The College Search

Big Loans, Safety School, or Gap Year?

Question: I didn't get into the college of my dreams -- shocking, I know. My dilemma is that I'm stuck between a rock, a hard place, and then something else insanely difficult, as well.

I currently have three options for next year:

1. I was accepted to Virginia Tech. Not my first choice or a place I think I would really fit in, but a good school nonetheless.

2. I was accepted to UCLA. One of my co-first choices, and pretty much the place I've been dreaming of since I was 12. But I'm an out-of-state student and they didn't offer nearly enough money to cover everything I need.

3. A gap year. My biggest priority in life (even before getting a good job, a relationship, or making a million dollars) is to travel the world. I desperately want to volunteer abroad.

So what do I do? Go to the school I don't really feel a connection to but I can afford, bite the bullet and take out more than $20k in loans for each year at the school of dreams, or somehow find an affordable gap year program and apply again next year?

This is all not to mention that I'm wait-listed at my other co-first choice school, William & Mary, so who knows how that will pan out.

I'm afraid of doing a gap and applying in 2012 only to fail again, but I'm also afraid of going the conventional route and forgetting all the dreams I had of doing my small part to make the world a better place.

What do I do?

As an old lady of nearly 60, I'm pretty skeptical when it comes to the "Dream School" concept. I've seen so many students who have NOT attended their true-love college (either because of rejection or cost) yet who have gone on to have wonderful undergraduate experiences and happy, college-loan-free lives. Sure, it seems unfair that some high school seniors can follow their heart while others must follow their wallet. But who said life would be fair, right?

So, if you're talking $20K per year in loans to go to UCLA, I think you're wise to take it off the table.

Here's what I suggest instead:

1) Lobby hard to get into William and Mary. Follow the advice you'll find in this other recent "Ask the Dean" column:

Pay particular attention to the part about stating clearly that you DEFINITELY WILL ENROLL if admitted from the waitlist.

2) Give some serious thought to the gap year, even if it means sending a deposit to Virginia Tech by the May 1 deadline, which you might ultimately lose.

Do keep in mind, however, that most of the time (although not always), a college that said “No" to you when you were a senior in high school will not accept you following a gap year. (Getting in as a transfer is more likely, but this also depends on the college. The Ivy League colleges, for instance, take very few transfers.)

So don't pursue the gap year if your primary purpose would be to reapply to your top-choice college with the hope of getting news the next time around. BUT … if a central aim of your gap year would be to do some good in the world while you retool your college list, that's a different story. Make sure that your new list includes colleges that excite you more than Virginia Tech does but also those which, unlike UCLA, will be affordable. (If you're strong enough to be admitted to UCLA from out of state, then there are certainly lots of colleges that would welcome you with merit aid. Go back to the drawing board and consider what you like best about your “dream" school(s) and then find places that share some of those traits but where your profile puts you closer to the top of the applicant pool.) You can also find gap-year programs such as CityYear and Americorps that will actually pay you to participate, rather than those that cost many thousands to do “volunteer" work abroad.

My advice to all potential gap-year students is to be sure to have a specific plan in place before you commit for sure to the time off from school. But if you're itching to make the world a better place, but you're not so thrilled with your current college options, then it might make sense to do that gap year and to line up some new colleges that you can really get excited about for the fall of 2012.

(posted 4/10/2011)