Colleges and universities are supporting students taking a gap year more than ever, as the benefits of dedicating time away from academia to focus on experiential learning become clear. Harvard, for example, actually encourages its students to take a gap year. On the Harvard Admissions Department FAQ sheet, they state:
"We encourage admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way..."
In fact, one study published by the UK Department of Education, Gap year takers: uptake, trends and long-term outcomes, found that students who take gap years are more likely to graduate with higher GPAs than students who go straight into college. This was true even for gap year students with lower academic achievement in high school.
That said, taking a year off college can be challenging. Here are a few of the common problems prospective gappers face when deciding to take a year off from school:
- Uncertainty on if their admission can be deferred
- Fear of losing a scholarship
- Their loved ones don't agree with the idea of taking time off
- A desire to not fall behind their peers by delaying university graduation
- Concern about the ability to afford time off without working full-time (especially when traveling internationally)
One solution to many of these concerns is to structure your gap year in a way that qualifies you to earn college credit. Finding programs that your university accepts can be challenging, though. We're here to help you with this step-by-step guide to scoring academic credit during a gap year so you can experience the benefits of dedicating a year to personal growth while keeping the impact on your graduation timeline as low as possible.
Step 1. Consider programs designed to provide credit
Taking a gap year and receiving credit towards your university degree do not always align. Due to this, the first step you should consider if you need to gain credit during your time abroad is to find a program that is designed to provide college credit. For example, consider an alternative study abroad experience, where you can gain many of the benefits of a gap year while remaining enrolled with your university.
Programs like Outward Bound and Seamester are both great options that combine many of the experiences of an adventure travel gap year with the academic benefits of studying abroad. If you're looking for more independence, there are still options -- but they will take much more work on your end.
Step 2. Make a deferral agreement with your university
First off, congrats! If you have reached this point, you have at least been accepted to a college or university. Fortunately, compared to applying to colleges, deferring should be simple. Still, what does it actually mean to defer? It means to postpone, or delay your admission. It does not mean cancel or turn down a college acceptance. Many universities give this option to students committed to attending but wanting to wait a year for personal reasons such as finances, emergencies, or other plans.
While this is fairly common and should not cost you your place at the school, it's crucial to confirm your universities deferral policy well in advance and not make any assumptions. Numerous colleges are encouraging their students to take a pre-college gap year. However, you must be upfront with your university about your intentions and be ready to provide a thorough and convincing argument of why you should be allowed to do so.
The Gap Year Association has a list of university deferral policies that will help you in the initial research phase, but get in touch with the admissions office for more specific details. You can also usually find your school’s policy on the admission page once you have been accepted.
After researching the process, send a formal email to the admissions team following their guidelines. Include a well-structured plan for your gap year, with what you hope to accomplish, how this will help your academic career at the university, and why you believe the university should hold your spot. Colleges will often oblige your request and save you a spot – but they don’t have to. Be clear, be specific, and be excited!
Step 3. Get to know your advisor & course catalog
Once approved for your deferral, the next step is to connect with an academic advisor. This could be the same contact you had in the admissions office or someone related to your major (if you’ve already declared it). You may need to request their contact information specifically.
This is where you need to be strategic. If you are working with a gap year provider, enlist them to be an advocate for you. It’s likely that they’ve had this conversation with colleges previously and will be able to help you navigate the credit process. If you’re lucky, they’ve already had a student at the school you plan to attend, and the credit process will already be worked out for you!
If you're the first, it’s time to do some research. Your best resource is your school’s course catalog. The course catalog lists every class your school offers, usually in the form of a PDF download. Flip to the departments most likely to fit your gap year activities and check out the courses they offer.
Course catalogs generally list the course name (ex: Visual Art 101), the objectives of the course, and the number of credit hours the course takes to complete. The last two pieces are what you will need to convince your university you are approximating through your gap year experience. Likely, this will involve a form where you give specific examples and reasons why you will learn the same skills the course would teach you. Provide an itemized itinerary of how much time you will spend learning those skills each week.
Additionally, some universities will accept your gap year as an independent study course at their school. Sometimes reserved for upper-level students doing their own research, independent study courses are worked out between you and an advisor and allow students to receive university credit for their outside-of-the-classroom learning experiences.
However, this must be arranged, proposed, and approved beforehand. The process of acquiring approval is similar to the above method of getting course credit for your gap year, but you’ll want to have an even more well-formed idea of your arc of study. If you can prove that your gap year will help you reach your academic and educational goals, many universities will be willing to work with you on this option.
Step 4a. Browse the credit transfer database
Another powerful tool is your school’s Credit Transfer Database. This gives you full access to courses already approved to transfer to your school and is typically found on the transfer section of the school’s website. These are generally classes from other universities but can provide a blueprint for getting credit for your course.
Look for classes that have been approved previously for transfer credit, as they will also have a better chance of being approved for gap year credit. Language classes abroad will be the easiest to translate from gap year to academic credit, but don't be afraid to get creative and make a good argument if you think your gap year plans align with a non-linguistic course either. If you work with a provider who offers syllabi or a day-to-day outline of your experience, send those to your advisor along with the course you think it should count towards. It's even better if you can show that this course has accepted transfer credit before.
Step 4b. Look into articulation agreements
Articulation agreements are a pathway between two or more colleges and their academic programs. They originated with community colleges but have grown to encompass all kinds of academic partnerships. Unfortunately, most gap year organizations do not have articulation agreements with colleges because they involve a lot of collaboration (and paperwork). It often takes years to get these kinds of partnerships off the ground.
The few organizations that do have these partnerships are a guaranteed way to get college credit for your semester. For example, Verto Education has partnerships in place with over 70 colleges and universities to guarantee students up to 32 college credits on their year abroad. In this case, Verto even ensures that your credits will map to general education credits in order to keep you on track for four-year graduation.
Rea, for example, began their college career with Verto through the Start College in Turrialba, Costa Rica program, and this was what they had to say:
"The best part is you can get your degree as you travel, and you get to create memories that you could never have at a regular college. Each day is filled with unexpected adventures and classes packed with information. This school is a place that you want to go if you want to have the best time of your life your first year of college. I recommend the school for anyone who loves to travel and loves to be adventurous."
Read Rea's full review, and dozens of others, on the Verto Education Program Review page.
Another example, if you are excited to jump into the workplace, is Global Experiences. They have articulation agreements with hundreds of universities that recognize their program for college credit and allow you to make an international internship part of your college curriculum. This is a fantastic way to get out of the classroom and gain real-world experience while still accumulating course credit.
Even better, both of these organizations also offer access to FAFSA, scholarships, and need-based grants to help with the financial burden of taking a gap year.
Step 5. Navigate denial clauses
While colleges are generally happy to help students defer, and even encourage gap years, there are still a few who have policies against earning college credits during your year break. If you do encounter a policy that makes getting course credit impossible, there are a few options:
- Go anyway! This may mean making sacrifices to the length, location, or type of gap year you pursue, and you will likely need to budget accordingly, but don't be discouraged from taking a gap year just because it will require delaying college graduation. It will be well worth it!
- Enter as a transfer student. Talk to your admissions counselor about the possibility of you entering next year as a transfer student. If you can find a gap year program that is accredited or find a school that will give you college credit for your gap year experience, you might be able to transfer those credits in. The two major drawbacks are that you will have to reapply and could potentially lose your merit scholarships. Make sure to talk to your school and weigh the risks before making this decision!
- Pick a school that supports you. Find a college or university that recognizes the value of gap years and supports you in your endeavor to make it an affordable, accessible part of your college career.
Step 6. Make your gap year count
Getting to this stage means you've convinced your college that the experiential learning you will undergo during your gap year is worth some credit. Congrats! The hard part of getting your gap year academic credit is over. Now comes the most important part -- getting out there and making the most of your time away from the classroom.
You can’t get credit for your gap year without documentation and proof that you successfully completed the program as laid out in your proposal. Before you take off on your endeavors, confirm with your university advisor precisely what documentation you need. For some schools, this will mean a research paper at the end of your experience. For others, it will be weekly video and email check-ins with a professor. If your course is already accredited, you might need to maintain a certain GPA during your time abroad and send them a mid-semester update.
How to find gap year programs that might count towards college credit
As outlined in this guide, there are few gap year programs that are guaranteed to count towards college credit. However, there are many options that might work depending on how you frame the experience and the flexibility of your home university.
For example, service learning programs like the Global Work Costa Rica Public Health and Service Adventure are a great option for pre-med students or those interested in healthcare-related fields. This could also be framed as an independent study experience for those interested in working on public health campaigns.
Another approach, and likely the easiest to get approved, is to add traditional classroom learning abroad or a language study program to your gap year. Since these will be structured similar to courses at your home university, and may even be in the credit transfer database already, you will have a good argument on why they should count towards your degree.
Finally, many universities encourage students to pursue an internship during their studies, and even incentivize them by providing a streamlined process for getting them approved for credit. Pursuing an internship abroad is a fantastic way to combine real-world work experience, exposure to international work culture, and credit towards your degree simultaneously!
Regardless of the gap year program you decide to pursue, make a case to your university on why it should qualify for credit. While some programs are much less likely to be approved than others, at least you'll know you tried.
Structure your gap year in a way that benefits you
Taking a gap year is an incredible experience, and doing so in a way that counts towards your university degree is truly special. It will take dedication, independence, and a lot of hard work -- but these will be just a few of the many lessons you'll be pushed to learn during your dedicated time off.
Note: There are strong considerations on whether pursuing college credit during your gap year is the right approach. You will be limited in the programs and activities you can partake in. Learn more about gap year options and get inspired through these additional articles: