility per your agreement with the athletic program. Just make sure to meet their minimum academic requirements.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people emigrate to escape violence, crime, and persecution. For many, college in the United States, Canada, or elsewhere is a ticket to freedom. If you can afford college (or are a strong enough candidate to qualify for the financial aid you need), then it may make sense to get a student visa and leave as soon as possible. But even if you are in such a situation, a gap year may be possible with tourist visas to other countries. The situation will differ from person to person and family to family, but a gap year may be less advised in some situations.
Occasionally, students take a year off during high school. Even in such a case, an additional year off after high school can be beneficial. However, if you’ve taken more than a year off, it may be advisable to begin your college career, perhaps at a community college or in your own country, and then apply for a transfer. Students who are conscripted into military service (for example in Israel, Singapore, and Germany) should also not take additional time off if they want to enroll in a four-year undergraduate program in the United States or Canada. Preferably, discharge from service should take place at least a few months before August.
For personal or political reasons, families sometimes want a domestic option for their children in case study abroad does not work out. Usually, taking a gap year is no impediment to enrolling in a domestic college. However, if for some reason no adequate backup school allows admission after a gap year, then taking time off after high school is not a viable option. Instead, a transfer application would be advised. Keep in mind that just because deferral of admission or applying during a gap year is not common in your country, that doesn’t mean it is impossible. If you are in such a situation, it would benefit you to research the policies of the public and private institutions in your country. We find this reason to rarely be an impediment.
That’s it. These are the only situations I can think of in which taking a gap year might do more harm than good. To sum up: if you’re not a recruited athlete, it is not dangerous for you to stay in your home country, you haven’t taken more than one year off from school already, and you have or don’t need a domestic backup school, you should take a gap year!
Thinking about applying to college and need help deciding if a gap year is for you? Schedule a consultation with IvyAchievement!