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College Recruiting for the Elite Athlete

5. The gap year

Reasons to wait

Postponing college for a year by utilizing the so-called gap year between high school and college is on the rise, particularly among athletes, and it's not hard to understand why:

  • Many young athletes, focused on their sport, mature more slowly, emotionally and socially, than their peers;

  • The pressures of national competition can take their toll academically, so that many elite athletes need more preparation for college-level work; and

  • College freshman athletes, especially international students, tend to be a year older than their peers, so the competition may be better trained and more mature physically than your high-school graduate.

The NCAA, worried about issues of amateurism in college athletics, continues to take steps to limit the age at which a recruit can begin college, so that for most elite sports, college admissions should be postponed for no more than one year.

Meanwhile, more and more boarding schools and sports academies across the country are offering special academic programs and athletic schedules for student athletes "in the gap." While these programs may add yet another expense to the mounting cost of parenting an elite athlete, there are also scholarships available for many promising athletes.

Remember: Gap-year grades don't count

Worth bearing in mind when making a decision about a gap year is that a student's high-school transcript closes upon graduation. Gap-year grades can be sent to college admissions offices, but they cannot be used to boost a sagging high-school GPA. If you are worried that your daughter will not be NCAA eligible academically, or feel that the dual pressures of academics and athletics are seriously hurting her academic performance, she may be better off changing schools and repeating a year rather than taking the gap option.

Peer pressure is a factor

Students themselves, of course, may resist the prospect of either repeating a year or taking a gap year. Many if not most of the academically successful student-athletes I have taught came to college after taking a gap year. And yet, when it came time for my own son to choose, I allowed him to enter college at a young age and with an academically weak record rather than push the gap-year option. The expectation of entering college at the same time as one's high-school peers is a strong one. A reluctant gap-year student may also lose interest in his sport when it's taken out of the context of peer competition and placed solely on a college-recruitment track.

A highly personal decision

Thus, electing a gap year is a highly personal choice that students and families should arrive at together. The option can be richly rewarding but should be approached openly, early, and with an eye toward the student's overall well-being, not just her chances at high-level college recruitment.