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The UnCollege Blog

Why Top Universities Want Students To Take a Gap Year

When I told people I was taking a gap year, they were surprised. But they were often even more surprised when they realized that I was deferring Stanford to do so. Wouldn’t the school question my academic integrity? Wouldn’t I fall behind my overachieving peers? Wouldn’t…? And so forth.

It surprised them to hear that top schools in particular wanted more students to take a gap year. What? Why?

    1. To prevent students from burning out. 

      Harvard University’s Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons, notes: “Particularly because selective colleges are perceived to be part of the problem, we want to do everything possible to help the students we enroll make the most of their opportunities, avoiding the much-reported ‘burnout’ phenomenon that can keep them from reaching their full potential.” Top schools want their student population to be mentally and emotionally healthy.

    2. To give students a chance to do what excites them. 

      A former student at MIT wrote: “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.” 

      Top universities want interesting people. And spending a year in the real world, working on what excites you, helps you grow into someone others want to be friends with. 

      William Fitzsimmons also notes that “[o]ccasionally 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.”

    3. To give students a chance to find what excites them. 

      Most people haven’t found the thing they’re excited about by the time they graduate high school, and that’s okay. But is college the only place where you can find what you’re passionate about? No… And is college the best place to find what you’re passionate about? Maybe not.

    4. To have students experience a different kind of learning.

      The insights you have while traveling in a foreign country, working at your first full-time job, or develop an independent project are often ones you can’t get by learning in a classroom, no matter how prestigious that classroom is. Top universities don’t gloss over this.
    5. To help students develop perspective.

      For the high school senior who’s used to being at the top of every class, and comes straight into a good university, there’s often the shock of good grades suddenly becoming more elusive. Matt McGann, the Director of Admissions writes: “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.”

For more research on Gap Years, read on here.