04/09/2013 04:35 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2013

Why Tina Fey Should Have Taken a Gap Year

The new romantic comedy Admission -- in which Tina Fey stars as a straight-laced Princeton admissions officer -- is filled with gentle ribbing of elite university culture. The entire Princeton admissions staff gasps upon learning of the university's slide to number two in the US News & World Report rankings. Blue-blazered legacies glide to acceptance as better-qualified applicants are sorted, one by one, to the "deny" pile.

But for me, all these easy jabs mask the central problem with how our culture views college: as a place to "get in to," as a stop on what some have (rather darkly) termed the "cradle-to-college-to-cubicle-to-cemetery" cycle.

This week, tens of thousands of expectant students will receive admissions notices from colleges throughout the country. My advice to them is what I would have liked to tell the students crowding Fey's character's information sessions in Admission: Take a gap year.

For years, our organization -- Where There Be Dragons -- has helped hundreds of American teenagers take time off before college to travel, study, and work in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. And for years, we've seen these students complete their gap years and return to college more focused, mature, and ready to learn. Now, new research is beginning to corroborate our observations -- by showing that students who take gap years outperform their peers throughout college.

In a study of students at Middlebury College in Vermont, Robert Clagett -- a former dean of admissions at the school -- found that gap year participants graduated with higher GPAs than those of their peers. This advantage held even when controlling for factors like a student's socioeconomic background or academic performance in high school. Clagett, who has also researched student performance at the University of North Carolina, is continuing to follow gap year students from other campuses.

Ethan Knight, the founder of American Gap Association, has also seen gap year students return to college more focused and ready to perform.

"Most [incoming college] students, in my experience, don't really know what they're passionate about," Knight said. "And if you don't know what you want, then getting it becomes that much more difficult."

Participation in gap years has soared as students, parents, and educators begin to recognize the value of pre-college exploration. According to Knight, enrollment in gap year programs climbed 60% from 2012 to 2013, up from 30% growth the year before. Even elite universities like Harvard, Princeton, and the University of North Carolina are encouraging students to consider taking a year off before matriculation. Princeton's Bridge Year Program, for example, annually awards tens of scholarships to incoming freshmen to fund gap-year programs in Brazil, China, India, Peru, and Senegal.

This burgeoning interest in gap years can be explained by a simple fact: Gap years work. Just ask Michael Gellman.

Michael, who is heading to Harvard in September, spent the fall with Dragonson our Central America semester program. He said that when he graduated from high school, he knew that he needed to "take a break to re-discover [his] passion for informal learning." Since arriving in Central America in September, Michael has done just that.

As a Dragons student, Michael learned to construct composting toilets while working with a Guatemala-based community organization called Ija'tz. Later, after his Dragons program ended, Michael chose to remain in Central America -- where he's spent the past four months applying his newfound construction skills to other community projects. Now, Michael says, he's ready to experience college as something more than just another box to check off.

"Without the gap year, I wouldn't have had the experience of knowing that it's okay to start something without knowing what you're doing," Michael told me. "I'm not sure what kinds of friends I'll have in college, or what kinds of groups I'll be a part of. But I'm ready to take more leaps."

Then Michael told me there's one more project he'd like to work on.

"I'm trying to convince my friends who are still seniors to take gap years," he said.

Susie Caldwell Rinehart is Director of Where There Be Dragons, an organization that leads high school, gap year, and collegestudents on cross-cultural education programs in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South America.