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Should I Take a Gap Year If My College Campus Is Closed This Fall?

Hayden Field  |  June 11, 2020

Here’s how to weigh the pros and cons — and a rundown of some of your options.

In the “Before Times,” taking a gap year could mean backpacking with a group of recent grads, volunteering with an overseas aid organization or working in the offices of a company you admire. But COVID-19 has rendered many future plans impossible, at least for the time being. And as many colleges and universities across the country close their doors for the fall semester (still offering online learning options), students are weighing whether to take time off. 

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During the next academic school year, there will be non-academic components of college you won’t be able to experience the same way, and for many institutions, the cost of tuition remains similar for a virtual semester.

Still, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of a gap year carefully, especially since deferral rules vary by school. Some have tightened those guidelines in anticipation of more students requesting time off this year, says Christine Chu, college admissions counselor at IvyWise. If you’re considering a gap year, check your school’s website for its COVID-19 deferral policy, then reach out to the admissions office or registrar with questions about your specific situation. 

Multiple experts we spoke with suggested that if financially possible, it’s a good idea for students to continue their education via their chosen school’s online courses to avoid slowing their momentum and stay connected to the academic experience. 

“A gap year isn’t costless in the sense that you’re pushing out your graduation by a year,” says Anna Ivey, a former dean of admissions and founder of Ivey Consulting. It’s important to note that it also means delaying your post-college salary, your future seniority in the workplace and, potentially, your grad school start date. 

The good news: Come August and September, experts say larger colleges and universities should be considerably more prepared for online learning than they were for the spring semester. They’ve also had time to brainstorm ways to promote online community between students outside of class. 

Whatever you decide to do, says Chu, “be engaged and productive.” Here’s a look at some of your options. 

Create a DIY curriculum 

Online learning platforms like Udemy, edX and LinkedIn Learning offer free or paid courses on everything from data science to philosophy, and due to the pandemic, some have introduced additional free courses. (Coursera is currently offering free courses for high school and college students through July 31.) ClassCentral is a resource that gathers the free courses from different course platforms into one searchable index. 

If you’re aiming to enroll in a few courses with a local or community college, you’ll need to be conscious of the amount of credits you take. Most schools have different policies on the cutoff amount, and before making any decisions, it’s a good idea to contact the school you’ve been accepted to for a very clear rundown of their policies on this. If you take too many credits, you could be considered a transfer student instead of a freshman when you do start at your chosen school. And although that may help you save on tuition, it could also affect your acceptance status. Transfer students often have to re-apply for admission, “so it’s not as clear-cut,” says Terry Knaus, executive director of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA). Note: Some community colleges offer automatic transfer opportunities to state schools they’ve partnered with. 

Give back to your community or on a national scale

If you’re drawn to volunteering, think critically about the problem you’d like to help solve, says Knaus. National service organizations like AmeriCorps and Service Year are currently looking for volunteers, some to help with COVID-19 relief efforts, and you can search opportunities by category on platforms like Idealist.org and VolunteerMatch.org

You can also explore volunteer opportunities in your community, such as food banks, meal delivery services for the homebound or even remote tutoring. If you’re talented in writing, photography, video editing, graphic design or other projects you can work on from home, consider lending your talents remotely to an aid organization that’s dedicated to a cause you’re passionate about. 

Try a career interest on for size

Consider using this time to try some of your potential career interests before you commit to years of study. The experience could solidify your interest in an area, or you may end up realizing you’d rather pursue something else, says Knaus. 

A significant number of tech companies, banks and insurance firms are offering virtual internships this summer, and you can search platforms like LinkedIn, Internships.com, Handshake, WayUp and Intern From Home for remote opportunities in any field you’re interested in. If you’ve already been accepted to a college, ask if it’s possible to access its career services office even if you’ve deferred, says Ivey — the team is likely putting together listings and remote work opportunities for students. You can also look into starting your own business online. 

One way to see what’s out there firsthand: Send out emails to companies or individuals you admire and ask if there are any potential projects you could take on for them. Make it clear you’re familiar with their work and would like to offer your time and talents in any way you can. “Figure out how you can make their lives easier because you want to make it easy for them to say yes to you,” says Ivey. 

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