May 25, 2007

No rush to college with gap year

While most incoming U of C first-years will spend their summers poring over college course catalogs and making dorm room shopping lists, a small portion will be making different preparations. Between 30 and 40 admitted students in each class opt to take a gap year before coming to school, said Ted O’Neill, dean of College Admissions.

The Admissions Office doesn’t insist on signing off on students’ exact plans for their year of deferral. Gap year students may do anything from traveling abroad, to working to save money, to fulfilling their country’s military service requirement, to “buying a truck and hitchhiking around the country with their guitar and dog,” O’Neill said.

Take current first-year Jenn Romero. Romero enjoyed observing village politics in her town in India and picking up reading from the nearby bookstore—with the added bonus of not having an essay due when she was finished.

“It was kind of nice to not have the pressure of writing a paper and analyze the things I was reading,” Romero said.

“Just having that year off gave me a lot of time to go to museums and to go to lectures when I wanted to. And that gave me the idea about what kind of classes I wanted to be taking,” said first-year Hannah Cooke, who spent last year in South Africa and Washington, D.C.

After her work in India on a small candle-making business, the academic life is a harsh change of gears for Romero.

“It has sort of shifted my priorities a bit in terms of the things I’m doing in life, so coming to school is a little difficult now since I feel like I’m not driven by a lot of things that [my] peers are driven by,” she said. “I can’t really measure my success or how productive I am as a person by assignments and things we do in class.”

While Romero educated herself for personal satisfaction during her time off, Cooke used a gap year to bolster her application and gain admittance to the University. Though she’s a good test-taker, her grades at her International Baccalaureate program high school in South Africa weren’t high, and she decided another year would make her a stronger applicant.

“I wanted to take a year off just to get my bearings,” she said.

Cooke got a sampling of the real world from jobs as a public affairs intern in the U.S. embassy in Johannesburg, a part-time worker at a video store, and an intern for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The experience gave her some insight as to how she’ll approach life after college.

“I think I’d never like to do the whole real world again without having close friends who lived near me,” she said, chuckling.

Cooke’s friends were initially surprised that she was not traveling straight to college, but that changed around August.

“When things started to get hectic with getting ready and figuring out classes, I think all of them were pretty jealous that I had that year,” she said.

Because the number of students who take gap years tends to be consistent, the Admissions Office doesn’t have trouble balancing the classes to account for these students.

“We have the expectation that the numbers will be the same each year, and one group will replace the other group,” O’Neill said.

The Admissions Office occasionally suggests that students take a deferral year before entering the College. This year, an admitted student was asked to join the Class of 2012 after his senior year grades dropped significantly.