Advice for America's college-bound: Wait

Posted: Sunday, November 08, 2009

Parents of high school seniors across the country have hired me as an admissions consultant. They want assurances that their children will be attending top colleges a year from now.

Again and again, I say: "I hope not."

To their surprise, I explain that I'd rather see most of these young men and women far from a campus for a while. I urge them to bus tables in a restaurant, apprentice for an architect or pull weeds on a community farm. In their free time, I add, they should devour a stack of great books.

During nearly four decades as a high school guidance counselor, I had generally recommended a "gap year" only to students who needed to mature. But in this wheezing economy, when jobs are precious and even state colleges are increasingly expensive, I have become a believer in the educational and financial benefits of taking a breather.

I've watched too many students get caught up in the admissions arms race and spend their high school years preening for colleges. They rocket through advanced-placement classes; they push their SAT or ACT scores to the 98th percentile. Yet they don't slow down to reflect on who they are and who they want to become. Soon after plunging into their dream engineering or pre-med program, many realize that they aren't cut out to be engineers, doctors and the like.

Others have been hurtling from activity to activity since preschool and can't deal with unstructured hours. They waste their first year of college watching Jon Stewart online when they should be reading John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty."

Pausing for 12 months also gives a family a chance to make a realistic budget. The average student-loan debt among graduating college seniors last year was nearly $23,200; I've met plenty of middle-class youngsters who are shackled by $70,000 or more in debt before they even begin graduate school.

Several European countries promote a "13th year" that allows teenagers to earn money, take some courses and travel. President Obama inadvertently gave a boost to the gap year by increasing Pell Grant awards for students from low- and moderate-income families next year. Some families are reportedly delaying college until the extra money is available.

American colleges need to encourage gappers. Reed College, a liberal arts school in Portland, Ore., allows admitted students to defer entrance for a year, after submitting a plan for their activities that year, and nearly 7 percent take up the offer. The son of Reed President Colin Diver took a year to learn carpentry. H. Keith H. Brodie, a psychiatrist and president emeritus of Duke University, told me recently that he believes freshmen who delay college for a year tend to be more altruistic and empathetic because brain development continues into late adolescence. He advocates gapping so long as students have a mentor, a plan for intellectual growth and a commitment to do public service.

There is a bonus for colleges and students in making the gap year widespread: It will ease the stress of the admissions process. Students who don't get into their first- or second-choice school during 12th grade will have another shot. Or maybe - just maybe - the extra maturity will allow them to realize that college is about the fit, not the brand.

Ultimately, the gap year could put private consultants like me out of business. That's a fine side benefit. It would make the admissions game more equitable for students, no matter when they decide to go on to college.

• Gwyeth T. Smith Jr., a college admissions consultant in Oakdale, N.Y., was the subject of the book "Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges - and Find Themselves."



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