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The College Insider: Admissions Freak-Out #15: Fall Into the Gap (Year), But Check the Price-Tag First

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Call them teacups, call them eggs, admissions officers use either nickname: The pressurized lives some high school seniors have been leading can take a toll; they maintain their perfectionist momentum for the first year of college, or two, and then little cracks start to show up in the facade. Maybe they tank a test, or abandon the sport that got them the scholarship, but however they express it, the SOS message is clear. They need to catch their breath.

I took a gap semester long before it was as fashionable as it is today, thanks to a perfect storm of bad coincidences that culminated in my inability to remember why I was so thrilled to be in Ann Arbor. So I left, my departure facilitated by a trimester system that would allow me to come back the following summer to catch up.

My gap experience was pretty low-key compared to what I see today. I moved back into my childhood bedroom instead of trekking across some wilderness or another, and I actually made money instead of spending it, teaching guitar to a bunch of budding little Joan Baezes at a music store two buses away from my suburban house. I read all the F. Scott Fitzgerald novels I'd bought for one of the classes I'd dropped, I hung out with the drum instructor, who'd gone to my high school, and four months later I re-packed my stuff and returned to school, refreshed and restored.

In today's gap-world universe, my story is the equivalent of a manual typewriter if not a chisel and stone tablet. Weary students are an enormous potential profit center, as it turns out, and entrepreneurs are poised to indulge their desire to take a break with a capital B. Think I'm exaggerating? USA Today interviewed Tom Griffiths, founder of gapyear.com, who said, "The U.S. is viewed in our sector as the sleeping giant," with the "potential to surpass the rest of the world in numbers and possibly spending within the next five years."

What's that sound? Gap-year service providers licking their chops.

And fattening their wallets -- but then, after all these months of The College Insider, you didn't still think that any aspect of higher education came cheap, did you? Thinking Beyond Borders offers an array of 35-week programs for $39,000, and oh yeah, "a limited amount of need-based financial aid is available." LEAPYEAR charges $31,900, which includes tuition placement and annual reunions but not air fare or spending money -- and offers a full year of college credit, if your college happens to accept their program. This means you can apply for government aid; five years' debt instead of four.

One web site's slogan is, "Gap Year Programs, Because a year off from school is anything but a vacation. . . ."

What ever happened to teaching kids how to play "If I Had a Hammer" and schlepping one's guitar on the bus in the rain?

I feel so quaint, so old-fashioned, so curmudgeonly.

So relatively sane.

You ought to visit some of the gap-year sites to see the photographs, which look like vacation shots from the vacations parents have always dreamed of taking -- with an emphasis on dreamed, now that they're considered spending $39,000 to help a kid learn to relax. I somehow doubt that this is what Dr. Seuss, aka Ted Geisel, had in mind when he wrote "Oh, the Places You'll Go."

A pertinent aside: I googled "Oh, the Places You'll Go" when I finished the previous paragraph, just to refresh my memory, and guess what? There's a $5000 Oh, the Places You'll Go college scholarship, awarded on May 1 this year to the senior who has written the best essay about where he or she expects his education to take him.

I'm guessing that "around the world" is not the answer they're looking for. I bet it's an answer that has to do with human potential, not frequent flyer miles, so I'd like to offer advance congrats to whomever this year's winner is, and to remind everyone of another childhood figure whose sense of proportion is equally worth referencing.

Dorothy had herself one heck of a gap experience in Oz, after all, and what did she discover? "There's no place like home." Everything she learned had been right there in front of her, if only she'd slowed down long enough to look.

Or, as Dr. Seuss would put it:
"Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.
And when things start to happen
don't worry. Don't Stew.
Just go right along
You'll start happening too."

So if the applicant in your family seems a bit the worse for wear, read a remarkably sensible article about gap year by three Harvard administrators, and never forget: The point of a gap year is to decrease pressure and increase experience, and you don't have to travel to the ends of the earth or the depth of your savings account for that.

Karen Stabiner is the author of Getting In, a comic novel about college admissions. Visit www.karenstabiner.com or email her at kstabiner@gmail.com.

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