“How Does a Gap Year Potentially Affect Merit Aid?”

News headlines for the past year have been focused on the effect the pandemic has had on the college admission process for current seniors, with canceled standardized tests and virtual classrooms. But quarantine has also brought uncertainty of joining campus at all this coming fall. This uncertainty, along with widespread frustration with the unaltered tuition prices when faced with a year of online-only classes has sent many students searching for alternative options.

This year, more students than ever before are looking into the idea of a gap year. In fact, the Gap Year Association website has noted increased traffic and interest on their website since the pandemic began. Traditionally, gap years have been utilized as a time for students to gain world experience before entering their college path. This has been a time set aside for students hoping to pursue an enriching life experience before joining the professional world, like a service volunteering trip abroad or an industry internship opportunity.

Gap years are not time for students to defer a year of college to do nothing.

A common question is, “How are these experiences viewed by colleges?” Gap years can be viewed favorably by colleges, as long as students have a solid reason for the gap year, such as an internship or fellowship, and stick to it. Admissions counselors often discourage gap years due to the number of applicants they see get derailed in their “year off,” which ultimately harms their admissions chances. Taking a year to travel so much they begin college already buried in debt can ruin the college experience before it begins.

Viewing your potential gap year from the college perspective is essential before proceeding forward with making any plans, because the wrong move could cost thousands of dollars in the end.

Make a Plan

Every college has a different policy on how they view gap years, especially in regards to financial aid. Do the research well in advance to be fully educated on how an application featuring a gap year will be viewed, before committing to a plan. Many colleges (typically rolling admissions schools) don’t allow a gap year at all, meaning that applicants pursuing a gap year are considered in the incoming freshman applicant pool. These schools do not allow a “deferment” of admission, where an admission offer is accepted and a seat is held for that student until after their gap year. Most schools that allow admission deferment require a substantiation reason behind the deferral through a review process. All in all, students should not take gap years lightly, and there should be a plan in place before seeking a deferral. Never take a gap year with the intention to get it approved later or make a plan later. Students should contact every college on their list to see how gap years are viewed by each college.

Quarantine brought a drastic change to the image of the traditional gap year in its wake, in addition to upending the traditional undergraduate admissions process. Many borders are now closed to US citizens, eliminating the idea of a volunteer service trip abroad or backpacking trip across Europe. If time spent abroad is still the plan, this is where careful research on the options still available is the best plan of action to proceed accordingly.

Add the Financials

The first move any student should make when considering a gap year is to contact the schools to see how they will be considered financially. This is not a step to be skipped and handled later, by any means.
A little known fact in the admissions world is that students can handicap themselves financially during a gap year by making the wrong moves. The timing alone, applying as a gap year student, may affect their access to merit aid, depending on the policies of the college. First and foremost, there are deadlines. Presumably, gap year students have left the guidance of their school counselor and parental homes. Students applying to colleges that consider them in the same applicant pool of incoming freshmen rather than an approved deferral are on their own to remember priority merit aid deadlines.
Most importantly, is how students spend their time. A gap year may seem like the perfect opportunity to take some general education credits. Pursuing classes during a gap year is where the greatest financial mistake lies.

It’s no secret that merit aid for incoming freshmen vastly outweigh the options for transfer students. Depending on the outlook colleges on the list maintain on who qualifies as a transfer student, students are at risk of being considered a transfer student by pursuing classes during a gap year and potentially missing out on tens of thousands of dollars. Students should take this information to heart and tread carefully, even when considering language courses at accredited institutions while traveling abroad.

The first step for students considering a gap year should be contacting the colleges on their list in advance, and making sure they are fully educated on how they will be viewed as an applicant and how it may affect them financially with merit aid

Michaela Schieffer
College Counselor and Scholarship Coach
Michaela is a college counselor and scholarship coach at Moon Prep. She helps students craft noteworthy applications and pursue impressive extracurricular activities to catch the eye of top universities and competitive BS/MD programs. She not only helps students attend their top-choice university, but she helps them pay for it by guiding them through the scholarship process.

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