Will Taking A Gap Year Hurt My College Admission Chances?

Andrea Alcid

If you’re a recent or soon-to-be graduate of high school, you may have heard the term “gap year” used more and more often these days. A gap year is essentially a break, usually a year long, taken in between high school and college by students in order to rejuvenate and better prepare for their future plans. Gap years have become an increasingly popular trend in the last few decades, with a significant jump in numbers taking place during the height of the coronavirus pandemic

You may be asking yourself whether taking a gap year is the best option for you. Moreover, the effect of a gap year on students’ chances during admissions when they do return to college remains largely unknown under the current circumstances. If you’re considering this option, here are some questions to ask yourself as you decide:

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How should I approach the gap year?

There are two main ways to approach the gap year: deferring admission and delaying application. The former option simply means that you have been accepted to the school of your choice, but you are deferring attendance for a year. The latter approach means that you are delaying the application process for the year after you graduate high school. The approach you depends on you and your school of choice. 

The most important factor in deciding is whether or not your school will allow you to take one. Although your university may allow gap years, this doesn’t necessarily mean you will be granted one. Students must still contact the admissions office in order to get their request approved. Once granted permission, students may still have to put down a tuition deposit in order to secure their placement at the school for when their gap year is complete. 

Next you’ll need to figure out whether your school allows deferments or if you’ll need to wait until the end of the year to apply again. A deferral is an opportunity for a student who has been admitted to delay enrollment for a period of time, usually a year in length. The criteria for choosing students will differ from one institution to another, with many colleges only granting deferrals if the students do not pursue education elsewhere and can demonstrate their plan for meaningful, alternative work during this time. Keep in mind that taking college classes for credit elsewhere during this time would make you a transfer student, and you’d have to reapply next fall as such.

How will my financial aid be determined/affected?

If you previously applied for financial aid, you will need to reapply again in the fall (anytime after October 1) and check with your college for it’s application requirements and deadlines. If you’ve received scholarships, have a conversation with the awarding organizations on whether or not it can roll over to the following year. With economic stress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, many more families will need requests for financial aid in order to fund their student’s college tuition and fees, including those who have never applied or needed it in the past. A gap year can improve your chances of receiving financial aid, so it never hurts to apply and see what you get!

Do I need to take or retake the SAT/ACT?

Additionally, keep in mind that while many universities are not currently requiring standardized test scores for applications, this policy could change in the future. When debating on taking a gap year, it is important to consider the possibility of having to retake the SAT or ACT in order to apply, so it’s important to have a chat with prospective schools in order to best prepare.

How do I make the most of my gap year?

If you haven’t applied to college yet, taking a gap year is a great opportunity to beef up your application and gain a competitive edge in the admissions process. Make sure you’re using the time to gain a solid foundation of personal and professional experiences to build your skillset in order to show admissions that you deserve a spot at their institution. It is important to approach gap years as a “year on” rather than a “year off” in order to make the most of it. This also gives you time to take up a job in order to better fund college in the future. By doing so, you’ll be able to use essays and personal statements to demonstrate how a gap year has pushed you forward towards your goals and ambitions.

Some may choose to enroll in a study abroad program during an upcoming gap year, yet there are plenty of ways to learn, grow, and give locally. Remote internships and local volunteer projects are a great way to show colleges that the time was put to good use. Volunteering can demonstrate your self-awareness as a citizen and passion for creating a positive impact in the world, a trait that is valued now more than ever. These opportunities allow students to earn experience while expanding their world view, which can put them at the top of admissions lists when re-applying.

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How do I prove the gap year was worth it? 

Remember, a gap year isn’t a year-long summer vacation. Be prepared to give an explanation to college admissions as to why a gap year was the best decision for yourself. If you’ve used it to your advantage, you’ll have lots of examples to demonstrate the value and importance that you place on learning experiences. If there is an optional essay, use it to tell a story from your gap year that showcases your best qualities that will  inform the college of your goals and aspirations. Though the question may be intimidating, it can positively impact your chances of admission if you can clearly demonstrate how you’ve developed an educational mindset and kept yourself motivated towards success outside of the classroom.

These are all important things to consider in regards to the admissions process while deciding to take a gap year. Remember to plan ahead and have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish during this time. Keep notes of important application dates and requirements on hand so you don’t end up missing them and fall two years behind instead. Even if you’ve already decided to take a gap year, it’s still important to apply to colleges anyway during senior year in order to make sure you’re taking advantage of your high school’s resources. This can include asking trusted teachers to write letters of recommendation while it’s still fresh in their minds. 

Choosing to take a gap year will feel like taking the road less traveled, but it can be a worthwhile and rewarding experience. Don’t forget to do the following steps to make the gap year process as easy as possible: 

  • Check with your school to see if they allow gap years or deferrals
  • Make sure to reapply for financial aid and contact any scholarship organizations
  • See if you need to retake the SAT or ACT upon applying to colleges
  • Beef up your résumé while taking time off—consider taking on a remote internships or local volunteer projects
  • Remember that grades prior to the final term of high school become a more important factor in the admissions process
  • Be prepared to give an explanation to college admissions as to why taking a gap year was beneficial

As you think about next steps after high school, remember that a gap year should be used to improve your chances of being accepted into your dream college. If used unproductively, it can hurt chances of admission. Studies show that high school students who delay enrolling in college by a year tend to earn credentials at lower rates than those who enroll right away. Additionally, first-generation and minority students are more likely to not attend college at all if they delay enrollment following high school graduation. This should not come as discouragement in deciding to take a gap year, though. Everyone is different, and it is important to remember that the key to having a gap year that improves your college admissions experience is hinged on a single factor: motivation.

Best of luck!