The Hippo


Jul 17, 2019








Helping students with gap year


James Burns and his business partner Tim McMahon are trying to address the gap between high school and college.

The pair have created GapSmart! (, a Merrimack-based company that provides consulting to high school graduates during their “gap year,” the time between high school and college. GapSmart! helps students find service-based programs to enter before they go off to college. Many of the programs, such as AmeriCorps, offer people a chance to develop practical skills while providing services and doing a little personal exploration. Burns said the experience can often give prospective college students a clearer picture of what they’d like to study in college and what field they’d like to enter later on.

“If a student takes time between high school and college, they mature and find their life direction,” Burns said. “And when they go to school...the student is much more directed and understands what they’re studying and why.”

AmeriCorps is a government service program with a variety of programs. The Dynamy Program offers hundreds of internship opportunities that rotate participants to different internships every three months. Thinking Beyond Borders takes small groups of people outside the country to work on different local issues.

“There’s so many programs out there,” Burns said.

While the focus is on graduating high school students, Burns said the company often works with college graduates or students toiling through their first couple years of college in search of direction. Burns also gets inquiries from people outside the United States looking to spend their gap year in this country.

“It really grew out of our own experiences,” Burns said, adding the education system does particularly well at teaching skills, but students need a more hands-on experience to learn how to apply them.
While some graduating high school students are fully on board with doing something meaningful before entering college, others need a little prodding to see the worth in taking the extra time. Many feel a certain degree of pressure from parents and other societal factors to graduate high school and enroll in college the following fall.

“It’s something I’d love every American to do,” Burns said. “Right now it’s just the more adventurous, ahead-of-the-curve students, who are willing to go against the grain a little.”

It isn’t that students need to take a full year off between high school and college — a few months might be just what they’re looking for. Burns stressed that the company looks to set clients up with constructive time off. They’re not just trying to set somebody up with a fun trip.

“It’s up to the individual to decide what their gap year looks like,” Burns said. “...It’s great to hang out on the beach but that can’t be the focus of your gap year. You should be doing something for further down the road.”

Burns, who has been consulting since 2006, had helped many a student enter AmeriCorps before GapSmart! was officially incorporated last summer. After graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 2004, Burns was accepted into an AmeriCorps program for two years. He said it was a transformative experience that allowed him to travel all over the country.

“It helped me realize what I wanted to do,” Burns said. “I left college pretty clueless.”

After AmeriCorps, he began researching the gap year and found many universities, such as Harvard and Princeton, suggested it was beneficial to do some form of service during the gap year.
Burns said GapSmart! prides itself on getting to know students to figure out where their comfort zones are. That way, GapSmart! can more appropriately recommend a program and programs know GapSmart! sends qualified candidates. Staff also help students find programs that fall within their financial limitations.

Burns is seeking to schedule information sessions about GapSmart! at area high schools.

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