International Experience and University

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How many extra credits can I pack in? Will this essay work for my college admissions? Which school is going to be the best for me? Will I make friends?

What if we’ve been asking ourselves the wrong questions all along? What would happen if we stopped focusing on how to “make college work” and instead focused on personal goals for the college experience and the years beyond?

Setting those personal goals begins with a deep understanding of what we want. Unfortunately, most of us truly don’t know what we want from the future right out of high school. I didn’t. It takes some time for most students to get to know their interests, passions, and goals for the future. International travel can help to clarify what we’re shooting for over the next 5-10 years. What’s more, it can help us to succeed in the world of college applications and new social scenes. Here are a few ways international travel can boost your college experience and help you to set your own goals:

Successful College Admissions

University admissions have become increasingly competitive as pursuing higher education becomes the norm. College admissions officers are looking for students who stand out from the crowd. Nowadays, students trying to land entry to their dream college will need something more unique than a top-notch GPA under their belts. Luckily for you, a combination of travel and personal study can build a killer college application.

What about the time you spent hiking in the Alps, studying local flora and fauna along the way? Or the time you went scuba diving off the coast of Australia? Put it on the application to show your interest in environmental studies! With a bit of intentional thought and study along the way, travel experiences can turn into application gold. I used travel to prove that I was passionate about my major and was already diving in on my own.

International Experience & Competitive Uni Clubs

This is a benefit of international experience I´d never heard of until it happened to me. A year into my university experience, I discovered a campus club I was interested in joining. An offshoot of WUSC, the club provided mentors and support to incoming refugee students sponsored by my university. But there was a catch. Entry to the club is incredibly competitive. I needed to prove that I was passionate about helping people, sensitive to the experiences of moving to a new country, and open to cultural differences.

With tons of international experience under my belt, I aced the interview and was immediately accepted to be a mentor! It turned out to be one of my best university experiences yet. As you work through college, you’ll find that a travel background can open doors to competitive experiences.

Score an Internship

When fellow students and professors see that you’ve had real-world experiences outside of a campus setting, they’re more willing to hand over responsibilities and opportunities. Makes sense, right? Students who travel have already proven themselves to be capable, responsible, and dedicated to their goals. These are the kinds of people who are top picks for internships, mentorships, and leadership positions. Knowing that I had traveled before, my professor picked me for a two month internship at a research library in Guatemala.

Immersion in Your Subject Area

A Gap Year is a chance to explore your field of interest before committing to a major. Want to go into marine biology? Take a year to dive and study the ocean on your own. Interested in geography? Spend time studying landforms and unique cultures around the world. Interested in language arts? Take language courses and visit local theaters as you travel.

Not only will you be getting an in-depth look into your future degree program of choice, you’ll also be racking up the experience needed for a killer application. Worst case scenario: you discover you’re not as into your major as you thought. Better now than three years in!

Professional Networking

Be sure to network with people outside of your peer group as you wander, you never know when you’ll bump into someone in your field who can give you some insight or a boost in your dream career. Success is all about connections. Use your time wisely and intentionally connect with people who can help you towards your goals. Who knows? Your Gap Year could change your life through these people!

Personal Confidence, Clarity, & Vision

This is the big one for me. Going straight from high school to university gives you zero time to get to know yourself, to pursue your interests, and to get your feet under you as an adult. Before university, I backpacked Europe with my boyfriend. I drove across the U.S. And during that time, I learned a great deal about where I wanted to take the next 5-10 years of my life.

By the time I entered university, I felt confident. I knew my major was right for me, and I was ready to take on my university years with a vision for my future. As a result, I’ve been more committed to my schoolwork, more interested in what I’m learning, and have been able to say yes to the opportunities that fit with my goals.

If you’re not sure what college suits you yet.
Travel.

If you’re not in love with the idea of picking a major. Travel.

If you want to give yourself a boost in the resume and experience department. Travel.

Feeling shy and unsure of yourself? Travel.

Think you’ve got it all together on your own? Travel.

There’s nothing to lose, and a world to explore.

College Applications and Gap Years

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Sterling College Senior Dinner

Sterling College Senior Dinner


What do college admissions officers think about Gap Years, and how might the decision to take a Gap Year impact your college application prospects? In this post Tim Patterson, Director of Admission at Sterling College in Vermont, sheds some light on Gap Years from the perspective of a college admissions officer.

More and more students are choosing to take a gap year between high school and college. For college admissions officers like me, the growing popularity of gap years is a trend that merits close attention. Personally, I am a big fan of gap years because I believe that students who take a gap year arrive at college having gained a clearer sense of purpose that helps them focus and succeed in their program of choice. However, Gap Year students need to figure out how to approach the college application process, including the question of when to apply.

Should I Apply To College Before Taking A Gap Year?

Students often ask if they should finish their college applications and defer enrollment before taking a Gap Year. Most colleges, including Sterling College, allow students who receive an offer of admission to defer for up to one year by submitting an enrollment deposit. Alternatively, some students choose to hold off and complete the application process during their gap year, or apply after the gap year is complete. There are pros and cons to each approach.

The conventional wisdom that I usually hear from college counselors and parents of gap year students is that students should finish the college application process before embarking on a gap year. The argument goes something like this:

Settling on a college before a gap year helps students because they can access all of the resources of their high school college counseling office while completing their college applications. Additionally, by deferring college enrollment before a Gap Year students can make the most of their Gap Year experience instead of being distracted by college applications.

If you stop and consider the perspective of many college counselors and parents this argument makes a lot of sense. After all, counselors and parents have been known to worry that a Gap Year might somehow lead a student off track, and they want the reassurance of knowing where and when the student will go to college. Also, since high schools keep track of the plans of graduating seniors and often look favorably on graduating a high percentage of college bound students, guidance counselors can sometimes feel pressure to successfully “close the file” on each student before graduation. However, I think a different approach is often the right call.

You can apply to college during a Gap Year

You absolutely CAN apply to colleges during a Gap Year, and for many students I think that doing so is the right choice. Here’s why:

A Gap Year is a time of growth and change

Students almost always gain a great deal of perspective and maturity during a Gap Year, and many emerge from the experience with new academic interests and a more evolved sense of purpose. Applying this new perspective and self-knowledge to the college search can lead to students to consider college options that are a better fit given the self-knowledge gained during the gap year. Precluding that possibility by choosing a college before the gap year might be the “safest” option, but I think it’s a missed opportunity.

Not going to college right away isn’t a catastrophe

The average age of a student here at Sterling College in Vermont is 22, and generally speaking students who have life and work experience before college are more focused and successful in their studies. There is nothing wrong with delaying college until you’re fully ready, clear-headed, and prepared. If your Gap Year leads you to other opportunities, it’s OK to take advantage of them instead of imposing a fixed end to your gap year experience.

A Gap Year can make your college applications stronger

When my colleagues and I are evaluating applications, we look for things that set an applicant apart. Students who are able to describe their Gap Year are often our most captivating applicants, and we know from experience that students who have completed a Gap Year are often better prepared for success in college than their peers who attend college straight out of high school.

Students with a clear sense of purpose thrive in college

I keep coming back to the phrase “sense of purpose” because I think it’s a pivotal part of the whole conversation about Gap Years and college applications.

Like many colleges, Sterling College has a clear mission and purpose – we happen to be focused on a mission of environmental stewardship, with majors in Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Food Systems, Ecology, Outdoor Education, and Environmental Humanities. It takes a very focused student to succeed at Sterling, and we look hard for evidence of that sense of purpose during the application process. A gap year is a great opportunity to hone in on a sense of purpose, and then approach college applications with clearer focus and intent.

Gap Year students can be savvy about financial aid

Finally, a word about affordability. I believe that we are in the midst of a student debt crisis in this country, and I am often shocked at how little students and parents know about financial aid and college affordability in general. I could write a whole series of posts about financial aid, but here are the points that are most relevant to gap year students:

  • Financial aid packages can change from year to year.
  • Students are in the best position to advocate for an affordable financial aid package BEFORE they commit to a college.

By committing to a college before receiving the financial aid package for the academic year in which they plan to attend, students sacrifice all of their leverage and are unable to compare financial aid packages and find the best fit at the best price.

The choice is yours

Ultimately, the choice of whether to apply to college before, during, or after a gap year is up to you. If you have already have a clear sense of where and why you want to go to college, by all means go ahead and lock in your plans before your gap year. Just don’t feel as if there is only one path that you need to follow. One of the most important lessons of a gap year is that you are free to make your own choices, and use your own compass to navigate the world. This is true in life, and in college as well.

To contact Tim Patterson, or learn more about Sterling College, please visit www.sterlingcollege.edu.

Should I go to College After my Gap Year?

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You’ve tackled the world. You’ve marched confidently off the beaten path (even if your heart broke a little as your friends all shared first-year experiences as college freshmen). You’ve grown leaps and bounds, and are excited at the prospect of continuing to grow and learn. But you’re wondering: is college the next best move for me in my life? Is it a conducive environment to the type of growing and learning I want to do?

The Value of a College Degree

There are a lot of benefits to attending college and earning an undergraduate degree. Oftentimes, these benefits are intangible (and don’t necessarily make their way onto your transcript). While classes are important and developing solid relationships with your professors ideal, there’s a lot of growth that happens out of the classroom, too.

There are myriads of clubs and causes to get involved with. There are passionate, weird, different, eclectic, normal people – all within close confines – and you learn how to interact effectively with each of them. There are folks with mindsets and philosophies and perspectives you’ve never been exposed to. There is training in how to think critically, how to argue productively, and how to compose logical statements. Plus, it’s fun (late night pizza, anyone?!).

That Being Said…

A college degree isn’t for everyone. Some might opt for a community college experience instead of a sleep-away-school ← totally awesome option for the money conscious/savvy student. Some students might end their Gap Year and want to keep traveling and learning experientially. You can get a job – part-time or otherwise – and bump up that piggy bank. You might want to sign up for the military, an apprenticeship, or another trainee program.

In short, there are many paths you can opt to take. But going to college should be a choice you weigh considerably. Here are some general questions to ask yourself as you navigate these waters:

What are your goals?

Certainly, not all career paths require college degrees; however, others do. How will this chapter of life – college – contribute to your overarching life mission? If you want to work with refugees or other marginalized populations, perhaps more direct-experience with these peoples through an internship would add value to your eventual formal studies in global development. If you want to devote your life to teaching English as a second language, there’s nothing wrong with taking a teaching gig abroad instead of attending school yourself, but understand that those with a degree are making a lot more money than those without.

To be clear: college can benefit you in ways beyond the actual degree, but it’s up to you to decide if it is necessary to accomplish your goals in life.

What Are Your Motivations for College?

If you feel motivated to go to college because it feels like the “right” thing to do or because you’re feeling pressured from outside sources (here’s lookin’ at you, mom and dad), you might need to go back to square one. College is a significant investment. Very significant. We’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars here. If your only reason for going to school is to make others happy – and not because it is what you truly want – your motivation to attend classes and perform well scholastically might decrease over time, potentially undermining the endeavor altogether.

Are You Crazy-Passionate Right Now & in Need of an Outlet?

College campuses are hotbeds for change, full of individuals hungry to make a dent in the world and help others. Living in this community can be jarring and exciting for a young activist in the making. If you’re on fire for any given cause (Women’s rights? Education equality? Access to clean water?) in light of your Gap Year experiences, consider channeling that fervor in a healthy, fertile environment – like the kind you can find on a college campus.

Does College Have to Happen RIGHT NOW?

Or, can you hold off for a year or more? You might decide that you definitely want to go to college, but the idea of term papers and sororities and three-lattes-per-day sounds off-putting at this stage of life. Attending college is a full-time job (a badass one, if you consider your only tasks are to learn and read and try to better understand the world); if you’re not ready to take on the commitment yet, hold off until you are.

Do You Know What You Want to Accomplish, Academically?

One of the perks of the Gap Year experience is clarity towards your life purpose and vocation. If you return from abroad, ready to hit the ground running and know exactly what you’d like to study and where, then you might be a great fit for going to college. Not wasting precious time (and money) on an undecided major will help you feel focused and accomplished in your collegiate career.

Do You Have the Resources?

If you thought your Gap Year bills were expensive, wait ’til you get a load of a tuition invoice. While financial aid, work-study programs, scholarships, and grants are all well and dandy, there’s still typically a good deal of money you have to fork out independently. Some students are fortunate in that family members will foot their college bills or subsidize their living expenses. Others might not be as lucky. Ask yourself if this is debt you’re willing to take on.

Then, think creatively. Perhaps combining the best of your international Gap Year experience with university would work. Check into the countries, abroad, where even foreign students can attend for free, or at rates far less than the ones found at US schools. There are international options, at excellent schools, for a fraction of the costs inside the USA.

Are You Ready to Make This Decision?

Whether you send off that application to (insert dream college here) or choose another path to postpone college life, you need to feel confident in your decision.Much like it took a degree of bravery when you chose to do a Gap Year, aim to have an equivalent sense of purpose towards your college decision.

Should You go to College Right Away After Your Gap Year?

Maybe. Should you go right now? Maybe not.

Don’t feel rushed to make a decision. Make sure you have many conversations – with friends, parents, other friends’ parents, your favorite high school teacher, your manager from your after school job, your mentor, whoever you look up to in life – and use all of their insights to come to a decision that feels right for YOU and you alone.

Remember: being “successful” is subjective and there are plenty of “successful” people who have lead meaningful, lives of impact with (and without) a degree in tow.

Navigating College & Your Gap Year

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The college admissions process is challenging enough, but should be seen as a necessary step in the evolution of your Gap Year. On average, 90% of AGA Accredited Gap Year graduates make their way back to university within a year. The good news is that once you hit college, Gap Year graduates also perform better in school and engage more in local campus activities. So, that being said, know that you’ll be bringing good value to whatever university you should choose to enroll in.

In almost all cases, your best bet is to:

Apply to college

Get accepted and pay your deposit.

Ask for a “deferral” from admissions. More and more universities are adopting a formal policy around deferrals as they’re seeing more students ask for these. In some cases, deferrals are specifically to take a Gap Year – and we always encourage announcing your plans clearly and honestly – but in other cases students are simply looking to take time to work and earn a bit of money for college.

Finding the ‘right’ college is a bit of a misnomer in terms of how the process works. The ‘right’ college is sort of like the ‘right’ Gap Year . . . regardless of where you go it’ll be a transformative experience, and they’ll be lucky to have you. But, bear in mind that this should be seen more as a plan rather than a commitment. In short, you certainly will change as a result of your Gap Year, so don’t feel overly obliged to stay with the ‘plan’ simply because it’s The Plan. Every good plan can be changed, especially if you no longer fit that school’s profile or you decide that you want something different at another university.

Admissions

The admissions process is thankfully fairly simple. In most cases you’ll find that universities are excited to have you do a Gap Year. In some cases you’ll find that you have to do a bit of explaining for what one is and what you hope to get out of your Gap Year. Sometimes, as a result of your Gap Year, you may feel compelled to re-evaluate the college you initially sought deferral from. This is not unusual, and if the changes you’ve made in yourself throughout your Gap Year compel you to re-examine your university goals, then please do so. But remember, universities and colleges are making assumptions only based on what you tell them, so be up front and honest with your admissions representative if you’re considering making a change.

In either case, your experiences on your Gap Year most certainly will be a phenomenal foundation to write any future admissions essays. In most cases, regardless of where you are in your Gap Year, you can apply to different universities online and with a little help from your family and friends. So, while applying and deferring is the best practice for taking your Gap Year, it’s also very important to understand that you can indeed change universities and select another one even once you’ve begun your Gap Year.

Financial Aid

When taking a deferral for your Gap Year, remember that there are many different rules from university financial aid departments. In some cases they’ll grant a deferral, but only contingent upon the fact that you don’t enroll at another university during your Gap Year. In other cases it’s granted contingent on earning no college credit.

Regardless, in almost every college decision, the financial aid award plays at least a role in the college decision. Understanding as much, you should certainly weigh your options thoroughly – it’s not to say that there’s only one financial aid offer on the table from one university, but they do have their preferred way of doing things.

In most cases, universities prefer to have you enter as a freshman rather than come in as a “transfer” student. Each university has a different threshold for the number of credits in order to enter as a transfer. Sometimes it’s 30 credits, sometimes it’s 36, but you should check with your particular university to see what their rules are. For more information on funding your Gap Year, please see our Gap Year Financial Aid section

Photo Credit: Dave Meier