I’ve been getting more and more questions recently of the form:
I heard that you’ve taken a few breaks from school during college. Given that [my school] is going to be mostly or entirely online this fall semester, should I consider taking this semester off? I don’t want to pay full price for an online-university experience, but I also don’t know how to navigate a gap year.
For the record, I’m going back to school this fall, and I think most people considering it should probably do the same. But to help you make the call for yourself, here’s what I weighed in my head to come to this decision.
If you take a leave, can you make that worth your time?
The biggest reason I’d advise against a leave this fall is that the things that I think make an academic leave worthwhile – traveling, working, meeting new people – are all going to be significantly limited by the pandemic, perhaps even more than your ability to get the value out of coursework in school.
When you take a semester off, the tradeoff isn’t just between an expensive semester in school or a more affordable semester by yourself. It’s between:
- Doing a semester in school now, and being a semester ahead
- Taking the semester off now to do something else, and having an extra semester of school tacked on at the end.
And I think the amount by which COVID affects what you can do in a gap year, is much greater than the amount by which it limits a semester in school. In other words, take a slightly worse semester in school now, take that extra time you gained and take some time off later when you can do more exciting things! Your gap year won’t be very interesting if all you do is how you’re living now, sheltered in place.
Could you still participate in the university community, remotely?
Speaking more to students who are just now entering college, the part that’ll be most affected by remote/hybrid semester initiatives isn’t coursework – I believe good institutions will figure that out. I think it’s clubs and extracurriculars. Will you be able to participate in those remotely? This is probably more difficult if you can’t live on campus, or if you live in a time zone that’s more than 4-5 hours away from your school.
If you can participate in the school community remotely, I think organizations are going to figure out how to move themselves online in a way where you won’t miss out as much as you did when schools first went remote with short notice in the spring 2020 semester.
Miscellaneous things you might have forgotten about
- You may have annual contracts signed with campus housing / apartment leases
- Some schools' need-based financial aid lapses when you take a leave. If you depend on them, you should be careful taking a leave.
- If you’re an incoming freshman planning to potentially start in the spring, try to talk to some spring admits at the school and see if the experience was any good – I think this depends on the school, and spring admission might be just as good as fall, or might end up hampering how well you can end up participating in the campus community, both socially and through clubs/extracurriculars that have annual recruiting cycles.
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