Best-selling Author, Michael Thompson, PhD Believes in a Gap Year

Of course, taking a gap year helps teens better prepare for college both personally and academically in more ways than one—Michael Thompson, PhD strongly agrees.

As a well-known clinical psychologist, New York Times Best-selling Author, and International speaker, you could say that he’s an expert on all subjects pertaining to children, schools, and parenting. He has written nine books, including Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, which discusses how spending time away from parents is extremely beneficial. Matter of fact, Thompson has written extensively about the benefits of high school students taking a gap year before starting college on his own website.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Thompson, who champions taking a gap year before college and here’s what he had to say:

Q:  What is the main reason that you advocate teens taking a gap year between high school and college?

A:  Students, especially high-achieving ones, have been on a 13-year school treadmill and many are burnt out. Taking a gap year can be refreshing and help students return to school better focused. A gap year gives teens a chance to grow up and mature. It’s as simple as that.

Q:  Do you think classroom learning is sometimes overrated?

A: Yes! Somehow we got the idea that school is the best place to learn and that all of the important learning takes place in a school setting. But that has not been my life experience. Much of the important learning in my life has taken place outside of the classroom. There is this assumption that everyone has to go to college immediately after high school, but it is not necessarily the best thing to do.

Years ago, I met this very interesting father of a high school senior that had already been accepted to a very prestigious college. Other parents would not have questioned whether their teen should go straight to college, but he did. He explained to me, “Ages 18 to 25 are your highest energy years—the best years to test your entrepreneurial skills.” It turned out that at 18, this man had traveled abroad and then started his own business, which had become a very successful company. He didn’t want his son to miss out on life experiences by attending college, before he had seen the world. And that’s just one stand-out example.

Q:  You talk about “concerted cultivation”. What do you mean by that and how does a gap year address this?

A:  A gap year gives teens a chance to be independent from their parents. Time away from parents helps a child grow, especially in this day and age of “concerted cultivation” where parents are doing more for their children than ever before. Many parents are doing too much for their teens—in some cases almost everything—right down to arranging internships for them. It’s no surprise that teens learn self-sufficiency if they get a job on their own. I had a private school education and when I look back on my life, the biggest growth experience I had was working the night shift at Coney Island.

Away from their parents, young adults learn how to take care of themselves, how to live without certain comforts, such as cable television, and how to navigate situations on their own. On a gap year, teens face different daily challenges that they have to handle independently and personally. They have to make their own choices.

Q:  How can a gap year re-ignite a teen’s perspective on life and passion for learning?

A:  A gap year provides students with the chance to take a break from the daily grind of academics. Plus, they can see how the concepts they’ve learned in school translate into a real world environment. Most teens return from a gap year with better focus and a better sense of what they want to study and do in life. For example, studying a foreign language in school is great, but think about how much more fluent a student can become if they spend all day conversing and living amongst native speakers of that language.

For example, I know a young woman who was admitted to Harvard in January, so she chose to take a gap half-year. She decided to go to Paris for a change of pace and to practice her French. She sublet an apartment and earned money tutoring American high school students living in France, helping them prepare for the SAT’s. When she got to Harvard in late January, she told me that she felt much older than her classmates who simply had a jump-start on school. In France, she had lived independently from her family (even though they helped her with her airfare and some of her expenses) and admittedly had struggled to become fluent in a second language. She also had to deal with loneliness and all of the challenges of foreign culture. But she did it. She got a job and earned some money, traveled a bit, and experienced life in another country. Essentially, on her own. Again, mastering those challenges and learning some valuable life skills helped her flourish quicker than just more classroom work.

Q:  Some parents are concerned that if their teen takes a gap year, they might never go to college. Should they be worried?

A:  That is rarely an issue with motivated students. Furthermore, I would argue that it is risky to send unmotivated or immature students to college—especially boys who are more likely to flunk out of their freshman year. It’s a fact that college students in the United States are surrounded by the heaviest drinking segment of the American population. If a young man is not psychologically motivated for college, he can become depressed, go socially wild, or simply be an indifferent student. By seeing more of the world, students return to school more grown up. They think about their actions and approaches. And are definitely more prepared for college.

Dr. Thompson travels about eighty days a year making keynote presentations, running workshops for teachers, and consulting schools and parent groups. He has visited more than five hundred schools in the U.S., Europe, Central and South America, and Asia. He is certainly a knowledgeable resource and advocate of traveling abroad, especially for taking a gap year.


Randi Mazzella is a mother of three children and freelance writer.  Her work has appeared in many online and in print publications including Teen Life, Your Teen, Raising Teens, NJ Family and