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All boarding, grades 9-12 in Alexandria, Virginia

Making the Most of the Gap Year: Lessons From EHS

In December of her senior year at Episcopal, Lauryn King ’17 found out she had been accepted to Dartmouth, her dream school. Yet no sooner had she victoriously closed out one application process then she began another.
 
Earlier in the year, Dr. Rick Dixon, her German teacher at Episcopal, had talked about a prestigious scholarship to study in Germany. Sponsored by the U.S. Congress and the German Bundestag, the program sends just 250 Americans to study at German high schools and immerse themselves in the country’s culture. To Lauryn, this seemed like a can’t-miss opportunity to study abroad and improve her German. “Also, I decided it would be a great way to catch my breath,” she said. “Four years at Episcopal is really rigorous, and I knew I was going into another rigorous environment at Dartmouth.”
 
Working with Rick, Lauryn assembled and fired off an application. When the acceptance arrived, Lauryn soon found herself deferring her Dartmouth dream to pursue another. She spent the 2017-18 academic year attending a high school outside Bonn, living with a host family, and immersing herself in the German culture she had learned about in books at Episcopal.
 
Lauryn’s gap-year adventure is unusual but not unique. Episcopal’s faculty and College Counseling Office — skilled guides in the college-admissions journey — are increasingly helping students identify ways to put college on hold for a year to explore unique experiences that can help them grow as individuals.
 
The number of students hoping to take time off before college is small, said Tara Maglio, director of college counseling. But “the gap year is filtering into the EHS consciousness. It is a year for them to get a bigger picture of what they want to do in the world, to enhance their skills.”
 
147 Colleges and Counting
The College Counseling Office, which is located inside Hoxton House, is full of light, cheer, and energy, with students routinely dropping by for appointments or quick conversations. College banners hang on the wall, a reminder that this office’s primary function is to help navigate the college process.
 
Episcopal students from the Classes of 2015 through 2018 have matriculated to 147 colleges, among them places as different as Colby and Georgia Tech, the University of California at Berkeley and New York University, Harvard and West Point.
 
Episcopal students are going on to higher education to play college basketball, major in business, minor in British literature, study fashion merchandising, and sing in a cappella groups like Yale’s Whiffenpoofs — sometimes all at once. Even before the first student proposed a gap year, counseling was already multifaceted and nuanced: No student is a facsimile, all are unique.
 
The college counselors, thanks to their campus involvement, begin building rapport with students long before the college search begins. For instance, Ellen Albers, associate director of college counseling, is part of the 10th grade Leadership and Ethics team, does dorm duty on Evans, coaches cross training, and serves as an advisor to 10th and 11th grade students. “Because we live together, we are able to get to know our students beyond their transcripts and test scores,” Ellen said. “What’s more, we are in the unique position to communicate to colleges what impact a student will make on their campuses both inside and outside of the classroom because we see it, firsthand, each and every day.”
 
Tara Maglio began her career as assistant director of undergraduate admissions at her alma mater, Georgetown University. She came to Episcopal after 14 years in high school counseling, the last few at Georgetown Visitation; she knows students, she knows colleges, and she understands the networks that connect them.
 
Episcopal’s program is notable for the structure that undergirds students’ college exploration. It sets four broad goals (see below) annually for students from their freshman to senior years – goals that have as much to do with personal development as with preparing for college. For instance, the goals for a student’s first two years at Episcopal stress that students – get this! – should really enjoy Episcopal!
 
Episcopal’s college counselors want freshmen to do well academically and set college goals, but they also want students to get involved in the EHS community and join clubs or sports teams or other activities. As the goals state, “engaging in activities outside of the classroom is another opportunity to meet new people and explore new passions.”
 
When it comes to the college search itself, the counselors work hard to tailor their efforts to the concerns and interests of individual students, whether those relate to financial aid, class size, or potential major.
 
'The Best Freshman Year'
Because of their emphasis on counseling customized for each individual, Tara and her team were well prepared when students began considering taking a year off between high school and college. The gap-year concept, which has percolated in American education for many years, climbed into the broader public consciousness in 2016, when Malia Obama, the then-President’s daughter, opted for a gap year and deferred her admission to Harvard.
 
The Gap Year Association, a group of organizations that offer gap-year travel and programs, reports that while a fraction of college freshman take time off after high school, the number is growing. The gap-year concept is also winning support from prominent college-admissions leaders. Several universities sponsor their own gap-year programs, and Harvard has made a point of publicly endorsing the idea. Decrying the “fast track” that many kids run on, William Fitzsimmons, the longtime Harvard dean of admissions, joined other Harvard officials to write a letter that hailed the gap year as “a time to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one’s accustomed pressures and expectations.”
 
Even more boldly, Abigail Falik and Linda Frey of Global Citizen Year suggested in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the gap year is “the best freshman year.”
 
“Educators know that the power skills of the 21st century – resilience, empathy, collaboration, initiative – are difficult to teach in the classroom,” they wrote. “To build these skills, students need to be out in the world grappling with complex issues of identity, equity, diversity, and power. A purposeful gap year is a powerful way to build those muscles.”
 
Building muscle is exactly what Episcopal college counselors help students do as they consider a gap year. They counsel students to seek life skills for the exciting, challenging world beyond The Holy Hill.
 
“The gap year is a compelling way for students to gain life experiences and grow personally,” Tara Maglio said. “For some students, applying to college can feel like a full-time job. Grades and transcripts, sports and extracurriculars, essays and standardized tests, rigorous academics and early admissions — the pressure can be intense.”
 
Tara’s advice for Episcopal seniors planning a gap year? “Planning cannot be underestimated,” she said. “It takes a lot of work to plan for college, and even more to plan for a good gap year.”
 
Putting Princeton on Pause
Sophie Singletary ’18 decided on delaying her entrance to Princeton only after a lot of work and discussion with Episcopal college counselor Laurén Carter, whom she calls “my rock of support.”
 
Laurén “was fully invested in both the college process and the gap-year application process and is still to this day one of the most encouraging and supportive adults in my life,” Sophie said. “She made the college process, an often daunting and stressful time, exciting for me.”
 
Sophie’s mother, Sally, echoed her daughter. “We had a wonderful experience with the College Counseling Office and with Laurén Carter in particular,” she said.
 
Princeton introduced Sophie’s gap-year program, the Novogratz Bridge Year Program, in 2009 for a small number of first-year students. They begin their Princeton experience with nine months of university-sponsored service at one of five international locations.
 
Since September, Sophie has been in Dakar, Senegal, with six of her Princeton classmates. She lives with a family in an urban neighborhood.
 
“I have gained a deeper understanding of the importance of family in Senegalese culture,” Sophie said via email. “Furthermore, learning the most widely spoken Senegalese language, Wolof, has been my gateway to better absorbing the inner workings of the culturally rich environment around me.”
 
During the day, Sophie teaches English at SOS Children’s Village, a preschool and elementary that serves as an orphanage for 120 children. “It has been both challenging and incredibly rewarding,” she said. “Spending my mornings surrounded by young, bubbly, and eager-to-learn children has been nothing short of soul-stirring.”
 
Sophie called her Senegal sojourn “the most invigorating experience of my life; I am constantly being intellectually stimulated, challenged to reconsider my previously held notions about the complexities of this world, and shaken into living with a curious head and an open heart. I have learned that the acquisition of knowledge is not restricted to the classroom and that many of the most important lessons are seldom taught.”
 
Hayes Cochrane ’16 speaks in similarly glowing terms of his gap-year experience. While still at Episcopal, he decided to take time off from the classroom before his college studies. Specifically, he decided he wanted to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, the famous path that follows the spine of the East Coast over 2,189 miles and across 14 states.
 
Hayes’s mother was immediately supportive of her son’s gap year. His father took some convincing. “My father wanted me to keep my momentum rolling academically and jump straight into college,” Hayes said. But he came around, particularly when Hayes found research suggesting students who take gap years perform better academically in college than those who don’t.
 
Jubilantly, both his parents hiked the first two miles of the trail with him. As he continued on solo, he said he developed a toughness with each passing day. Over time, he learned not to think about what he’d left behind but to focus on what lay ahead.
 
The trip also introduced him to an extraordinary assortment of fellow hikers. “I met other students taking gap years, veterans, families, professors, engineers, musicians, movie directors, homeless people, doctors, activists, and Germans, Danes, and Argentinians. We were all in the same boat sharing our experiences. Sometimes I’d spend a few minutes with a person, sometimes I’d spend months. But each individual I met brought a piece of real-world perspective that I don’t think I would have gotten if I had just moved straight into college.”
 
“Taking a gap year and doing a hike like this probably taught me more about myself than anything else in my life,” added Hayes, who’s now at Rice University. “If I had to boil it down to a few words, I would say my gap year made me more sensible, empathetic, and confident.”
 
Lauryn King, meanwhile, says her year in Bonn was an ideal immersion in German life and language. All her classes were taught in German, and she lived with a homestay family that took her to cultural hotspots, including various local Christmas markets, for which Germany is famous. Thanks to the city’s subway and extensive local transportation system, she also explored the city on her own. Arriving at Dartmouth last fall, she began classwork toward what she expects will be two majors: film studies and German. Her fluency is such that she’s teaching German to fellow students three days a week. And even though she’s not even completed her first year on the picturesque campus, she’s already making plans for another learning experience in Germany: Next fall, she’ll spend 10 weeks in Berlin on a Dartmouth study-abroad program.
 
 
GOALS FOR THE COLLEGE SEARCH
The EHS College Counseling Office sets goals for students each year of their Episcopal career. Here are excerpts from a few. See the full list here.
 
9th Grade
Build meaningful relationships with not only classmates but also teachers and other adults at EHS.
 
Do well academically. We encourage 9th grade students to write out their goals for the year (along with their advisor) and keep this list as a guide to help them stay on track. Maybe a goal is to speak up and participate in math class more.
 
10th Grade
Continue to develop and grow as a learner. Make sure that you are able to do your personal best in your classes. Seek out help from your teachers if you need any clarification about class assignments or to ensure that you fully understand the class material.
 
READ! READ! READ! One way to develop as a student and to help prepare you for college is to read. … Try to read for longer periods of time and to read in a setting that is free of distractions (no Snapchat or texting allowed!) so you are able to focus on the material.
 
11th Grade
Take practice SAT/ACT exams and understand your results. Make sure you review the testing results and understand what you need to prepare for the SAT or ACT.

Meet regularly with your college counselor (beginning second semester). Your counselor will guide you through the college process, help you plan a standardized testing calendar, and advise you for senior-year course selection.
 
12th Grade
Continue to do your best in your classes and extracurricular activities. This year goes by fast and furiously so plan ahead.
 
Be a role model for others. … This is your responsibility as a senior. Our younger students are looking up to you for how to conduct themselves on dorm, on campus, and in co-curricular activities. Set the bar high. Goals for the College Search The College Counseling Office sets goals for students each year of their Episcopal career. Here are excerpts from a few.
 
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1200 North Quaker Lane Alexandria, Virginia 22302 | 703-933-3000