The hidden blessings of an unexpected gap semester

Vincent Leo

When I applied to colleges last fall, it seemed like a straightforward process. I filled out my applications, submitted my test scores and transcript, wrote my essays and hoped for the best. My anticipation for this life-changing decision grew, with everyday discussions between my peers focusing solely on our academic interests and our hopes and dreams for the next four years. Among the dozens of people I talked to during countless conversations, almost all of them seemed ecstatic to jump right into college. Personally, I felt utterly unsure.

As decisions began to trickle in, I was surprised to receive unusual offers from two of my schools. When I opened the acceptance letters, the words seemed to jump off the page. Phrases such as “let me explain this special opportunity” and “you are amongst a select group” seemed daunting at first glance, and I was confused whether they had sent me a real offer. Initially, I scoffed at the proposal both colleges were offering: delaying the start of my college experience by a full semester.

The idea seemed absolutely absurd. Being displaced from my friends and venturing into unknown territory made me anxious. Aside from potentially falling behind academically, I was nervous about fitting in socially. In light of my situation, I have taken a step back to consider the myriad of benefits that a deferred admission can entail.

Spring admission programs—deferred acceptances where students begin their first semester once winter break ends—allow colleges to accommodate a larger amount of students by utilizing dorm room and classroom space that becomes available when students study abroad or graduate mid-year. Students who accept this offer are free to use those five months of newfound time to do whatever they please with the knowledge that they hold a guaranteed spot at their chosen college in the spring.

The options a student can take advantage of are endless. The student could expand their worldview by traveling and experiencing new cultures or can benefit their communities with volunteer opportunities such as tutoring disadvantaged youth or offering a hand at a homeless shelter. Others may find an internship or job in their field of interest to achieve some real world experience. General education (GE) requirements can also be fulfilled at a local community college by taking courses with transferable credits. Even though these options provide different skills and do not encompass the traditional college experience many students are eager to have, each allows a student to take some time to reflect and properly define one’s interest, an essential factor in my personal college decision process.

Illustration by Christine Watridge
Illustration by Christine Watridge

Although spring admission was a new concept to me, I was surprised to learn that various colleges have been implementing it for years. Well-known institutions that employ this method include American University, Boston University, Cornell University, Tulane University and University of Southern California, with some such as Middlebury College having the spring admissions program for over 30 years. About half of these colleges provide specific opportunities, such as studying abroad, for spring admits during the gap semester, which can create valuable experiences and be even more beneficial than sitting in a 300 student lecture hall grinding out GE requirements as a fall admit.

Despite the numerous positive factors, spring admits may worry about being socially isolated when they join the other students second semester. Though this is a valid fear, there are ample opportunities to immerse oneself within the community.

Specialized orientations and involvement fairs provide students with more than enough time to explore clubs and organizations. Some schools allow spring semester students to attend sporting events during the fall where they can unleash their school spirit and mingle with their fellow face-painted peers. Other spring admits can be a natural pool of people to connect with during one’s first weeks.

Another argument against spring admits is that these students will be set back academically. Missing a semester could potentially lead to graduating later than expected.

That being said, there are a multitude of ways to ensure that one stays on track. Taking just a few classes at a community college during the gap semester can check off some of the required GE’s and summer school is another option to allow one to catch up.

American University has arguably one of the most unique offerings, providing spring admits a fall mentorship program with courses that count as college credit. The program has two options: their local D.C. program allows students to partake in an internship, and the UK program which provides international immersion and learning beyond the classroom. Studying abroad or participating in an internship are remarkable opportunities for college freshmen and are typically exclusive to upperclassman. By utilizing these outstanding opportunities, students are actually given a leg-up compared to their fall counterparts.

My work ethic and mindset would never have allowed me to come up with the notion of a gap semester on my own. I always felt the pressure to keep moving to the next step and never stop to take a breath before trudging on. However, in the past few months, I realized that I’m not the only one who wants to deviate from the traditional academic track. In reviewing my options, I now believe it is a better path for me to take before tackling the next phase of life, so that I can enter college fully recharged, prepared, enriched and motivated.