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How To Tell Your New College You Want to Take a Gap Year

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A quick Google search will lead you to hundreds of reasons why taking a gap year after high school and before college is a good idea. At the same time, it’s easy to get caught up in the applying-to-college hooplah. So what do you do if you’ve gone over the pros and cons and decided you want to take a gap year, but you’ve already been accepted to a college for the fall?

Depending on the college you’ve applied to, this could be an extremely painless process, or it might take some navigating. Some colleges will love to hear the news that you’re taking a gap year, others might be a little confused and unsure how to handle it. But never fear, we’ve got you covered!

Research if your college has a leave of absence policy

The American Gap Association has a useful list of many college’s policies. Typically, a gap year policy would mean that the student -- often upon submitting a detailed outline of their gap year plans -- can defer their acceptance a year without having to reapply to the university. Others require you to take a leave of absence and reapply. Many Ivy League schools even encourage newly-accepted students to defer their acceptance and take a year off. As you can see, this policy -- if one exists at all -- will vary from university to university, so be sure to cover this in your initial research phase!

Prepare a plan and goals for your gap year

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Before you go any further, you should have a real reason for taking this gap year, including goals of what you want to accomplish and at least some structure and idea of what you are going to do -- we're not saying plan it all, but at least devise a rough draft of a plan!

Your college may or may not require this information when you request a deferral, but it is worth having this all worked out ahead of time for yourself either way -- especially if you plan on taking a course (i.e. a language course) somewhere along the way and want to attempt getting credit for it. If your college doesn’t have an in-place policy for this kind of situation, being prepared and able to argue your case could be the difference between having to reapply in a year or not.

Ideas for How to Spend Your Gap Year Abroad
  • Volunteer -- Taking a gap year to volunteer provides a meaningful experience while also allowing you to build character and enhance your skills. There are a huge amount of volunteer opportunities both abroad and at home, so taking a whole year off could also give you the opportunity to try out different things or volunteer in different places.
  • Intern or work abroad -- Working or interning abroad (or even at home) can be a great way to gain professional skills and figure out if you really want to do what you think you want to do (and probably major in!).
  • Immerse yourself in a new culture -- This can be accomplished in another of ways, such as through an educational gap year provider or by living with a host family and taking classes in another culture (and potentially language!)
  • Learn a language -- Again, spending a year living with a host family and taking classes in a local language school can be a great way to spend your gap year. Or perhaps you could just go take language classes abroad and pair that with another activity, such as becoming an au pair.
  • Conduct research -- If you are really passionate about or interested in a particular subject or issue, who says you can’t pursue it now? You may even be able to secure a grant to help fund your work! Again, this is a great way to gauge your true level of interest, and you will be miles ahead of the crowd when you start college the following year!
  • Travel -- Travel shouldn’t be the only thing you’re doing on your gap year, but it’s hard to argue against the value of it. Travel helps you gain insight into different aspects of varying cultures, allowing you to compare and contrast and open your perspective even further. Just make sure you’re partaking in more meaningful travel, and not just the laying-on-the-beach kind, and you should be good to go!

Check if your school has affiliation with your program provider

If you are taking a gap year through a third party program provider, or planning to enroll in a course or two during your time abroad, check to see if your university has any affiliation or partnerships with these programs. Depending on if your school has already created a partnership with a program abroad that you're interested in, you may be able to finagle some college credits while abroad and make the most of your gap year.

Suggested Gap Year Abroad Programs

Contact the admissions office

The sooner you do this, the better. (May 1st seems to be a common deadline for universities for when you must inform them of something like this.) Again, it is good to have a plan prepared for your gap year before you start the process of contacting your school and (hopefully) deferring your acceptance. Talking to your admissions counselor may mean you discover you need more information, but, again, if you already have some structure and confidence in your plans, it may help you negotiate an easier process.

Ask if you can defer your enrollment

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Many universities will have some kind of a policy for deferrals or a leave of absence of some kind. However, to be eligible you may not be allowed to enroll anywhere else or earn more than a certain number of credits (i.e. taking community college classes or classes at a university abroad, or potentially even enrolling in some accredited gap year programs).

If you aren’t able to defer your acceptance, inquire as to what you will be required to do to reapply next year. In some cases, most of your information (including recommendations and transcripts) will be kept on file, and you will not have to gather that information again. You may not have to pay another application fee, either.

Double check rules and stipulations for any financial aid

You will likely have to re-apply for FAFSA after you return from your gap year. However, if you are receiving any scholarships, you will have to check with the university and/or the sources of the scholarships to see if they can also be deferred. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t, and sometimes there are various contingencies or you may have to reapply. This will likely impact your gap year decisions so make sure you are fully aware of all possible scenarios.

Maintain flexibility

Your gap year is going to be life changing, and there is a distinct possibility that you will come back with a different vision of your future than when you left. You may realize you want to study something entirely different than what you previously thought, which may affect your choice of college as well. This could also be significant if you enrolled specifically into a certain major, program, or school that perhaps is more competitive, selective, or of limited capacity. Make sure whatever plan you work out with your university allows for some flexibility if you change your mind about what you want to do when you get back. Also keep this in mind if you put down any kind of deposit -- you may or may not be able to get that back if you change your decision!

Overall, the key to enjoying the smoothest possible gap year/college transition is to plan ahead. If you know even before you apply to college that a gap year is something you want to do, you can make sure to include that in your college research. As gap years become more accepted, there are some colleges that go above and beyond to encourage their students to take gap years. In fact, Princeton University has a Bridge Year Program which not only allows students to defer enrollment for a year, but actually places them in volunteer positions across the globe and covers most of the cost of the nine-month gap program.

University of North Carolina also offers a similar Global Gap Year Fellowship program that offers even more flexibility for students to design the kind of gap year they desire with the $7,500 the university provides. And if after all the research is done, you decide that maybe you aren’t ready for a gap year right now, don’t give up on the idea entirely. There are plenty of other great times in life to take a year off, so just start dreaming up your future gap year!

Photo Credits: Visions International, Esmar Abdul Hamid, and Jaskirat Singh Bawa.
Rachael Taft

Growing up in the Midwest, Rachael couldn't wait to get out and see the world. She's studied abroad in Italy and Thailand, interned abroad in Sydney, worked abroad in Australia and Fiji, and traveled to 30+ countries, including backpacking solo across South America. In addition to working in international exchange, Rachael obsesses over all things her blog Girl, Unmapped.