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GAIN MATURITY IN THE GAP

Many students think that after 12 years of being on the educational treadmill, it's time to take a break. Other students just don't think they are ready for college academically or socially and recognize that a year away from the stresses of school could be a very smart move.

Kristin White, author of The Complete Guide to the Gap Year - The Best Things to Do Between High School and College, explains that a gap year is not a vacation. Rather, it is "a break from formal education in order to become immersed in another culture, to volunteer domestically or abroad, to gain experience and maturity, to improve your skills in a sport, language, the arts or academics, or take on some combination of any of these things."

A gap-year experience has been common in England and Australia for decades, but it has only recently gained traction here in the United States. Parents have been the toughest to win over, fearing that their children would take this sidestep and never head onto college.

But informal research has shown that "gappers" not only go on to college, but they do so with a greater sense of purpose and commitment.

Most colleges and universities endorse gap-year experiences, allowing students to defer entrance for a year.

If you're considering taking a gap year, talk to students who have done it and ask lots of questions. Former gappers love to share their experiences and are likely to attest to the benefits others have mentioned.

Gap advantages

You will grow and mature in ways you couldn't have anticipated. Gap students find themselves thrust into new situations, making decisions and interacting with new people all the time. Some students choose to work, do an internship, job-shadow or volunteer, and these experiences provide them with a glimpse into the real world.

You will be more excited about learning. This is one of the most powerful benefits of taking a year off before college. Students frequently return home and then head to campus ready to delve into their studies. They have a greater appreciation of the opportunities offered, from extracurricular activities to leadership programs.

You will be more focused and more confident. Few 18-year-olds are sure about what they want to study in college. Students who have taken a gap year report they "know themselves better" and that they have a greater sense of what they want to study and why.

You will be more likely to graduate. Gappers are more likely to stay in school. College dropout statistics are alarming. According to the American College Testing service, less than half of those entering traditional four-year colleges after high school will have graduated after five years. And 25 percent drop out during their freshman year.

Priceless experience. William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions and financial aid, says most students participating in a gap-year experience think its full value "can never be measured and will pay dividends for the rest of their lives. Virtually all would do it again."

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.

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