Gap year lures best brains

September 4, 1998

PHILLIPS Academy, founded during the American Revolution, is consistently rated one of the best high schools in the United States. Its students go on to the top colleges and universities. Thirty-one of its 354 most recent graduates got into Harvard, 22 to Yale, 19 to Stanford and 12 to Princeton.

But 20 of these highly motivated students have decided to postpone their education for a year to travel the world in a practice previously unfamiliar here.

Spencer Godfrey plans to spend autumn in Central America before beginning college. "I decided I needed a break. You go through the system, and the system goes elementary school, middle school, high school, college. When you're going through that process, you're sort of programmed that, 'OK, I'm done with high school, it's time to go to college'."

That is a decision a growing number of Americans are making. There are no exact figures, but one measure of the trend is that at least six consulting firms have cropped up to help students plan an alternate activity to college.

Some stay home and work in anticipation of paying university tuition. But more and more are immersing themselves in foreign languages, teaching in third-world schools, doing research on big game reserves or sailing.

"After three years of thinking about nothing but intellectual things, my brain had been sort of strapped in," said Heath Cabot, a Phillips Academy alumna who studied in Oxford and worked for an outdoor expedition company before beginning college. "I got to look around me and learn some things I might not have learned."

More universities are willing to allow accepted applicants to take an extra year before enrolling; Harvard's letter of admission actively encourages it. Today, one out of five first-year Harvard students takes time off after high school prior to matriculating. Other top schools, including Brown University, now let freshmen start in the winter rather than the fall, giving them half a year off. The extra experience can improve the odds an applicant will be accepted by a college that rejected him the first time.

"There was a stigma around doing this previously," said Gail Reardon, who helps students find postgraduate programmes. "But now it's kids who are burned out and know they're going to spend four more years in a classroom and who decide to step out of this lock-step process."

So new is the phenomenon in the US that it does not have a name like gap year in Britain. Some call it the postgraduate, others the pre-matriculation or interim year.

The idea has particularly caught on with wealthy students who can more easily afford to travel or to undertake itineraries tailored for them by consultants such as Ms Reardon at prices of $150 an hour, not including the programme cost.

It is worth it to get off the educational treadmill, says Carolyn Aiello, who is heading to Prague in late September to work with mentally handicapped children.

"The mentality in my school was to continue. But I worked so hard that I couldn't envision myself going off to another school. I just wanted to have a change of pace," she said.

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