By Margo Bartsch, Contributor

When President Obama’s oldest daughter, Malia, took a gap year after high school graduation in 2016, many wondered, “What is a gap year and why take it?” At that time, fewer than three percent of graduating high school students who were accepted to college decided to take a gap year off before attending college. Fast forward to the 2020 pandemic: college freshmen who deferred for a year increased about five times. For example, Dartmouth College reported that 15 percent of the class of 2024 took a gap year.

With changes in the college living and learning dynamic with both online and hybrid learning, the gap year is becoming a popular alternative. Also, as the job market continues to shrink for recent college graduates, many are evaluating gap year alternatives such as fellowships or internships before applying to graduate school or beginning a full-time job. Now is the time to discuss a range of gap year options to be prepared for the college experience and professional opportunities ahead.

By the end of March, most high school students will be receiving their college acceptance letters. Evaluating the gap-year process for each school could influence the student’s choice of which college to attend. For example, the University of Vermont allows a newly admitted student to request that admissions defer up to two semesters off. However, both Barnard College and Columbia University in New York are less flexible: for fall 2020, they required that incoming freshmen re-apply (and potentially be rejected admissions) if they requested taking a gap year right before the start of the semester. The new application could include additional essays to reflect on how their education was disrupted and what the student accomplished during their gap year.

As the cost of college continues to increase for most colleges, many students can factor in the likelihood of online learning. The need for social distancing in cafeterias and dorms affects the overall campus social dynamic. Also, having enough space for social distancing in large lecture halls will likely continue to change many of the formats and processes of education. By working a year to contribute to college expenses and gain work experiences, the student can wait to attend college with the hope for a more traditional campus life.

In fact, even before the pandemic, many colleges encouraged taking a gap year. Middlebury College reported in the higher education publication “Education Surge” last August that students who take a year off typically do better with their academic grades. A year off can build time-management skills, foster team dynamics across various roles, and expose a student to various academic interests for future careers.

While in college, there are also gap year options. For example, college juniors may consider taking a year off since many study-abroad programs have been canceled due to the pandemic travel constraints. Gap-year programs include the U.S. government applications for the Peace Corp, AmeriCorps and Green Corps. It is essential to review each program’s requirements and deadlines since this is a lengthy review process. Also, there are service-learning opportunities at non-profits such as Feeding America and local food banks. To gain hands-on exposure to an academic field, such as green energy, a student can complete a training program to install solar panels. After the gap year, the student will have a real-world exposure related to professional fields.

For recent college graduates, the new buzz is participating in a fellowship. This is similar to a short-term internship, where an organization has opportunities to pursue career options connected with academic fields. Many fellowships can be paid and require college professor recommendations, an application process, and interviews. With the pandemic, many fellowships and internships are remote. Some recent graduates may choose to live in the geographic area of the organization so that they can meet co-workers and staff at outdoor local areas such as parks. This also gives a recent college graduate an opportunity to live in another city, have an independent lifestyle, and pursue a future career.

Taking a gap year should not be a last-minute consideration. As college acceptances trickle in or as college graduation nears, it is important to make a list of pros and cons of various gap year alternatives. Immersing yourself in an untraditional year can broaden your horizons with exposure to new interests that can become your life’s passion and influence your future professional goals.

Margo Bartsch founded College Essay Coach, a full-service college admission business, and has been an adjunct professor in business at Champlain College and at Middlebury College.