“Students taking a year off prior to Harvard are doing what students from the U.K. do with their so-called “gap year.” Other countries have mandatory military service for varying periods of time. Regardless of why they took the year off or what they did, students are effusive in their praise. Many speak of their year away as a “life-altering” experience or a “turning point,” and most feel that its full value can never be measured and will pay dividends the rest of their lives. Many come to college with new visions of their academic plans, their extracurricular pursuits, the intangibles they hoped to gain in college, and the career possibilities they observed in their year away. Virtually all would do it again.
Nevertheless, taking time off can be a daunting prospect for students and their parents. Students often want to follow friends on safer and more familiar paths. Parents worry that their sons and daughters will be sidetracked from college, and may never enroll. Both fear that taking time off can cause students to “fall behind” or lose their study skills irrevocably. That fear is rarely justified. High school counselors, college administrators, and others who work with students taking time off can help with reassurance that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Occasionally 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. “
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For advice on how to choose a worthwhile and sustainable voluntary project take a look at http://www.ethicalvolunteering.org/