After realizing she waited too long to apply for a visa that would be ready in time for her first semester at Pitt, Iolanda Neto had a decision to make. She could either apply for entry in the spring 2015 semester — like her mother urged her to do — or take a gap year.a
“I didn’t have a pressing urge to take a year off,” Neto said. “If it had all aligned, I wouldn’t have had a reason to not go to school.”
Each year, high school seniors around the world await the day an acceptance letter from their dream school arrives in the mail — but some students, like Neto, postpone dorm shopping and the stressors of first-year biology classes for international travel, part-time jobs or the military.
Neto, a junior student studying health services and the history and philosophy of science, spent the 2014-2015 school year traveling between family in the United States, England and Portugal. She also took noncredit Chinese and Arabic classes at Rice University — where her mother started a new job after the family moved from England to the United States — and attended a 10-day program with the British Film Institute at which she wrote a screenplay for a short film.
“I was looking for something to fill my time productively,” Neto said. “It gave me a taste of what [screenwriting] would be like if I pursued it as a career. I still consider it.”
Pitt’s associate director of admissions, Barry Duerr, drew a distinction between students who take gap years — which requires that students apply to Pitt one or more years after graduating high school — and those who accept their admittance to the University and defer for a year.
According to Duerr, there are very few first-year Pitt students who defer their admittance each year. Of the students who defer, many cite international travel and community service as their reason for doing so. Duerr said there were 47 defers this year, but in the last three years, there were 24, 10 and 11 defers from first-year classes of about 4,000.
“There’s nothing that we do that would discourage or encourage [gap years],” Duerr said.
Duerr didn’t have access to the number of students who decided not to come to Pitt after they deferred. According to Gap Year Association, only 10 percent of students who defer don’t return to college within one year. Of those surveyed by Gap Year Association, 98 percent reported personal development and personal reflection as benefits of taking a gap year.
Dominique Bell, a junior biology major, applied to Pitt — the only school she wanted to attend — in January of her senior year. But a missing high school transcript left her without an acceptance or rejection letter from the University and led to her taking an unexpected gap year.
“I didn’t want to deal with the stress of applying to a bunch of different places,” Bell said. “When I applied to Pitt and didn’t hear back from them, I think that’s when I was just like, ‘I’m not going to try to rush this.’”
Bell was admitted and offered a full-tuition scholarship for the 2015-2016 school year after she contacted the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid and submitted her final transcript that summer. While her peers went off to class, Bell kept her job at McDonald’s and worked nearly 40 hours each week over the span of what would have been her first year of college.
Her gap year allowed her to take a break from school, remain close to her high school friends who went to college locally and visit her sister in Baltimore. But she wishes she had saved more money and spent some of her time volunteering.
“Manage your time really well. You can use it to build your application if you are ever planning to get your masters degree,” Bell said. “Don’t just work. Don’t just travel. Divide your time wisely and spend your money wisely, because you can save up and save yourself a lot of hassle.”
For other non-traditional students such as Dave Loughlin, a senior majoring in fiction writing, taking time off after high school was the only option he ever seriously considered. Loughlin, now 26, enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was 17, and spent four years serving in the military — including nine months on a joint ship deployment with the Navy and seven months in Afghanistan.
“When I graduated high school, I was just so done with school for a while,” Loughlin said. “I wanted to go to school eventually, but my goal at the time was to join the Marine Corps.”
Loughlin returned to his hometown in Oregon in May 2013 where he taught local high school marching bands and received his associate’s degree from Portland Community College. His then-roommate, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon, convinced him to apply to Pitt for the Fall 2016 semester.
Loughlin said the age difference between him and his classmates can be a little disconcerting. Despite this, Loughlin is glad he waited a few years before entering the classroom himself.
“I definitely think there’s a benefit to starting college a few years later. I guess I was a smart kid, but I was not emotionally intelligent or mature enough yet to handle college and take it seriously,” Loughlin said.
With 1 percent or fewer United States students opting to defer, gap years may seem relatively uncommon here, but Neto estimates half of her English classmates took gap years. Most opted for this choice because of stringent A-level requirements — subject-based tests students complete when they graduate secondary school and apply to university in the United Kingdom.
“I’m definitely pro- ‘end the stigma against gap years.’ I’m pro- ‘people taking the time to figure themselves out,’” Neto said. “It’s not like you have to have a life-changing experience when you take a gap year, but it’s nice to take time for yourself.”