There are pros and cons to applying to colleges now rather than during your gap year. So "The Dean" will spell them out for you below, then you can decide which route to take ... or perhaps you could consider a "hybrid" approach — a word that seems to be much in vogue during these crazy COVID times.
First, let's begin with the advantages of applying to college this year:
The biggie is what the grapevine has already told you. With a 15 on your preliminary ACT, it's likely that your "real" score won't go up enough to put some of your prospective target colleges in the ballpark. Although many colleges that adopted a test-optional policy for 2020-21 are likely to keep that policy for 2021-22 (and perhaps permanently), some won't. So by applying this year — and not during your gap year — you may have the broadest possible selection of test-optional schools to choose among.
Another pro of applying this year is that, even with cyberspace connecting continents these days, it's often easier for students to complete their applications when they have ready access to their school counselor and teachers on a daily basis. Of course, if you're going to school remotely this fall anyway, that puts the kybosh on this advantage of applying now.
A final pro of applying soon is that, along with any acceptances you receive in the months ahead, you'll also receive your financial aid "packages." These will tell you exactly what each college that admitted you will cost. You will be able to see how much grant aid (the good stuff than need not be repaid) each college is offering as well as how much loan money you'll be expected to assume on top of the grants. Armed with this financial-aid information, you should be able to figure out exactly how affordable college will be for you and how much you will have to earn during your year off. You may discover that these figures are pleasantly surprising or — conversely — they will send you scurrying off to do a new college search to find more reasonably priced schools.
Now let's talk about the advantages of applying to college next year (once your gap year is underway):
When students elect a gap year after already committing to a top-choice college and deferring, it's common for them to have a change of heart. Experiences during their time outside the classroom can spark new interests and preferences. Prospective English majors discover Environmental Science or the small college near home that once seemed so appealing now feels too close and claustrophobic. Thus, it's not unusual for "gappers" to say, "Thanks anyway," to the college they had planned to attend (and to lose an enrollment deposit in the process) as they head back to the drawing board to create a new roster of target schools. Thus, by waiting until next year, you may have a stronger (or at least different) sense of what you want to study and where you want to be.
Another consideration is that, due to COVID, some colleges are revamping their deferral practices. They may not approve all gap-year requests, even if they did in the past, or they may not guarantee that gappers can choose the start term they prefer. So you can't automatically assume that you will get the green light to defer, or — if you do — that you'll be able to begin classes when you're ready. So if you wait until you're in the throes of your gap year to apply, you won't have to worry about wrangling a deferral.
Applying during your gap year — but without dawdling through December — will also allow you to meet "Early Decision" or "Early Action" deadlines that you've already missed this month. Binding Early Decision programs not only boost acceptance chances (because admission folks favor candidates who are clearly eager to attend) but also they can actually be the best bet for students who need a lot of financial aid. The rumor mill may insist that a student seeking funding shouldn't ever make a binding commitment before comparing all financial-aid opportunities. But in reality, colleges often accept ED applicants (and fund them well) at a much higher rate than Regular Decision candidates because these students are willing to make a commitment to matriculate. Yet these same students, if they have high financial need, may not get admitted in the Regular Decision round at all. Keep in mind that students who are accepted via Early Decision but who receive inadequate aid are free to bail out of the "binding" obligation with no penalty. So waiting a year or so to apply may help you to be more certain of top-choice colleges and to possibly zero in on an ED school in order to streamline the application process and receive the financial aid you require. And while "Early Action" (which does not demand a commitment until May) won't raise admission odds the way that ED does, some colleges earmark certain scholarships for only those who have met the EA deadline. Applying EA also means you should have a verdict in December or January. So if your news is bad, there's still time to add some "safer" places to your college list.
Similarly, by now (November), popular colleges with "Rolling Admission" are already filling their classes. You can still apply to many "Rolling Admission" schools right through the spring and, occasionally, even into the summer. But for your best shot an acceptance at a Rolling Decision college, submitting an application in September or October is a wise strategy.
One final "timing" consideration ...
You didn't say how good your grades are. If you started out slowly in high school but are still picking up speed, it might be to your advantage to wait until your gap year to apply so that admission committees will see two strong senior semesters. On the other hand, if your grades have been consistent ... or if you've got a killer second semester coming up ... then waiting to apply next year won't offer the same plus.
The Bottom Line:
Which timetable is right for you? As you may have guessed, "The Dean" votes for the "Hybrid" approach.
If you have a couple colleges in mind that you'd like to attend and which offer a test-optional policy, apply now, even if you view them as "Reach" schools. That way, if you are denied, this will help you to compile a more realistic list next year. If you do get in, and if you're convinced you'll be excited (and able) to enroll in 2022, then you can enjoy your year off without having the application process still hanging over your head.
But if you don't get into your favorite colleges or if you find out that they won't be affordable or if you change your mind about your interests and goals by next fall, keep your mind open to applying to some other schools during your year off.
In any case, you're wise to be looking ahead and to be considering your testing shortcomings as you do. Good luck to you, whatever you decide.
About the Ask the Dean Column
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at email@example.com.