Image: Gap year flier
Dynamy Internship Year
A poster advertises USA Gap Year Fairs' first event of the 2010-11 season.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/8/2010 6:04:20 PM ET 2010-11-08T23:04:20

With long days of AP classes, evenings and weekends overloaded with homework and extracurricular activities, endless studying for SATs and ACTs, filling out college applications and writing the dreaded college essays, it's high-stress time for many high school seniors.

“I’ve only seen the high stakes of college increase pressure in families,” said Fred Kaelin, executive director of Dynamy Internship Year, a U.S.-based residential gap year program. “The idea of any kind of pause almost doesn’t even dawn on people.”

Taking a gap year — time off between high school and college — is designed to be a break from academics before college, for personal growth, travel, or to participate in community service or internships. It is common in a number of European countries and Australia.

Experts say no one tracks the exact numbers of American students taking gap years, but most agree the trend is steadily growing in popularity.

Creating awareness
Gap organizations often attended college fairs in the past, but were largely overlooked because of the strong focus on college, Kaelin said. So Dynamy founded USA Gap Year Fairs in the fall of 2007, structured like job and college fairs, to bring awareness to the gap year concept and offer students and parents the opportunity to learn about a variety of programs, have “face time” with senior staff and to meet and exchange information with other students and parents.

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On Nov. 8, the fourth season begins with a 27-city run, starting in Durham, N.H., at Oyster River High School and visiting public and private high schools across the country until late February 2011. The fairs average 35 to 40 exhibitors.

But getting interest from high schools wasn’t always easy. Kaelin said guidance counselors would often tell him they wished their schools would host fairs, because  some of their students could benefit from taking time off, “but the principle or headmaster was against it,” Kaelin said, as often a school’s ranking is based on what percentage of students go to college.

“I would like to see gap year become a primary component to how we view education in the states,” said Chris Stakich, one of the co-directors of USA Gap Year Fairs, and co-founder of Thinking Beyond Borders, an international program that focuses on global development issues. “I never met a student who said he regretted taking a gap year. The opportunities are endless.”

“We’re not anti-college,” Kaelin said. But “taking a gap year is a good thing to consider in the mix.”

Wide appeal of gap year
“People are afraid to do something different,” said Linda H. Connelly, post-high school counselor at New Trier Township High School, outside of Chicago, among the first in the country to host a fair, which draws students from Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. Holding a gap fair “kind of validates the process.”

About 30 students from last year’s graduating class of about 1,000 took a gap year, she said.

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“Low achievers, ultra-high achievers, and those in between,” can benefit from time off, to stave off burnout and indulge in a little self-discovery, said Connelly. “They want to explore what’s out there in the world. It’s a time to reflect and not at such a fast pace. Students learn a lot, it helps them figure out what they want. I see kids blossom, find their passions.”

That was the case for Sam Park, 20, now a sophomore at Indiana University, who attended one of New Trier’s early fairs. “I was pretty much expected to do the college thing like everyone else,” said Park. He had heard about taking a gap year but was unsure about how to go about it, but the fair “definitely did help convince me,” he said. It also showed his parents that he had a plan. Park did several cultural and language immersion programs in Italy and Costa Rica, as well as an internship with a member of Parliament at the House of Commons in England. “It definitely changed my life and put me on a path,” he said.

Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, a consulting firm that helps students plan gap years, often speaks at gap fairs, focusing her comments on reassuring parents.

“They’re looking to hear how it works, what to look for in programs, what to look out for, what colleges think about it, and about safety.” Bull is often asked if specific programs are reputable, and suggests talking to alumni to see if programs were well organized, and to ask questions such as, “What was the worst aspect?”

Gap year myths
Bull said a common myth is that the experience is only for the well-heeled, but students do not need to spend a lot of money. They can explore far-off places like the old Silk Road or trek through the Taklimakan Desert in northwestern China, but they can also stay closer to home or participate in service-oriented programs for a fraction of the cost.

Vote: Is a gap year good for students?

There are many low- or no-cost, service-oriented programs that offer room and board, like volunteering at a school for the deaf, clearing trails in national forests or working as a deck hand on a ship. Some programs even offer stipends. And many students work during the summer and in between programs to pay for some or all of the costs.

One of the biggest fears parents have is that their children will not go to college after a gap year, Bull said.

But not only do most students go back to college, the gap experience is often an asset, according to research of Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, authors of “The Gap-Year Advantage: Helping Your Child Benefit from Time Off Before or During College.”

In a survey of 280 American students who took gap time off,  the authors found that nine out of 10 students returned to college within a year, and about 60 percent of them said taking time off changed or confirmed their choice of college major or career.

Students often more focused
Bull said several well-known colleges are currently tracking their former gap year students, and indications are that most do well in college.

“Students often land in college more focused and often do better academically,” Bull said. She and other experts say the maturity that comes with a gap year often results in less partying or repeatedly changing majors once at college.

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A number of colleges encourage students to take time off, and some have even built gap year-like programs into the curriculum.

Students can also use gap time to check out careers without making huge commitments of time or money, Bull said.

“If they’ve done their homework and have a well thought-out gap year,” said Roxanne Barry, director of the Summer and Gap Year Opportunities Office at Phillips Academy, a private school in Andover, Mass., “without a doubt, students start college refreshed and focused. And parents are seeing that happening.”

The school will host a fair on Nov. 14.

“I think there is so much to be gained from a gap year,” said Gretchen Walker, 18, a freshman at Hamilton College, who structured a year based on language immersion, home stays, guitar lessons, silversmith work, and community service, spending time in Ecuador, Argentina, Costa Rica, France and Spain.

“I was so out of my comfort zone,” Walker said. “The experience really opened my mind to a lot of new things. I can tell you that was the best decision I ever made.”

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