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A Game Plan for Applying to College After a Gap Year

by - Published December 5, 2017 , Updated March 19

Taking a gap year after high school or a gap year during college can be a life-changing experience. Don’t miss out on a gap year because you are afraid of what the college admissions offices will think! The fact of the matter is, just like with anything else, a gap year can either help or hurt your college admissions prospects depending what you do with it!

In most cases, if you’re thoughtfully planning your gap year (which you probably are, if you’re reading this), applying for college after a gap year will be no problem. In fact, if you plan correctly, you’ll likely find that applying to college after a gap year means your application is even stronger and your admissions prospects improve!

Here are some tips on successfully applying to college after a gap year or taking a year off from college for a gap year.

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Your gap year experience is college application GOLD. Trust us. 

Communication is key!

Let’s consider two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Communicating Cathy. Communicating Cathy is thinking a gap year. She really wants to decide if a career in medicine is right for her by taking a year to volunteer and travel before college. College application season starts. Cathy talks to her parents her goals and researches programs that might be a good fit. She looks up some colleges that are good prospects for her and calls the admissions offices to ask whether it would make sense to apply now and defer admission, or to wait and apply next year. She takes her standardized tests as if she were applying this season, and keeps good records of her transcripts, grades, and teachers she can ask for recommendations.

Scenario 2: Silent Sam. Silent Sam is thinking a gap year, but he hasn’t told his parents because he isn’t exactly sure what he wants to do. He doesn’t start researching programs because he isn’t sure where to start. College application season starts, and he begins applying to the schools his college counselor suggested. He doesn’t call the admissions offices because he doesn’t want them to think he might not enroll in case that counts against him. He and his parents pay the application fees and submit his applications. In the spring, when it’s time to commit to a school, he tells his parents that maybe he wants to take a year off.

Who do you think is better set up for a successful gap year after high school? It’s obvious, right?

[Get matched with gap year programs before college]

Like most things, the optimal result requires a bit more communicating and planning. Colleges have this information and they’re happy to share it, so give them a call! Talk to your parents and your guidance counselor. If you’re currently in college and thinking a year off, talk to your advisor or dean. You aren’t the first person to take a gap year, and most academic professionals understand that gap years can have huge benefits and are happy to work with you to make it work! In the expensive land of college tuition and non-refundable deposits, communicating early and often is the best plan.

Women in brightly colored traditional dresses dancing in the street

All those incredible cultural experiences? You better be writing them down and taking time to reflect on them.

Plan for your goals

A gap year on its own doesn’t help or hurt your college application; what you make of it does. Spending a year sitting around, working a few part-time hours, and hanging out at your parents’ house isn’t going to enhance your admissions profile anywhere. But think from an admissions officer’s perspective. What if you came across a student who took a year off to:

  • Study abroad for a semester and then travel in Spain to become fluent in Spanish
  • Take care of a sick parent, get work experience on the weekend, and complete a free computer programming training course online
  • Write a novel and learn how to self-publish it
  • Get an internship at a local marketing business and then save up for a two-week trip to learn journalism in Vietnam
  • Volunteer on a horse ranch in Argentina and learn animal care skills
  • Moved to Korea and trained and worked as an English teacher

Any of those things would make a student stand out and would show drive, independence, a passion for learning, a professional work ethic, an ability to self-motivate, and deep interests outside the classroom. Those are qualities that colleges are looking for.

If you plan on applying to college after a gap year, be sure to use your gap year to improve your application. That could be volunteering, working, interning, traveling, taking courses… the possibilities are endless! And you’ll notice that many of the options on the list above don’t cost money. It’s all making a plan and working to achieve your goals.

[Save and compare your favorite gap year programs side-by-side with MyGoAbroad]

portrait cool teen girl with septum piercing and glasses

Look at you. All worldly and determined. You go, Glen Coco!

Applying to college after a gap year takes planning. Most schools start in September, but you may apply the January or even the November before. Keep track of the important dates and stay on top of things! Just like with anything else, applying to college after taking a year off requires careful planning to succeed.

Don’t assume—Ask!

Don’t assume that you have to wait to apply if you want to take a year off—ask! Don’t assume that your favorite college doesn’t have study abroad as an option freshman year—ask! Don’t assume that if you’re already in college and you want to take a year off, you have to withdraw—ask!

Are you sensing a theme? Ask! Ask! Ask!

Every year colleges in the US become more and more understanding of the benefits of study abroad, and they are more and more willing to work with students to help them embrace their outside-of-the-box and travel-based learning goals. Talk to your school. Many colleges now offer a first semester or first year abroad as an option for incoming freshman, and many have campuses in other countries. If you’re currently enrolled, you can work with your school to grant credit for your program so that you can stay enrolled and potentially even receive funding.

If you’re wondering whether it’s better to defer admission or wait to apply, call up the school and ask! 

[Watch this: Gap Year Options We <3]

Build your resume

This is the most important advice for applying for college after a gap year: use your gap year well. In high school, there were teachers and counselors and peers reminding you and pushing you to get good grades, be involved in activities, and do community service. Now that’s up to you! 

One easy option if you’re planning on applying to college after taking a year off is to keep a resume file that you can access from anywhere (such as Google Docs) and updating it weekly. This will make sure that you remember all the projects you’ve done, s and things you’ve learned, and projects you’ve made. It will also help you assess when you aren’t making enough progress and push yourself to get more involved, reach out, and learn something new.

colorful sneakers, colorful skateboard, and colorful painted background

You’ve got your gapper-shoes on and you’re ready to go… but what *after* your gap year?

What should you keep track of?

  • Anything you’ve done at work (paid or unpaid), including the names of projects and their supervisors. This is a good place to record supervisor info.
  • Anything you write or publish
  • Any contests or awards you win
  • Service and volunteer work (keep track of your s for this, too!)
  • New skills learned (such as languages or computer programs)
  • Any certifications earned
  • Any classes you’ve taken (include a short description of projects or papers)

This way, when it’s time for college applications, you’ll have all the info you need in one place. Need a reference? Resume? List of achievements? You’ll know what to do.

What if my gap year isn’t my choice?

You might be thinking, “This all sounds great, but my gap year isn’t because I had a grand plan and want to improve my resume—it isn’t up to me.” Maybe you just can’t afford college quite yet. Or you need to help out at home. Or you didn’t get in the first time around. Or a million other reasons that happen to lots of people.

[Say Wha?! Free Gap Year Up for Grabs]

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You were made to walk these hallowed, collegiate halls. Trust us.

That’s okay! Colleges understand that life happens, and applying for college after a gap year doesn’t have to hurt your admissions chances. Be honest and make the best of the situation. What can you do to improve your skills, or at least keep them fresh? Take a community college class or a course online? Take a part-time internship at a local company in your field? Put in some volunteer hours at an organization that aligns with your career interests? Do what you can. College admissions officers are people, and people understand that life gets in the way.

If you’ve been accepted and you think you might need to defer admission, call up your admissions office and talk to them. Be honest your situation and get to know your options. Once again, communication is key!

If you’re already in college and you’re planning on taking a year off from college, talk to your advisor. Being upfront and understanding what the requirements are can help you make the best of the situation, and even use it to your advantage.

So, will a gap year hurt my admissions chances?

Nope! Don’t be afraid of a gap year. A gap year will just be another year that factors into your admissions decision. Just like the rest of your educational career, if you do your best and look for opportunities to impress, it will improve your application.

[Taking a Gap Year: There’s Nothing to Be Afraid of]

Applying to college after a gap year can be a huge plus! It can give you a chance to pursue your dreams, be sure of your passion, gain experience, show your skills, and stand out from the crowd. If you’re really worried, you can always apply and then choose to defer admission, so that your gap year won’t factor into your admissions decision. You just have to decide which option is the better fit for you!

A gap year is a great opportunity, and don’t let anyone tell you that it will hurt your chances of getting into college. Applying to college after taking a year off isn’t scary as long as you communicate, plan, work toward your goals, and stay on top of your deadlines and responsibilities.

Teen boy smiling and looking away from camera

Save those nervous smiles. You’re more than equipped for college after a gap year.

Plus, just think of some of the awesome ways you could spend your gap year, like:

  • Volunteering: You could volunteer with to teaching music in Costa Rica.
  • Interning: Thinking moving to London to intern at a global company? Check out The Intern Group for options in lots of cool fields.
  • Working: There are job opportunities abroad directly after high school, including getting sales experience in Korea with Military Autosource.
  • Studying Abroad: Travel the world while earning college credit with Semester at Sea, a full college semester on board your traveling classroom.
  • Teaching: You could become certified as a TEFL teacher and teach English in Japan with Amity Corporation, while discovering Japanese culture.
  • Traveling: Check out a wildlife tour of New Zealand with Elm Wildlife Tours.

It sounds cheesy, but the possibilities really are endless! Study photography on a tropical island, learn Chinese in a small village, intern at a law firm in Paris... if you want to do it, it’s out there. If there isn’t a program with exactly what you want, you can combine programs or create opportunities for yourself.

[Find your ultimate experience by browsing gap year programs]

Go get your gap year!

Taking a gap year after high school or a gap year during college is a big decision, but when you know it’s right for you, you know it’s right for you. You can find a gap year that meets all your goals, is within your budget, and helps your admissions chances, so start looking! You can start learning some program options here. Get ready to show those college admissions officers everything you’re capable of!

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