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Should Your Child Take a Year Off?

It's Not the End of the World

You want to do what? When most parents get the news their kid doesn't want to head straight to college, they're upset. The thought raises fears such as that their child may never get an advanced degree so crucial to success. In fact, experts say teenagers who take time off do go on to college -- and they're usually better, more motivated students for it.

Consider This:

You're about to invest thousands in an advanced education for your child. Unless he's ready to make the most of it, this money could be wasted. So, if your kid is telling you he doesn't want to go right now, it's in your best interest to hear him. Insisting a child go to college against his wishes is likely to cause resentment, failure, and more wasted cash.

Make Time Off Meaningful

That doesn't mean a reluctant student should get a free pass to lie around the house all day. Experts say the key to a successful year off lies in structuring this time around activities, paid or unpaid, that will provide a rich experience. You can discuss options for how to spend this year, but you will also want to set some ground rules, and stick to them. Will she be expected to support herself, or pay rent at home? Your relationship should change to reflect the fact that your child has crossed the threshold to adulthood. Otherwise, you risk supporting a perennial child.

How Colleges View The Year Off

The key to a successful year off lies in structuring this time around activities ... that will provide a rich experience.

Letting your child coast could also hurt her chances later. Colleges will want to know in detail how the time off was spent. A year full of rich, mind-expanding experiences or solid work can mean admission, even for a student with a poor high school record. In Beyond the Ivy League, former college administrator Loren Pope notes he wanted to make a year of work a requirement for admission, because he found that students with this experience are invariably more mature and more focused.

Rita Goldman, director of college guidance at Germantown Friends, a high school in Philadelphia, agrees. She says she often suggests a year off for kids who have driven themselves extra hard during the four years of high school, taking Advanced Placement courses and getting involved in a number of extracurricular activities in order to be attractive candidates for top colleges.

"Many of these students are completely burned out by graduation," said Goldman. "They need to take time off to find out who they are, outside all the packaging." Such students often go through the college selection process and defer for a year once accepted, an arrangement most colleges find perfectly acceptable.

Uh, I Dunno

So a year off isn't necessarily going to banish your kid to a lifetime of dissolution. But here's another dilemma: what if he doesn't want to go, but he doesn't have a burning desire to do anything else either. Don't despair. Most teenagers aren't ready to make the life-forming choices college can force on them; yours may just be more honest than most.

The only thing that can resolve this dilemma is time, and experience. Just about any kind of experience -- travel, work, volunteering -- can help your child through this identity crisis. If yours is an indifferent student, a year trying to support himself on low-paying work is usually a strong encouragement to go further.

On the other hand, reluctance may simply be your child's way of expressing anxiety about the changes graduation brings. In either case, it's best to follow two tracks, applying to colleges while planning for a year off. That way if your child changes his mind, he'll still have the option of school, and you can rest assured that, either way, he'll be off to a good start.

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