How to Spend a Gap Year During Coronavirus

April 20, 2020

In an ordinary year, roughly 2% of college-bound high school grads elect to take a gap year prior to launching their postsecondary career. Many spend the time traveling internationally, volunteering with a non-profit organization, or entering the workforce to save money and gain some “real life” experience. These type of gap years can pay dividends in a variety ways including, according to research studies: higher GPAs, heightened motivation to learn, and even increased career satisfaction down the line.

Many current high school seniors (Class of 2020) are still reeling from the abrupt ending to their senior year and the cancellation of milestone events like prom and graduation. As their attention begins to turn to the shadow of uncertainty COVID-19 is now casting on the commencement of their first college semester, many are understandably considering a change in plans. One recent survey found that almost one-third of seniors now feel that attending college next year is less likely due to a change in their family’s financial situation or because of health concerns. We’ve also spoken with many teens who solely desire four years of a traditional college experience and are not interested in having their freshman year potentially interrupted or shifted entirely online. As such, they are considering delaying college until 2021, even if the typical activities one would normally pursue during a gap year are unavailable.

Will Colleges Let You Take a Gap Year Due to Coronavirus?

Gap year-related policies have yet to be updated for the possibility of a prolonged pandemic, but in a typical year, you should know that:

  • Not all colleges allow students to take a gap year.
  • Most require you to get approval for a gap year on a case-by-case basis.
  • Some colleges will require you to reapply.
  • Some schools will not hold your scholarship for a full year—you will need to resubmit your FAFSA.

We would certainly expect may institutions to show more leniency this year, given the exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves, but there are no universal guarantees. Research your prospective school’s policy on gap years and feel free to contact a university official regarding any updates to that policy for COVID-19.

Gap Year Activities in Quarantine  

Electing to take a gap year that takes place entirely in your own zip code (and possibly domicile) isn’t nearly as glamorous as hiking the Alps or teaching English in Zimbabwe, but in the age of Coronavirus, it may be the only practical and safe option. Here are five ideas of how to productively spend this time:

1) Work locally to save money

Thus far, 60% of American families have already seen a reduction in their income due to the economic shutdown and economists project that conditions will worsen in the coming months. With increased financial pressure, many families and their college-bound children will have to find ways to save/earn extra money to keep their postsecondary dreams alive. Students may wish to work for a year at any number of “essential businesses” in order to put away as much tuition money as possible. Of course, while engaging in work that puts you in contact with the public, you’ll want follow health guidelines and stay as safe as is humanly possible.

2) Take some online college classes in an area of interest

One could argue that if you are willing to take a college course or two online, you ought to just go all-in and attend college as planned—come what may. However, some may find the idea of taking a class or (three) more appealing, especially if they can enroll as a non-degree student at an affordable price. Some of the top online colleges for undergraduates allow you to register as a non-degree student and can likely take a course for somewhere between $1,000-$1,500 at a reputable institution like Arizona State, UMass, or Oregon State University.

3) Do non-profit work in your community

Around the country, many volunteers at homeless shelters and food banks have left due to fears around coronavirus and this under-staffing comes at the time when help is needed most. We are by no means advocating exposing yourself to potential harm or doing anything that you are uncomfortable with. We are merely pointing out that there is a need for charity in these challenging times, even if it is as simple as bringing groceries to your elderly neighbors or organizing a virtual campaign to acquire canned goods for food banks.

4) Volunteer for a political candidate

With 2020 being a presidential election year, there are countless races of great national and local importance in which you can become involved. You could make calls or assist with a candidate’s social media outreach from the safety of home or you could volunteer to work the polls. It’s very likely that an army of young people will be needed to replace many veteran poll workers who are typically elderly and thus at highest risk for COVID-19. At age 18, this is a position that you are eligible for in most counties across the United States.

5) Learn a foreign language online

Whether through a university, personal tutor, or via an online platform like Dualingo, sharpening your foreign language skills is a wonderful way to spend your time. In addition to being an intense workout for your brain, learning another language can come in handy in college (you may wish to major or minor in a language) and beyond, as bilingual individuals enjoy a more diverse array of opportunities and make more money, on average, than their monolingual peers.

Gap Year Activities if Social Distancing Ends

If a vaccine/treatment for coronavirus arrives and/or if a second wave of the virus never hits in the fall, then certain aspects of ordinary life may resume rather quickly. Schools and colleges could end up opening on time for in-person instruction and some level of domestic/international travel may slowly resume. If everything breaks perfectly, some of the traditional gap year options may be on the table in 2020-21. These could include activities like:

1) Volunteering in your local community

Even in the best-case scenario, there is a high probability that international travel restrictions will remain in place for a while, likely still leaving volunteer opportunities closer to home as the best option. Everything mentioned in the section above applies here, but a broader array of community service endeavors would be on the table. Those interested in the medical profession could once again seek out volunteer positions in hospitals or health clinics and there would be a reduced health risk to working in other settings like shelters, food pantries, soup kitchens, etc.

2) Gain work experience

See the previous section. This still presents “gappers” with a great chance to live at home, save money, and enter college next year on firmer financial footing. The only thing that would change would be a reduced risk in working with the public.

3) Volunteering for a national/international organization

There are plenty of wonderful organizations that partner with AmeriCorps to offer direct service activities to young Americans. Habitat for Humanity is one example here that is known for its global work but actually also operates in all 50 states. Even if international programs are a no-go, there could be volunteer opportunities such as tutoring, homebuilding, conservation, nutrition education, and youth mentorship.

4) Teaching English abroad

It feels like a pretty big leap that travel restrictions could be eased to this extent by fall, but, if that were to be the case, teaching English abroad is a popular gap year pastime. Formalized programs exist in just about any exotic locale you can name.

5) Explore official gap year programs (if your college offers one)

Some schools such as Princeton University, American University, and Florida State University have official gap year programs. Deadlines for university-affiliated gap year participation vary greatly, however, many are still available into May and even the summer months.

Should I Take a Gap Year Because of Coronavirus?

Alas, we arrive at the million dollar question…When human beings make consequential decisions, we like to seek out all possible information, analyze the data, and arrive at decision that gives us the highest probability at success. Of course, with the introduction a game-changing variable like the COVID-19 pandemic, the equation remains cloudy no matter how you view it. In the absence of an objectively “right” answer, we recommend considering the following factors/questions:

  • Am I satisfied with the home/community/remote-based options available to me?
  • Do I like my alternative corona-proof plan more than the having a heavily-disrupted and possibly virtual freshman year?
  • If the 2020-21 academic year ends up proceeding normally, how will I feel about not participating?
  • How important is it to me to graduate from college four years after completing high school?
  • Are my long-term plans likely to include graduate/professional school? If so, does that alter my feelings about delaying my education?

Many seniors are feeling a great deal of anger at the fates for their current predicament, a sentiment shared by many adults who are enduring their own daily struggles. We recommend that you do your best to not let these feelings drive your decision about the 2020-21 academic year. Rather, a level-headed, clinical assessment of your situation—even with the litany of unknowns—will lead you to a decision that you can live with regardless of how future events play out.