Most colleges agree, gap years are a good thing. Harvard actually encourages its students to take a gap year and goes as far as to attribute its 97% graduation rate to the number of students who take a break after high school. One study, 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.
But who has the time and money to take a year off from college? My parents would have considered taking a gap year a luxury that I didn’t have. Who was going to support me for a year while I was doing all that self-discovery? Would I really want to be a year behind all of my peers? Could I afford to go one more year without a full-time job?
For students who can afford to take a full year off, and are able to get parental buy-in, that’s a great option. For students who would love to take time out of the classroom, but can’t afford to take a year off, getting academic credit for your gap year is the best way to save time and money. Here is your guide to scoring academic credit on your gap year so you can stay on that 4(ish) year graduation timeline.
Step 1. Defer Your Admission
First off, congrats! You’re in. Compared to getting into college, deferring should be pretty simple. What does it mean to defer? It means to “postpone,” or “delay.” It does not mean “cancel” or “turn down.” Many universities give this option to students who are committed to attending that university, but for personal reasons -- finances, emergencies, or other plans -- want to wait a year to do so.
This is a fairly common occurrence, and will not cost you your place at the school. In fact, 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. Check well in advance about their deferral policy.
The American Gap Year Association has a list of university deferral policies that will help you in the initial research phase, but definitely get in touch with someone from your admissions office for more specific details and how-tos. You can also usually find your school’s policy on the admission page once you have been accepted.
After you've researched the process, send a formal email to the admissions team. Be sure to include a well-structured plan for your gap year, including what you hope to accomplish, how this will help your academic career at the university, and why you wish the university to hold your spot. Colleges will often save you a spot – but they don’t have to. Be clear, be specific, and be excited!
Step 2. Get to Know Your Advisor & Course Catalogue
Once you’ve been 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. 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 their them to be an advocate for you. It’s likely that they’ve had this conversation with colleges a hundred times before 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 are planning to attend and the credit will already be figured out for you!
If you are flying solo, it’s time to do some research. Your best resource is your school’s Course Catalog. The Course Catalog is a list, usually a PDF download, of every class your school offers. Flip to the departments most likely to fit with your gap year, 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 with your gap year experience. Likely, this will involve some sort of form where you give specific examples and reasons why you will learn the same skills the course would teach you, and provide an itemized itinerary (it’s okay if you have to fudge it a little) of how much time you will be spending learning those skills each week.
Additionally, some universities will accept your gap year as an “independent study” course at their school. Sometimes reserved for upperclassmen doing their own research, independent study courses are worked out between you and an advisor, and give students the opportunity to receive university credit for the valuable outside-of-the-classroom learning they do.
However, this must be arranged, proposed, an approved beforehand. The process of acquiring approval is similar to the above process 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, lots of good universities are willing to work with you on this option.
Step 3a. 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 can usually be found on the transfer section of the school’s website. These are typically classes from other universities, but they can provide a blueprint for getting credit for your course.
Look for classes that have previously been approved for transfer credit, they have a better chance of being approved for gap year credit as well. 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, be sure to send those to your advisor along with the course you think it should count towards. Even better if you can show that this course has accepted transfer credit before.
Step 3b. Look into Articulation Agreements (aka The Fool-Proof Credit Option)
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. The large majority of 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 who do have these partnerships are a guaranteed way to get college credit for your semester. For example, Verto Education, has contracts in place with colleges 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.
Another example, if you are excited to jump into the workplace, is Global Experiences. They have articulation agreements with around hundreds of colleges that recognize their college credit and allow you to make an international internship part of your college curriculum. Both of these organizations also offer access to FAFSA and additional scholarships which can make taking a gap year more affordable.
Step 4. Navigate Denial/Restriction 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. You might run into a policy like the one at Tulane University:
Because gap years are designed as enrichment opportunities, we ask that you do not attend another university or participate in a program that awards college credit during your period of deferral.
This is an extremely frustrating roadblock to run into considering all the benefits colleges know that students get from gap years. What are your options if a school turns down your request?
- Go anyway! If you are in a position that you can afford to take a year off and not earn college credit, consider taking that options and being able to thoroughly enjoy taking a break from school work.
- 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 here are that you will have to reapply and could potentially lose your merit scholarships. Make sure to talk to your school contact before making this decision!
- Find a school that recognizes the value of gap years and supports you in your endeavor to make it an affordable, accessible part of your college career. Send a message to your school that policies like this actually hurt students not help them.
Step 5. Make Your Gap Year Count
So you've somehow managed to convince that prestigious university into letting you travel the world for an entire year AND score some credit for all that learning you'll be doing. Congrats! The hard part of getting your gap year academic credit is over. Now comes the easier but more important part: doing it, and documenting it!
You can’t get credit for your gap year without documentation and proof that not only did you actually do the gap year you said you were going to do, but that you actually learned what you claimed to deserve credit for. Check with your university advisor before you leave to find out what constitutes “proof.” 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.
Whatever your school requires, make darn sure you do it. Taking a gap year is awesome, but getting college credit for -- and not having to pay for those classes again later -- is even more awesome.
This post was originally published in October 2014, and updated in July 2019.