How do Haverford Students Spend Their Gap Years?

At first, Lizzie Wiggins ‘21 wasn’t sure that she wanted to take a gap year.

It was April of her senior year of high school, and a decision was impending. She had gotten into Haverford and could enroll in the fall, but there was also something appealing about the thought of taking a gap year.

“I emailed Haverford and was like…can I please take a gap year; is it too late?” she said.

After making the decision to defer her admission, and getting approval from Haverford, Wiggins started to think about how she could fill up her year. A few of her friends from home had also recently decided to take gap years, and they began to make a plan.

Wiggins worked as a cashier over the summer, and then headed off to Florence, Italy for two months with one of her friends. While abroad, they attended culinary school, where they learned to cook a five-course Italian meal, and took language lessons twice a week. It was an experience that taught her valuable skills.

“I just really wanted to learn actual life skills on my gap year and cooking, I felt like, was one that would help me for the rest of my life and was also a really good way to bring people together,” Wiggins said.

After a couple of months living in Florence, she returned home and began to piece together the second half of her gap year. For the next five months or so, Wiggins tried a little bit of everything. The rest of the year took her to Cape Town, where she helped teach kindergarteners for two months and got to explore the area with some other volunteers. Then, around March, she headed back to the United States to work in a lab at the National Institutes of Health. The transition from working abroad to living at home and working in a sometimes secluded lab wasn’t always easy, but Wiggins said that both jobs were integral to her gap year experience.

“I felt like while I wanted my gap year to be a break from school, I still wanted one part of it to be vaguely career-focused,” she said.

Now, with the gap year behind her, Wiggins said that she can still see some of the ways it has shaped her. The gap year, she said, made her “more comfortable being self-reliant” and “more outgoing.” On top of personal growth, it also made her more excited about certain aspects of life at Haverford.

“During the gap year, not having a set community for the whole year was definitely the hardest thing for me,” she said. “So then coming to Haverford I was so excited to come to a small school.”

For many students who have taken gap years before, or in some cases, during their time at Haverford, there seems to be a common takeaway. Whether taking time to work, volunteer, or travel – or some combination thereof – many students say the experience, while certainly challenging at times, was also incredibly transformative.

The gap year and admissions

The number of students in the current first-year class who had been admitted to the Class of 2021 but took a gap year before coming to Haverford was at an “all-time high.” Sixteen students, to be exact.

Typically, that number fluctuates somewhere between six and ten students, according to Vice President and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Jess Lord. He said that there could be a few reasons why that number spiked recently.

“Many of our peers experienced a similar increase in requests for a gap year, and I did wonder if this was a trend,” Lord wrote via email. “Another theory I have is that it may have been something of a “Malia Obama effect”, as she had publicly announced her intentions to take a gap year; I thought perhaps this put the idea of taking a gap year into people’s consciousness a bit more.”

Either way, Lord said, when it comes to taking a gap year, the admissions office is “very supportive.” When a student decides to take a gap year, Haverford will hold their place for a year. The student must also agree to a couple stipulations.

“The conditions for being granted a deferment of their enrollment is that the student must affirm they plan to attend Haverford in a year’s time, and will not be enrolled as a degree-seeking student at another institution and/or will not apply to any other schools during their gap year,” he wrote.

After agreeing to those conditions and telling Lord their plans for the year, students are all set to embark on their gap year. He added that in certain cases  — for example, when a student’s home country has a mandatory two-year military service requirement — a student can defer their enrollment beyond a year.

Lord also echoed what many students have said about their gap years: it can be a really rewarding experience. In fact, it’s an option he said he wishes more students would consider.

“While I don’t think taking a gap year is necessarily right for every student, I do think there are many more students who would benefit from this experience and I wish more students would consider doing so,” Lord wrote. “Over my nearly 25 years in admission, I’ve worked with MANY students who have taken a gap year before college and I’ve never met a student who did not love it.”

Read more about Haverford students’ experiences taking gap years in the Clerk’s mini-series, including articles on working and traveling.