Mind the Gap – Tips for Taking A Year Off Before College
Three things are suddenly very popular:
- Hand sanitizer.
- Face masks.
- The gap year.
The corona-crisis has both colleges and students scrambling to adapt to the new world of quarantine, sheltering-in-place, and social distancing. And as many colleges consider suspending campus classes for the fall of 2020, many students who had not previously planned to take a gap year are now considering delaying their college start until things sort themselves out.
Suddenly, families are turning to their educational consultants to ask for suggestions on how to fill the gap—the gap year, that is—with something meaningful that moves the ball from an educational or maturational perspective. And planning a gap year is all the more challenging now when travel is restricted and in person opportunities are uncertain.
We at Colledge have been talking with students and families about gap years and developing strategic proposals with our gap year plans for years. The most common question we get is “Why take a gap year?” We usually answer by talking about how helpful gap years can be to a student’s self-growth. Many students find a gap year allows them time to find a part of themselves that has yet to be explored. The time off can relieve the academic pressures that often wear kids down. And depending on what the student chooses to do, a gap year can give a student a chance to dip their toes into the employment pool and get a glimpse at a potential career path or two.
This spring, a new follow-up question has emerged: “What can I do during a gap year if we are still sheltering in place?” While students may have to wait until January 2021 to take advantage of some of the gap opportunities that involve travel or in person research or work, there are a number of passion projects that could be pursued independently, including:
- Train for a marathon
- Write the “Great American Novel” (or a few short stories or a book of poetry)
- Build a piece of furniture, like a dresser, from scratch
- Study cultures through cuisine – bake a different bread from every country in the world every day
- Learn to code
- Build a mobile app
- Study a world language or sign language
- Learn to play an instrument
- Compose music, record an album
- Volunteer for a political campaign
- Write and shoot a low-budget film
- Learn magic, or improv, or 3-D printing
There are downsides to a gap year, of course. Obviously, it delays college graduation for a year or more. After 12 straight years of school, a gap year can deprive students of the structure they are used to. And stepping away from school can make it hard to step back in when the year is done.
Every student needs to weigh these and other pros and cons for themselves. If a student does come down in favor of a gap year, here are the steps they will need to take.
- Figure out the process. Just about every school has a formalized process for request to defer enrollment. Typically, it involves submitting a formal request to the admissions office. The standard deadline is the college’s reply date (many of which have been extended this year). But check each school’s website to make sure.
- Submit your proposal. Universities typically want to know what a student is going to do with the time “off,” and want to be sure the plan is substantive. This doesn’t mean the year has to be academic. (In fact, the one restriction many colleges place on the year is that students cannot take classes elsewhere for credit.) It just has to be thoughtful and purposeful. Here is where an educational consultant can be most helpful — students should use the proposal as an opportunity to crystallize for themselves what you want out of the year and how best to structure things to achieve those goals.
Here’s what colleges are typically looking for in a gap year proposal:
- A clearly defined plan, including a timeline of activities.
- Meaningful intentions, such as serving a particular community, pursuing a passion, or seeking out a deep learning opportunity.
- Strong signals that the student is going to follow through (both with the plan and with enrollment the following year).
- Just do it. Once it’s approved, a gap year begins when the student decides it does. Our advice to students: Commit to it. Make it count. Suck the marrow out of it. The year will go by fast, and it could be awhile before you get another opportunity like this.
- Close the gap, report back. Once the year is done, the university will want a report on how it’s gone. Again, here is a place where an educational consultant can help. If they do it right, your student’s write-up can help them absorb the experience and clarify its meaning for the future.
Every college and university is slightly different in their approach to gap years. Some state universities cannot allow students to defer enrollment for anything other than military or religious obligations while many small private colleges encourage students to take a gap year or semester (by offering spring term admission). As an example, Duke University’s gap year program description is below. But whether a student is headed to Duke or Duquesne or DePaul, a gap year can offer students a unique chance to learn, and the more they put into it, the more they will get out of it.
“Our approach to a gap year is simple. There are few opportunities in life to take a meaningful amount of time to pause, reflect, explore, and grow. There are even fewer opportunities where you can do so knowing you have a truly exceptional opportunity waiting for you. Students who come to Duke typically have been focused, active, and successful, for many years. This is your opportunity to catch your breath for a year, to gain some perspective, to make a difference in a community near or far, to grow as a person, and to be better prepared for all that college has to offer. Some students may even receive financial support from Duke to support their gap year plans.”
Jenny Umhofer is the owner and founder of Colledge, the premier college advisory group in southern California. As a former admissions officer for UCLA, Caltech, and Scripps College, and long-standing member of NACAC, Jenny’s company is committed to the highest standards of integrity, all while demystifying the college admissions process for a wide range of high school students and families.