What British Colleges Can Teach America

A few lessons from overseas that might help American colleges.

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To many American parents, the notion of a gap year might seem like 12 months wasted, goofing off. But many educators claim that students who take a gap year often excel in college. "They do a lot of growing up in that year, and they have a greater sense of what they want to do when they get here," says Angela Milln, director of student recruitment at Bristol. And, adds Cambridge's Beard, "some gap years can actively reinforce a candidate's application." For instance, time spent doing volunteer work overseas could bolster the chances of a student's studying geography or anthropology.

Gap years are gaining traction in the United States. American users on Gapyear.com have grown from less than a percent to 10 percent. Princeton University this fall launches its own "bridge year" program: Twenty incoming freshmen will spend a year doing social-service work in a developing country before taking any classes. Harvard College has for 30 years now recommended that incoming students take a gap year before commencing studies, and every year about 50 to 70 freshmen heed that advice.

Hart certainly thinks his experiences in Asia and working in a pub will give him a leg up once he's at Bristol. "I think you come across as more mature, and you're more used to living on your own," he says. Moreover, Hart's convinced that the gap year greatly bolstered his self-confidence, so college now seems much less daunting. And that's the kind of can-do attitude that should also play well in America.