Seniors embark on gap years

Ceci Coughlin and Alex Lautin

At Horace Mann, only a few kids take a gap year annually, Executive Director of College Counseling Canh Oxelson said. 

Some students use gap years as a time to step off of the “academic treadmill,” Oxelson said. “Taking a break between high school and college can actually lead to a better first year of college.” 

Other students use their gap year to reapply to college. In some cases, colleges, such as the University of Chicago and Harvard University, ask students to be admitted for the following fall as an enrollment management technique if the incoming class is already full. 

Students who use gap years as a break from academics tend to travel, pursue various internships, teach, tutor, and work, Oxelson said. 

In a 2015 national survey conducted by the American Gap Association and Temple University, 92% of students took a gap year to gain life and experiences and grow personally, 85% to experience other cultures and travel, and 82% to take a break from the academic track. Half wanted to explore academic options and volunteer.

Due to the pandemic, the number of freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania taking a gap year for the 2020-2021 school year increased from an average of 50 to 200 students, a 300% increase, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

This year, Mandy Liu (12) considered taking a gap year because of the limitations caused by the pandemic. However, Liu ultimately decided against the gap year because she misses in-person classes and wants to stay on a school campus, as she has spent the school year with her family in China, she said.

Alexander Shin (12) will be taking a gap year to take a break from academics, he said. The following year, he will attend Rice University, where he will most likely study Anthropology and Linguistics, he said. “At school, it’s very easy to get caught up in academics, going from assignment to assignment, from test to test, from year to year, and not really being able to take a step back and understand what you’re doing it for.”

During his gap year, Shin will spend three months of his gap year in China, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia for a service-learning trip. Shin also plans on attending Gastronomicom, a culinary school in Agde, France, and working at a restaurant as a line cook. Shin has enjoyed cooking for his family since he was young. His first experiences in cooking were helping his mom make dinners, and he has since progressed to cooking whole meals for his family. “I don’t know if I’m necessarily going to be going into the restaurant industry, but [cooking] is a skill I want to be able to develop,” Shin said.

Shin’s family preferred that he not take a gap year at the start of the college process, he said. The financial burden of a gap year can be a cause for concern for many families, Oxelson said. “With a gap year, you are paying for things like travel, depending on what you want to do.”

Alex Gerstenhaber (12) is taking a gap year to travel and explore his passion for photography. “I really enjoy seeing different parts of the world and meeting new people, and I thought that taking a gap year was the best opportunity for me to do that before I dive into a very competitive university and professional atmosphere.”

Gerstenhaber will travel to and take photos in parts of South America before going to Harvard University, where he will study government or computer science. 

Samuel Schuur (12) is taking a gap year to work on electric motor design at Berkeley with a company called ALM Works, he said. “I’ve always been into engineering, but I’m not totally sold on it, so I think it would be kind of cool to spend a year in a more industrial setting and see if that’s for me.”

Parents and students tend to be uneasy about taking gap years — students worry that they won’t graduate college with their high school class, Oxelson said. “But when you graduate from college, you are in a work world with everybody else, not just people in your class that you went to high school with.”

In addition to cost concerns, Shin’s family was apprehensive because they wanted to make sure that he would use his time effectively during his year off.

Schuur was also hesitant to take a year off, as he was afraid he would fall behind academically. “I certainly had a stigma of gap years, at least from my Horace Mann experience,” he said. “I’ve been a little bit closed-minded about it.”

However, after completing the college application process, Schuur felt more comfortable in his decision. “I talked to some friends who were seniors last year who chose to take a gap year and they were having an awesome time with it,” he said. Schuur’s aunt and cousins also talked to him about gap years and said they wished they had taken one because they felt they weren’t mature enough to go straight to college.