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by Karen Spencer, former admissions officer at Georgetown University

With so much unknown out there about the timing of COVID-19 and the length of social distancing measures, one of the most common questions we are fielding is whether or not a gap year might make sense for incoming freshmen. This practice of putting off enrollment for a year is called “deferring,” and whether or not the time off is granted is up to the university. If family finances have changed and your college plans are up in the air, or if the uncertainty surrounding the structure of campus life and learning has you rethinking your plan to enroll this fall, a “gap year” might be a good option. Here are questions to ask before pursuing the gap year option:

Does your admitting university allow gap years?

Just because you ask your admitting college for a gap year doesn’t mean you’ll be granted permission to do so. Individual colleges will handle this differently—some may approve all requests that come in, some may limit the amount, and some may not allow for any. Colleges traditionally have a range of different policies around deferrals. For example, some colleges might approve single-semester deferrals while others require full year deferrals. Given the increased uncertainty this year, colleges will be managing deferral requests within the context of broader university needs. You’ll want to contact the school where you are enrolling and ask about their policies first.

Will taking classes elsewhere transform you into a transfer student?

Many colleges that do approve deferrals have parameters around how that time away can be spent. Specifically, if you are considering taking college classes for credit (potentially online) at a local community college for the first year, at many universities this would make you a transfer student, and you’d have to reapply next fall as such. Again, this will differ from school to school, but it’s vital you know that information before you consider this option.

Will financial aid be affected?

If you applied for financial aid, you will need to reapply again in the fall (any time after October 1 for the next academic year), and check with your college for application requirements and deadlines. If your financial situation stays similar, your need-based financial aid should be similar the following year. On the flip side, a gap year could improve your chances for need-based aid if your parent’s 2019 income was less than their 2018 income, or if your parents will have overlap with two kids in college at the same time. However, there are no guarantees and colleges may reevaluate aid policies and packaging parameters in light of the current situation, as many colleges and universities are facing some serious budget issues right now.

Will merit scholarships be affected?

Merit aid may or may not roll over to the following year, so it will be important to have a conversation with the admissions office, which grants the bulk of merit aid, if considering a gap year. Similarly, scholarships from outside organizations may or may not be transferable to next year, so confer with private scholarship providers as well when making your decision.

How will you spend your gap year?

You’re a high school graduate, ready to dive into the next stage of your life! If you do take a year off from school, what will you do with that time? Many traditional gap year programs that cater to high school graduates (group-oriented opportunities to travel or work or volunteer alongside peers) are not typically formatted in a way that allows for social distancing measures, so you’ll want to have a plan for what you’ll do if stay-at-home measures are still in place.

So what are the options? Many organizations are hurting for volunteers, as demand for their services increase but many volunteers who are typically involved (retirees, adults with school-age children) can no longer do so. This creates a new need for committed bodies at organizations like Meals on Wheels, who are in major need of new drivers. AmeriCorps, a national service program, is currently still taking applications for next year, and—especially if schools and afterschool programs are still limited—there will be a desperate need for childcare in every neighborhood across the country.

If a structured program isn’t appealing or isn’t available, many students will have to craft a plan for themselves. Families will need to be honest about their student’s ability to be self-motivated enough to keep up with a self-directed program, but reflecting on the student’s interests and skills is a great place to start. A student should think about what they can do virtually that will allow them to achieve their goals for the year. Here are some ideas of what this could look like:

  • Virtual immersion in Spanish culture: Take an online class through a program like Coursera (not for credit), schedule weekly Zoom chats with a Spanish-speaking friend, and virtually tour places like the Prado Museum in Madrid.
  • Hands-on building exploration (great for the robotics and the theater techies out there!): Build a bench for the back yard, assist an elderly neighbor with home repair projects, or build a loft bed for your room.
  • Diversify your STEM perspective: Plan a weekly hands-on science project for the neighborhood kids, take an online course (not for credit) on science ethics, and cook weekly family dinners inspired by the chemistry of Salt Fat Acid Heat.

Even for students social distancing at home next fall, there are many ways to engage with the world during a gap year. And while most schools will understand why a student might want to take a gap year during this unprecedented time, their own fiscal concerns may play a role in whether or not a college can afford to grant deferral requests. So, as you consider your options for a gap year, your first step is to contact the admissions office at your college to understand their policies regarding deferred admission. And start thinking about how you’d spend this meaningful time!

For more, visit our full list of COVID-19 resources.

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Written by Karen Spencer
Karen Spencer is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Karen previously worked as a senior admissions officer at Georgetown University and Franklin & Marshall College. Visit our website to learn more about Karen Spencer.