A gap year is becoming a popular option for graduating high school seniors to explore in COVID-19 times. Oft-considered an alternative to the conventional first-year college experience, the possibility of taking a gap year is being weighed against the possibility that colleges will not be able to welcome students to campus this fall. It’s understandable that parents will compare the online experience of a graduating senior versus a more costly experience in the fall.
Holly Bull, President of the Center for Interim Programs, based in Princeton, New Jersey, has placed over 2,800 individuals—including her daughters—in gap year programs for over 30 years. While completing her Masters in Education at Harvard in 1994, Holly and fellow students formed a campus group called SEEC (Service-learning and Experiential Education Collaborative). SEEC organized the first-ever gap year fair in the US.
Holly is not only a leading advocate and counselor for the gap year experience; she has taken two gap years herself. Before entering the University of Virginia for her freshman year, Holly followed up on her interests in marine biology. She split her year into volunteering at an aquaculture research institute in Hawaii and attending an academic cultural study program in Greece. Holly took a second gap year after her sophomore year took a second gap year to travel in India and Nepal, attend a semester program in Athens, and engage in service work in Appalachia.
Curious to know how COVID-19 has changed the demand for gap-year programs, and if new programs might become available to graduating seniors, I contacted Holly to ask five questions:
Are there unique circumstances that make a gap year more or less possible this year?
We are outlining three possible scenarios as a way to approach this coming year:
The ideal is that we all return to normalcy by summer or fall and continue with existing plans.
The most challenging scenario is that travel restrictions remain in place. All students planning to go to college in the fall will need to engage in online courses, as they are doing this spring. Gap year students have online options that are far more varied than conventional high school and college classes. They are tailored to specific interests: courses of all kinds, internships, volunteer work, art tours, athletics, and more. Gap year options allow students to buy time for a month, or longer—rather than having to commit to a full college semester of online courses.
The next scenario is that we can all move around more freely by fall, but international travel might be too risky. US based gap year options would be the focus. These options offer a good way to buy time before planning a spring semester of international experiences. They include group semester programs, shorter skill-based intensives, volunteer placements, even some internship options. But those will be tougher to find in the US.
Students can still engage in interesting experiences as the world landscape unfolds. But they should also know that the gap year experience is about rolling with change and the challenges of becoming comfortable with shifting plans.
Is there a chance that the demand for gap year opportunities could exceed the number of opportunities available?
I sincerely doubt it. Some families will lean toward the known element of college. The balancing interest will come from families who are not keen on the idea of online college classes this fall. There are a variety of gap options beyond group programs. These include skill-based intensives, internships, volunteer, online options, and more.
Could additional admissions requirements be imposed on students who want to apply for a gap year, as there are with selective college admissions?
There could be, but we have not heard of any thus far. We have heard that students should not tell colleges they want to do a gap year because of COVID- 19 concerns. It’s better to focus on what they want to do, and what they might want to pursue in college or the work world
Will there be new gap year programs?
There will likely be some new domestic group programs offered this fall. The shorter, more flexible options will do better as well as those that start online then transition to hands-on as travel restrictions ease.
Founded in 1980, the Center for Interim Programs is the first and longest-running independent gap year counseling organization in the United States. For more information, contact Holly Bull and Kate Warren at firstname.lastname@example.org
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