My daughter has a friend whose family is into "gap years" between high school and college and when she first suggested the idea I have to admit I was a bit reluctant, but it was because I did not understand what a "gap year," was. I thought it meant putting off applying to college for a year, but in fact, there are several ways gap years happen. Basically, a gap year is a structured program the year after high school and before college, and even during or after college. The idea seems to be much more popular in Europe than it has been here, and the key is "structured."
There are two types of kids that this gap year works for: the first is the highly motivated student who has already been accepted into college, and defers starting for one year, and the second is the student who struggled through high school and needs a break from the academic pressure before applying to college. For the highly motivated student, the gap year can provide a year to gain maturity, get an international perspective, and maybe do service work or an internship. For the struggling student, the gap year can provide an opportunity to explore possible careers and also regain focus and drive to get more out of an academic program when they do apply.
Harvard has been encouraging youth to do this for many years with up to 20% of their students taking some time off and Princeton University recently announced a program starting in 2009 that will send 10% of their incoming frosh to do social service work in a foreign country before they start their freshman year.
There are two agencies that help match students with a gap year opportunity - the Center for Interim Programs and the Dynamy Internship Year. Both programs describe the gap year as helping students be self-reliant, self-confident, and more focused for academics the following year. To find out if the idea of a gap year is right for your teen, the first step is probably meeting with the college counselor to discuss it and exploring the two web site links above.
Given that there is some concern about the emotional preparedness of our high school seniors and their readiness to live independently, as well as the consequences of the academic pressure they experience, I have to admit a gap year is not looking like a bad idea.