When Your Child Wants Off the College Carousel

The process of deciding where to go to college is the single most significant event in your child’s secondary school experience. For many, the college process begins in 9th grade, with some parents seeding the groundwork before middle school. I wasn’t one of them. My daughter began her college search in earnest in her junior year and by senior year had narrowed her choices to eight schools. She was accepted at seven.

college campus, college kid

She registered at a small New England school with a strong academic pedigree. I left her there on a sunny September morning, and as I held her for our goodbye, I noted she was trembling. Sick with worry, I drove the six hours home, tears blinding my eyes. She called (well, texted) frequently in the ensuing months and seemed to be okay. Her grades were excellent and she seemed to like it there. I exhaled. When she came home at spring break, I noted she looked tired and thin but I attributed it to studying. In May, she was home for summer. By July she was fidgety and one night came downstairs and said “Mom, I want to take a year off.” Here are some of the things I learned in the process figuring out what her next steps should be:


It’s hard to know what drives a student to take this kind of step. Be gentle but dig deep. Is the decision emotional or rational? Take a clear-eyed look at your child, warts and all. Yes, even the best kids have a wart or two. What is driving the decision: apathy, boredom, lack of social life, no friends? Is your child challenged or the opposite-overwhelmed? Are there emotional issues at play? It’s critical to understand the underlying issue as best you can. Remember, you were not there to observe your child.


It’s important that your college child understand how much you respect and support their decision. Of course, if the reason for the time off is disciplinary for any reason, that is a different story. That requires a completely different approach. For most students this is not the case. More commonly, the decision is frustratingly nebulous. Statements like “I just don’t like it there” or “My friends LOVE their schools-I don’t” are common and most times, student and parent are equally perplexed about the genuine reason. In the face of all this, it’s important to be supportive yet objective.


This a sticking point for many parents. When my daughter announced her decision I was very supportive but clear on one thing. The year had to be a productive one. This is what I said to her “You must have a job while you are home. This isn’t a spa break.” I was smiling when I said this but I meant it. Truth be told, the rigors of high school can burn the students out, particularly those who like to excel and many could probably use a spa.

Peer Judgments

When I say peers, I am referring to hers… and yours. I innocently told a few close friends my daughter was taking a year off . They were aghast. Their reaction surprised me and hurt me. Many fathers uniformly said the same thing  “Absolutely say no. Send her back. She needs to tough it out.” What? The wives were a tad more understanding but not solidly so. My daughter’s peers were fairly uniform in their reaction. They were nonplussed. They didn’t seem to see her decision as a failing like their parents did. Decide for the sake of your child and yourself what is the best for your son or daughter and leave it at that. Tune out the naysayers. In my elite suburban environment, stepping off the carousel is verboten. Although I acknowledge this viewpoint, I can’t understand it or embrace it in our circumstance.

It’s Not About You

It is hard as a parent not to feel somewhat responsible for your child’s dissatisfaction with this decision. However, it’s really not about you at all. It’s important not to make it be about you. We raise our children to be independent decision makers- individuals with a healthy sense of self-worth. They don’t come to a decision like this lightly and they make it on their own. They are smart enough to know what they need…and what they don’t need as well. It’s important to understand how your approval factors into this. Many schools have a reasonable amount of unhappy students who can’t tell their parents they want a break. Don’t be one of those parents. Your love and support isn’t contingent on a four-year endurance test.

Resume Builder or Break

We live in an achievement focused world. Many of our children are programmed early on to amass a collection of personal and academic achievements. Maybe this time off is an opportunity to hop off that treadmill (and it is a treadmill-don’t kid yourself). The desire to build huts in Uzbekistan may be great on a resume but maybe a year of self-revelatory thinking may prove to be more valuable for your child. Understand me, I am not in any way demeaning any effort to help others. I do however; question the motivation for it in some cases. In my daughter’s case, she worked two jobs close to home: babysitting and tutoring. No glamour work there. But her most important work was on herself. She surprised me with her respect for her own needs and her respect for the families that employed her. I couldn’t be more proud of her.

Mistake or Opportunity

I favor opportunity hands down. When students have the courage to take a stand for themselves, it’s never a mistake. Candidly, I couldn’t have done what my daughter did. I didn’t have that kind of courage at 19. We are all programmed on a continuum. A, B, C…what happens if you don’t go to D next? For my daughter, it was a year of clear and sometimes “magical” thinking. For me, I realized maybe she wasn’t ready for college right after high school. Hindsight is 20/20, as we all know. But she came to that realization on her own. And as the year progressed, her confidence took root and reached for the sky. She came to the end of the year with her own bank account, an identity all her own, and a new appreciation for the workforce. I couldn’t recommend a year off more enthusiastically. In our case, a stopping point took the form of a compass, ultimately leading my daughter back to herself. She returned to a larger university in Boston and is thriving. Maybe the Europeans know what they are doing. In most countries, a year off is mandatory.

Cathy DonovonCatherine Donovan is a mother, painter, graphic designer and contributing writer to several blogs. She writes about topics relevant to the women of the mid-life generation. Catherine has written three children’s books and is working on a fourth. After a successful career in advertising for 25 years, she also owned a confection company, Milton Point Sweets, whose cookies were featured on the Today Show. Catherine now concentrates on her writing and is a Masters of Fine Arts candidate at Sarah Lawrence College in creative non-fiction and is the mother of a daughter who is a senior in college.




  1. says

    Excellent post, and I agree with everything you say. Our youngest child is currently taking a semester off from college. She is working and shadowing some professionals. I think it was a great decision on her part, and I’m very proud of her.

    • Anonymous says

      Janet, I endorse you and your daughter completely. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Shelley Woonton says

    My daughter chose not to go to college upon graduating last June and has spent this past year working. She doesn’t know what she wants to do and hasn’t yet decided on a direction. She felt it was too expensive to go to college and not know. It was hard to understand because she graduated 7th in her class. I too got flabbergasted comments because of her class standing etc.. Her friends didn’t stand behind her because they couldn’t comprehend why she didn’t want to go. She is now at the point where she is applying to a local college on a part-time basis to take her general education courses. It is a start and perhaps because of having this break it will be a more positive experience than if she had gone right after high school.

    • says

      “She felt it was too expensive to go to college and not know.” Sounds like you’ve raised a VERY smart child. I would be very proud of her.

    • says

      I agree with Lisa, Shelley, your daughter sounds like a very wise and independent young woman. No doubt she will find her own path to her future in academics or wherever.

  3. says

    THANK YOU SO MUCH for this timely post – for me and my son. He’s currently in his second year of junior college and then????? He just has no clue what he’s going to do when he applies to a four-year college. Maybe he shouldn’t go right away. I mean, what the heck is the big hurry, especially when we’re talking big bucks these days to send your kid to college. Your post really brought up some good points and I am going to have him read it.

    • says

      Patti, we are so glad that Cathy’s post was timely for you. Think she made some excellent points for parents and kids, too.

  4. says

    Taking this a step further- college just isn’t a forward motion choice for everyone. We have three college graduates. For one of them this was a complete waste of their time and effort. I only wish I had had more courage and a broader outlook at the time or I would have advised him differently. Excellent post.

  5. says

    I wonder if it start with the whole visiting 7, 10, 12 colleges. I think that’s an upper-middle class thing, but maybe not. We do live in an affluent community and that wasn’t uncommon; but the problem is that that sets up an expectation that there is a PERFECT college out there for each student. But that’s just not the case. We’re kind of an anomaly in our community because our daughter, who is a college junior, applied to one school – our good, solid state university – and that’s it. She got in and was happy with her decision. Sometimes I wondered if I should have encouraged her to look at other schools – there are some great small liberal arts schools in nearby Ohio! – but they weren’t even on her radar. Has it been the perfect experience? No, probably not. But it’s been a good one – she’s had ups and downs and that’s a great training ground for real-life later one. Because when you go to work, guess what? You’ll have ups and downs. Same with marriage, kids, and now I’m sounding like a stern lecturer! I feel like as parents, we’re looking for this nirvana for our kids, and then they follow suit – but there is no nirvana. There’s only real life.

    • says

      I meant to add this is a great post and I’m sure will make people think. That’s a good thing.

      • says

        Pam, what you have said about expecting college to be “nirvana” – both by parents and the kids – is very true. Marriage, jobs and college all have “ups and downs” so it is best to have a little less stardust in our eyes about all. Thanks for the kind words, btw, we are grateful to Cathy for sharing her experience with our readers.

  6. says

    All 3 of my children have taken time off from college. My daughter claims taking off a semester to work was one of the smartest things she’s ever done. One of my two boys may never return. Although it’s a hard pill to swallow, I know in my heart that I should probably support him in his decision. This kid loves to work and I doubt $200,000+ worth of college is going to give him a $200,000 advantage in his career when he starts 3 years from now. “Oh, you won’t make the connections,” or “You may take a class that could change the entire course of your life” – reasons I use to persuade him to stay in school. But I know in my gut that a college degree is not what it was in our day. Today it must be supplemented with internships, master’s degrees or study abroad. Many of today’s companies, especially those who use technology, don’t even care about degrees. They’d rather train their employees. By the time the professors get into the classroom, the technology has already changed and they are teaching old news. Oh, I ramble . . . thank you, ladies, for a great article and hopefully opening all of our eyes!

    • says

      Lisa, thanks for all of your “rambling” as it is helpful to compare notes in this space. Cathy’s writing has touched on an important subject, we agree.

    • martha says

      I agree that our children are facing a different career climate…their best attribute may be their courage and willingness to make their own choices in life. I was a staunch supporter of the values of a liberal arts college education and “following your passion” until I saw my daughter struggle to find employment after graduating with honors from Oberlin with an art degree.

      • lisa says

        I agree, Martha. My daughter is graduating from Tufts with a (very expensive) psychology degree and she has not been able to find anything and we don’t feel that optimistic. She is planning on going into nursing but that is going to cost her time and money. With our specialized, and currently constricted, economy, and the cost of college, I think the kids have to specialize or go to cheaper schools
        in order to make it work.

  7. says

    I suggested to my straight-A granddaughter that she go to community college out of high school for several reasons:
    1. It’s cheap enough you can experiment with subjects you might not otherwise ever consider taking.
    2. It’s a nice transition between home and living completely on your own for those who are a bit introverted.
    3. Few future employers will even notice where you spent those first two years.

    She took my advice and earned her AA degree while living at home, working part time her second year. Then she took a year off school entirely. Now she’s at a college that is one of the top in the country in her chosen field–which we couldn’t have afforded if she’d attended all four years–and she loves it, although–or maybe because–she finds it challenging.

  8. says

    Angela, you and your family must be so happy that your granddaughter found such a rewarding path to a great school for her. Thanks for leaving these excellent points for others to see, too.

    • lisa says

      Angela, you make such a good point but my kids won’t even consider community college – they think it is for the kids who can’t make it, are “stoners” or aren’t high achievers. I can’t sell them on the idea although they have no idea what they want to do

  9. says

    I think this is such a good idea for kids nowadays. 18 is so young to decide what you want to do with your life, especially if you haven’t had much exposure to different job opportunities!

  10. Carpool Goddess says

    I think this post speaks to many kids who need a break. Thanks for sharing!

  11. says

    Today so many of us fill our high school students with expectations of what college should be, leaving them confused and disappointed when it doesn’t turn into the amazing experience we told them to anticipate. Cathy makes a good point about determining the real reason your son or daughter wants to take time off. This conversation could be one of the most honest you may have with your child and one that can make a huge impact on their life. As others have posted here, a year off can pay off in more ways than one.

  12. says

    I have been an independent college counselor and adviser for several years, and I applaud you, and your daughter, for making a wise decision. I believe gap years can be extremely beneficial. There are many reasons why students should take a year off, and I’m so glad you were supportive. Excellent choice!

  13. Sarah says

    Thanks for the timely post. My son has mentioned several times that he wants to take a semester off to hike the AT. And, as I drove him to the airport at the end of his spring break earlier this month, he brought up a litany of issues he was facing this year, everything from social issues to hating the honors program he is in. It will take awhile for him to work through this, including whether he wants to transfer or drop honors, but I realized that as a parent I wasn’t going to squash a dream that he has. I’m beginning to see that he also needs the time to figure things out.

  14. says

    Great post! More students should consider a gap year even though many people will try to dissuade them. My son was given a scholarship to spend a gap year in the UK. He was in school, but took courses that he was interested in like History of Art and Geography that he had not had the time to take in high school. He also did a great deal of traveling and came back with a whole new perspective on college. I would wholeheartedly endorse a gap year!

  15. jenny sheen says

    way back year 1999, my friend was so sick, he has a lung problem, he cant climb up until 6th floor so he told his parents he will be off for 1 year, but his brother were so angry at him, but his mom allowed him to stop.. he then transfer to another school but he was lonely cause his high school classmates were left behind..