Minding The Gap
Corinne Guidi is an independent education consultant specializing in gap year planning. Corinne has explored the gap year adventure and the effects it has on the lives of those who take “time off” before starting college/university.
Since 2015, Corinne has been an active member of the Gap Year Association Research Committee, a group of professional gap year providers & researchers, working together to understand the profound effect a gap year experience can have. Bennett is happy & proud to have Corinne’s expertise to offer.
Last week, we sat down with Corinne for an insightful and thought-provoking session, as we asked for her answers to some of the most common questions students have about gap years. What follows are highlights from the session, together with a full transcript (edited for clarity). Annemiek Young, a senior educational consultant with Bennett, led the interview.
If you'd prefer to watch the entire interview as a single video, that's right here.
What is a gap year and why do students typically do them?
Corinne: So, if you were to Google “what is a gap year”, you're going to get a lot of very specific definitions. Probably the most adopted definition as the is that a gap year, that occurs after high school graduation, is this period of time off, outside of the classroom, where the student is engaging in intentional activities to develop themselves personally or professionally, or explore interests.
The reasons why they typically do them - we have research that tells us this, and then we also just have common knowledge. So, the research - the most recent survey that the Gap Year Association did in 2015 listed three reasons why students said they wanted to take a gap year (I think this was a survey of about a thousand students) -
1. wanting to gain life experiences and experience personal growth,
2. wanting to travel see the world and experience other cultures, and
3. just wanting a break from the traditional academic track.
Adding to those, I could say that sometimes there are specific reasons, like, maybe a student didn't get into their first-choice college. Maybe they were accepted but with conditions, like as a spring admit, but they want to have a traditional college experience and start in the fall. And then finally, some students opt for financial reasons to take a gap year, and that can get a little tricky because then some people call this “college delay”, but the trick here is that, if even those students who haven't taken time off with this intentionality - if we can help them to plan activities and supplement their job or whatever experiences they're going to have with something purposeful, then it can absolutely be a meaningful period of time off that will serve them well as they go on to college.
Can you give us some examples of Gap year programs?
Corinne: Absolutely. So, by “gap year programs”, what we are talking about are structured experiences. And, these are teams of educators and people that have come together to create everything from something right here in the USA that focuses on life skills and career exploration, to programs abroad that have a really strong cultural immersion or language immersion focus. Some of those have a volunteer piece or a service component.
In short, you could think of the structured gap year experience in three different ways. I think it's especially useful in the time of COVID-19 to think about this as well. We have the local experiences that we can create. We have domestic experiences, which we then expand to really find more offerings of structured programs. And then, also we have probably the most abundant selection and variety of international experiences, that often look like “study abroad”. These can be semester experiences on campus - it doesn't have to be all year long. They can be field experiences that have a strong “adventure” component - everything from Wilderness and Mountaineering, to Skiing, to Conservation and working with animals - there truly is something for everyone.
In your experience, what do students gain from taking a gap year?
Corinne: Well, I'd like to highlight that for me, the keyword here in “experience” is that I conducted my doctoral thesis on the phenomenon of taking a gap year. I had seven very in-depth conversations with students of very different profiles from all over the country, and those stories really gave me an inside look, not just at these one-word things that we say that students gain, but truly, the transformation. And, this experience of hearing their stories showed me that what is gained is such a formidable sense of maturity, growth, and confidence in the most unlikely ways. All of my research participants said to me, “wow, I never really stopped to think about all of this,” but having been probed the questions, they really had a moment to dig deep and reflect, and they realized what an impact their gap year actually had on them, growing, and even toward making the decision to go to college.
The short answer is - confidence. Maturity. They have time to step away and reflect on who they are. They have time to get a better understanding of the world in new spaces. If we talk about how students make meaning, which was central to my research - we make meaning and we find transformation in new experiences. New relationships. Pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone a little bit. Even the decision to not “follow the herd” and go straight to college is something that they carry with them, and this, in and of itself, bolsters their confidence. It makes them feel that they're in control of their decisions. It's a really amazing thing to see, and it was really wonderful to hear the stories.
I'm guessing that some interested students are nervous about delaying college. Can you comment on how colleges view gap years, in your experience?
Corinne: Many colleges encourage a gap year. If you Google “colleges that encourage a gap year”, you'll find among those, Ivy League universities, top-tier schools, small colleges… and that list is growing and growing. Especially today, even the words “gap year” have become more recognizable. More and more colleges are embracing this option, embracing all of the things that students are able to do and discover, and are actually helping students to gain access to those kinds of experiences.
We have universities like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Elon University, and Tufts University, just to name a few, that have their own in-house gap year programs. There is a separate selection process for that, but they do have that option available, and that's an incredible way for students who need the access, or the financial aid, to still have that direct experience if they're going to attend that university.
If you're able to tell a college what plans you have laid out for your gap year, that's going to be more favorable. Generally, that's what they want to see - they just want to know that you're electing to take a gap year for yourself, to grow, and to explore something deeper. In the end, they recognize that when you come to their college, it is going to make you a more motivated student.
Are there any reasons in your opinion that a student should not take a gap year?
Corinne: So, I think it's helpful to reframe this question and turn it back on the students. The first question that they should be able to answer is, “why do they want to take a gap year?” A gap year is a formidable opportunity to grow if the student takes some time to consider their personal goals, the practical skills that they may want to develop or obtain, and fields that they might want to explore as a career route.
One of the reasons that I might stop a student in their tracks of taking a gap year is if they know for certain that they want to go in a math and science field. A lot of that knowledge, we know is very sequential, and typically, they're going to probably want to go straight into their undergrad studies so that they retain those studies fresh!
How did you get into working with students on planning gap years?
Corinne: I was a World Language teacher for about 10 years. I taught Spanish in the USA, and I actually started my teaching career teaching English Language abroad for a couple of summers while doing my Master's Degree. That flowed into working as a college adjunct for some years, and then finally I taught in an independent school - I taught juniors and seniors in high school. So, in the same way that my personal life experiences fuel my love for helping families with Bennett with their school placements (my parents were expats here in the US), my personal college journey is a huge piece of why I love working with gap year students so much.
I didn't know what I wanted to major in when I went to college. I didn't really have anybody that knew me very well. You know, an advisor is there to help you work through prerequisites and such, but until you get to your junior year, you really haven't met a professor or a mentor that really knows you, that can help you explore and reflect on who you are.
I was really into journaling when I was that age and I studied abroad in Salamanca, Spain for one year - my last year of college. It wasn't until then that I had the experience of stepping away from my friends and family, and stepping away from the word “should” - all of the “should” that were around me. “You should do this”, “you should study this”.
Because, at the end of the day, the answers are inside of us, and I think that the point that should be made over and over about “why should you take a gap year?” is that it can give you a chance, not to find your passion, but to just get to know yourself. Passions can be cultivated too, and they come from our natural skills and our natural abilities. And so, if we don't have these different experiences, we don't have time to really explore – “what is it that I truly enjoy”, right?
When I go back and I read my journals, I realized that I did so much reflecting. I was asking myself some very big questions during that time, and I just think to myself how interesting it is - when I left teaching, I found myself standing in the midst of no semester coming up. No summer break. I realized that I, as a teacher, was in this perpetual wheel of school-year-summer-off-school-year-summer-off. So how interesting, the parallel to how students might feel when they are graduating high school, and that's all that they have known. So why not give them the chance to step off that wheel?
Annemiek: Thank you. What a compelling story.
From a purely practical perspective - is there an ideal time when students should consider applying to gap year programs?
Corinne: Yes. I regularly speak with high school juniors and seniors. Every now and again, you get parents who are already curious about the gap year, who have students that might be younger than that. It's never too early to start thinking about it, because what's important when planning a gap year is, essentially, the planning, and to allow it to be a gap. And, what allows it to fully be a gap that gives the student freedom is not having to worry about college.
So, we often encourage students to go ahead and use your counselors to go through the college application process and get your college acceptances. Then, thinking about your gap year, you would write a letter of deferral, asking for a deferral to your college. There's a lot of ways that you can find out if your college will accept a deferral. A lot of times, it's just as easy as picking up the phone and calling Admissions to ask the question.
Once a deferral has been granted, then the student can start planning the Gap year and applying to programs. Those deadlines typically extend into the early summer, so there's often a chance to do that planning once all of the college stuff is out of the way.
Is there a typical length for these programs? Are they all invariably a year and one must commit for that period of time or could you do a semester gap program?
Corinne: That's a great question. So, a gap year, even though it's called a “gap year” isn't always a full year, per se. A lot of students that are “gapping” will organize their gap year in different ways. They might spend the first half working and saving money, in order to maybe fund their own structured experience in the spring, or vice versa. They may opt to go work on an organic farm, where they are getting room and board in exchange for working on the farm. There are so many ways that you can plan your gap year. It doesn't have to be expensive. You can interweave a certain a certain percentage of independence and structured experiences to truly make it what you want, but does it have to be a full year? No. It can be any duration of time that you want. Do you want to start college in the spring? Then, sometimes you can just take the fall semester as a gap as well.
You hinted at my final question. Are these programs invariably very costly, or can they be structured in such a way that they are essentially revenue-neutral? If, for example, you work for part of the time and you perhaps stay a little bit closer to home?
Corinne: I think you answered part of that question yourself! The answer to that is yes. That's part of the value of working with someone like me, is that we would take some time to really consider those things, to consider budget, to consider timeframe, to consider goals, and weaving those things together to find a place where nobody is compromised, where the student is not compromising their dream. Maybe they want to study in Italy and learn Italian and study art - we want to make that happen. So, we’d go through a discovery process and make an outline of goals. There are a lot of programs out there, so it's just a matter of almost a “matchmaking” to see how we can make it happen in a way that makes financial sense for the participant.