"In college, my academic advisor told me he thought a gap year should be mandatory and that I was far ahead of other students in maturity and determination. This kind of feedback makes me feel that my NOLS experience made me a more desirable and interesting student in the eyes of my college." ~ Lyda Langford
Photo by NOLS
A gap year can be a transformative adventure, providing unique opportunities for personal growth, leadership development, and worldly experience. But, when it comes to leveraging your gap year experiences to strengthen your college application, knowing how to talk about those experiences and their effect on you is just as important as the experiences themselves.
When you apply to college, it's essential to share your gap year stories in a way that showcases how you’ve reflected on your growth, resilience, and maturity in the time that's passed since your senior year of high school. Understanding the ‘why’ behind your gap year decision and making a solid plan is crucial to creating a meaningful experience that will make your college application shine.
At NOLS, each of our gap year programs involves an immersive experiential learning curriculum that includes cultural immersion, outdoor expeditions focusing on environmental stewardship, and opportunities to develop essential leadership, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills that colleges will appreciate.
By being strategic about your gap year activities and effectively conveying their impact, you can leverage your gap year experience to make your college application stand out from the crowd.
- A well-planned NOLS gap year can enhance your college application by creating the right opportunities for personal growth and unique experiences to be shared.
- Involvement in a variety of gap year activities can develop a diverse skill set, including leadership, environmental stewardship, and risk management.
- Effectively sharing your gap year stories on your college application will highlight your resilience and maturity.
Defining Your Purpose
The Importance of Having Clear Motivations and Goals for Gap Year Students
When it comes to embarking on an experience-rich gap year that will enhance your college applications, it's essential to have a clear understanding of your purpose. Ask yourself, why am I taking this gap year?
Some students choose to take a gap year to explore their interests, learn new skills, or gain real-world experience before committing to a specific area of study in college. This can be an invaluable opportunity for personal growth, as it helps gap year students better understand their goals and priorities, thus improving their readiness for higher education.
Are you looking to explore personal interests, gain real-world experiences, or both? Your goals will shape your gap year experiences and influence how you present them on your college application.
Aligning Your Gap Year Goals with Your Long-term Aspirations
Show admissions officers how your gap year fits into the bigger picture of your life and future ambitions.
One of the keys to making your gap year experiences resonate on your college application is connecting them to your long-term academic and career plans. This takes careful planning. It can be helpful to consult with your high school counselor and consider what activities will best align with your goals and aspirations.
A thoughtful conversation with a guidance counselor or high school teachers who know you can help you dig deeper into your goals for your gap year by identifying specific objectives. Are you seeking personal growth and self-discovery? Perhaps you're interested in career exploration and skill development. These objectives will help you choose gap year activities that align with your aspirations.
A former NOLS gap year student started out undecided, but after a Patagonia gap year where she experienced how local ranchers and pobladores have adapted to their respective terrains, she decided to pursue a degree in international business.
By leveraging their experience and insights, you can create a tailor-made plan for your time off, which can significantly boost your college application.
Photo by Alex Chan
Crafting a Well-Defined Gap Year Plan
Including a NOLS gap year story in your college application can showcase your independence, resilience, and ability to adapt to new situations.
Colleges often value students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, as they can bring unique perspectives to campus life and contribute to a more vibrant learning environment, and NOLS gap year programs offer ample opportunities to diversify your skills and experiences.
Remember that gap year activities should be carefully chosen to reflect your goals and be well-organized. College admissions officers will likely appreciate a structured and well-thought-out gap year plan, rather than a year spent without any clear direction or purpose.
Interested in environmental studies or conservation biology? A Baja California gap year will give you the opportunity to meet members of local fishing and ranching communities, practice Spanish language skills, and gain a deeper understanding of how Baja culture has cared for its local ecosystems.
How about cultural immersion? During our New Zealand semester, you’ll have the opportunity to meet members of the local Maori community and learn about their way of life, past and present.
If you’re more geared towards community-building, you can spend a semester in East Africa connecting with local culture through impactful, hands-on service projects.
At NOLS, our gap year advisor will help you choose from a wide range of gap year programs, devising a well-executed gap year that will demonstrate your commitment to pursuing personal growth and making the most of your time, both during and after the time off.
To ensure your gap year is purposeful, we encourage you to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound). Develop a detailed plan that outlines the steps you'll take to achieve these goals, from selecting programs to managing finances and logistics.
We recognize the importance of structured, purposeful gap year experiences and can help you create a plan that aligns with your goals and aspirations.
Photo by Lucy Eichenauer
How to Include Your Gap Year in the College Application Process
When it comes to making your gap year experiences shine on your college applications, NOLS goes beyond offering transformative gap year programs—we equip you with the tools to effectively convey the impact of these experiences in your college essays and interviews.
Reflecting on Personal Growth and Journaling for Self-Discovery
As a part of your NOLS gap year program, we encourage you to keep a journal. This journal isn't just a record of your adventures; it's a reflection on your journey. By documenting your achievements and challenges, you begin the process of introspection and self-assessment. Understanding your growth is the first step to effectively articulating it on your college application.
Your NOLS instructors will also facilitate moments of reflective discussion with other participants throughout your gap year adventure.
These thoughtful group discussions often lead our students to uncover insights about their experiences and themselves that may not have come to the surface otherwise.
One former NOLS gap year student beautifully encapsulated the impact of journaling and reflection, stating,
"I didn’t realize it in the moment, but looking back on my journal from my gap year semester—it reads like a map. Here is when I realized a certain fear. And here’s when I noticed that that same fear was gone. The obstacles and triumphs are all there, and I’m so thankful that I took the time to write about them along the way."
As you engage in self-reflection with NOLS, you'll be better equipped to articulate your growth in a meaningful way on your college application.
Your journal entries provide evidence of your journey—how you faced adversity, learned from experiences, and emerged as a more resilient and adaptable individual.
You can turn these insights into compelling narratives that admissions officers will find both impressive and authentic.
Another former NOLS gap year student shared,
"When I sat down to write my college essays, I didn't just have stories to tell. I had a deep understanding of my own development. I’ve never considered myself an athletic person. But after hiking from camp to camp throughout my time in the Indian Himalayas, I realized how quickly I could adapt to a situation if I just let go of my own perceptions about myself. I had no problem keeping up with the group and in fact led the way a few times. I finally felt like part of the team."
Connecting Gap Year Experiences to Future Goals
Aligning with Academic and Career Aspirations
NOLS recognizes the importance of connecting your gap year experiences to your future goals. Whether you plan to pursue a career in environmental science, international relations, or any other field, NOLS helps you emphasize how your gap year aligns with these aspirations.
To be a teacher, an entrepreneur, or a research scientist all require the ability to lead. What that leadership looks like can vary from profession to profession, but also they often overlap. Time in the wilderness and outside of any career context teaches you how to connect with others, resolve conflicts, and inspire each other to achieve common goals.
During your NOLS gap year, you’ll not only gain more clarity on your personal values, you’ll also discover your leadership style, learn to think critically about the world, and solve problems with an adaptive, self-aware approach. Admissions officers value applicants who can clearly demonstrate the value of their experiences in shaping their academic and career paths.
Demonstrating the Value of Your Experiences
NOLS assists you in effectively conveying the value of your gap year experiences beyond personal growth. You'll learn to articulate how your experiences have influenced your character and perspective, making you a more well-rounded and informed individual. This connection between your experiences and your future goals creates a compelling narrative that admissions officers will appreciate.
Showcase Your Networking and Community Building Skills
NOLS acknowledges the importance of seeking guidance from mentors and counselors. Our gap year programs will connect you with expert instructors, knowledgeable mentors, and a community that thrives on connection. This community will help you distill your vast experiences into valuable insights about your gap year journey, helping you make sense of your experiences and their significance.
Additionally, NOLS mentors and counselors are well-positioned to write strong recommendation letters for your college applications. They can attest to your growth, leadership, and adaptability, providing additional credibility to your application.
Crafting a Standout Personal Essay
To make your application stand out, include your gap year experiences in your college essays. Write about the lessons you learned, the challenges you overcame, and the personal growth you experienced.
Demonstrating Lessons Learned
With NOLS's guidance, you can effectively demonstrate how your gap year experiences have shaped your character and perspective. You'll be able to convey the valuable life lessons you've learned, making a compelling case for how these experiences have prepared you for success in college and beyond.
NOLS not only offers transformative gap year programs but also equips you with the skills and insights needed to effectively convey the impact of your experiences on your college applications. With NOLS, your gap year becomes a rich source of stories, personal growth, and leadership development that will undoubtedly make your application stand out in the competitive college admissions process.
NOLS recognizes the power of storytelling in conveying the impact of your gap year. Your experiences during your gap year are not just a list of activities; they're a series of stories waiting to be told. NOLS helps you craft these narratives to showcase your resilience, adaptability, and leadership abilities. Your narratives go beyond mere descriptions—they immerse admissions officers in your experiences and leave a lasting impression.
Drawing inspiration from NOLS gap year alumni, consider the words of Aimee, who shared her transformative experience:
"The reflective group sessions that we had at the end of my Patagonia semester challenged me to elaborate on my experiences and turn 'You had to be there' into 'Let me take you there.' Recently, when applying for colleges, I used my newly cultivated storytelling ability not merely to paint a picture with my personal statement, but to craft a door through which college admission officers could step into my world and witness my gap year stories come alive."
Aimee's words eloquently exemplify how NOLS empowers individuals to captivate and engage their audience on a profound level.
Highlighting Leadership Experiences
NOLS gap year programs are designed to foster leadership development; you can even earn college credits in Leadership Technique. As a NOLS gap year student, you'll find yourself immersed in situations that demand effective leadership and collaboration within challenging environments.
Sharing her experience, NOLS Alaska Backpacking alumna, Jamie, noted,
"During my NOLS gap year course, we faced the task of building a makeshift shelter in the wilderness during a heavy snowstorm. Learning to collaborate effectively under such extreme conditions not only strengthened our teamwork as a group and allowed me the chance to put everything I’d been learning about my own leadership style to the test.”
Like Jamie, you will likely come face to face with challenges that will test your ability to problem solve, collaborate and communicate effectively, and leverage your strengths under pressure during your NOLS gap year.
As daunting as that may sound, NOLS is dedicated to helping you recognize and accentuate these leadership encounters, emphasizing your capacity to take initiative, make crucial decisions, and contribute significantly to your team's success.
NOLS helps you identify and highlight these leadership experiences, emphasizing how you took initiative, made critical decisions, and contributed to the success of your team. These stories not only demonstrate your leadership potential but also underscore your ability to thrive in diverse and demanding situations.
Now a junior in college, Jamie continues to reflect on her Alaska Backpacking trip with NOLS,
“I still think about building that shelter in the storm. As cheesy as it sounds, I think of that night as a pivotal moment in developing my self-confidence. And the ability to collaborate and stay calm under pressure is proving instrumental in my college group projects where we are required to meet tight deadlines and keep morale high."
Engage College Admissions Officers with Tales of Your Transformative Gap Year During Interviews
Be prepared to talk about your gap year experiences during the college application process. During college interviews with the admissions office, focus on how these experiences have transformed your outlook on life and contributed to your personal growth. This will show the admissions committee that you are a well-rounded candidate who is ready to take on the challenges of college and beyond.
When asked about his NOLS gap year experience helped him prepare for college, Ethan said,
"NOLS made me a confident storyteller. I've learned that sharing my wilderness experiences isn't just about the 'what' but also the 'why.' It helped me craft personal essays that resonated with college admissions officers, as well as write engaging opening paragraphs to college essays in all sorts of classes."
This insight underscores the importance of not only recounting your adventures but also delving into the deeper significance they hold in your personal growth and development.
As you consider taking a gap year, envision the compelling narratives you'll craft in your college applications, weaving together the 'what' and 'why' of your journey. By doing so, you'll not only showcase yourself as a well-rounded candidate but also demonstrate your readiness to embrace the challenges of college and beyond, just as these NOLS alumni have done.
Photo by Roger Martin
Bonus: Earn Academic Credit with a NOLS Gap Year
Embarking on a NOLS Gap Year offers more than just an adventure of a lifetime full of experiences that will enrich your college application; it's also an opportunity to earn up to 27 valuable academic credit hours across a diverse range of fields.
Earning academic credit during a gap year before college can significantly impress college admissions officers. Not only does it showcase a student's commitment to continuous learning, but it also demonstrates their ability to balance experiential education with formal academics.
For college admissions officers, earning additional academic or college credit signifies that the college applicant hasn't simply taken a year off but has actively pursued personal and academic growth during that time.
These credits also provide a glimpse into the student's intellectual curiosity and capacity to engage with diverse subjects, a quality that colleges highly value. They offer an additional layer of competitiveness in the application process, setting the applicant apart from their peers who may have opted for a more traditional path.
Whether you're passionate about cultural immersion, eager to hone your leadership techniques, intrigued by Environmental Studies, or looking to master the intricacies of risk management, NOLS has you covered. A gap year program with NOLS not only enables you to explore the world's most stunning and remote locations but also ensures that you return home with a substantial academic foundation to complement your newfound life skills and experiences.
Overall, colleges view earning academic credit during a NOLS gap year as a testament to a student's dedication to self-improvement, making them a compelling candidate for admission to their desired college or university.
Photo by NOLS
Enhance Your Application with a NOLS Gap Year
As a soon-to-be college applicant, a well-planned and purposeful NOLS gap year program is just what you need to wow admissions officers, increase your admissions chances, and even increase your chances of a larger financial aid package. It showcases your growth, resilience, maturity, and the diverse skills you've acquired, making you a standout candidate in the competitive college admissions process. So, as you consider taking a NOLS gap year, remember the profound impact it can have on your college journey and your future.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do gap years impact college admissions?
A gap year can significantly impact your college application if you use that time wisely. Admissions committees often view gap years as an opportunity for personal growth, skill development, and real-world experience. Make sure to plan your gap year with clear goals and explain how the experience contributed to your maturity and readiness for college in your application.
What are the best ways to present a gap year on a college application?
To present your gap year effectively on a college application, focus on the experiences that showcase personal growth, leadership development, and other important skills.
Discuss how your gap year provided you with unique experiences and opportunities for growth, whether through international travel, internships, or risk management training. Highlight the key takeaways from your gap year and how they have prepared you for college success.
Do universities view gap years positively or negatively?
Universities typically view gap years positively if the student has used the time productively. Many colleges, such as Harvard, encourage students to consider taking a gap year for personal development and a broader perspective on life. However, it is crucial to demonstrate that your gap year was purposeful and contributed to your overall growth and readiness for higher education.
What are some popular gap year programs to enhance college applications?
NOLS gap year programs can provide an exceptional experience that can strengthen your college application. These programs focus on personal growth, leadership development, risk management, environmental stewardship, and exploring once-in-a-lifetime remote locations.
NOLS offers a variety of gap year programs in different durations and locations, ensuring accessibility and a tailored experience for every student.
How can a gap year influence chances of acceptance at competitive universities?
A well-planned gap year can increase your chances of acceptance at competitive universities by showcasing your maturity, independence, and ability to handle new challenges.
College admissions committees appreciate students who pursue meaningful gap years for personal development and a better understanding of the world. Emphasize how your gap year experiences have prepared you for college and made you a stronger applicant, both academically and personally.
Should I apply to college before or after taking a gap year?
The decision to apply before or after your gap year depends on your personal preferences and circumstances. If you are sure about taking a gap year and have already researched the programs and experiences you want to pursue, it may be best to apply to college beforehand.
This way, you can request a deferment or secure a place at your preferred institution while still focusing on your gap year experiences. However, if you are unsure about your plans, you might want to wait until after your gap year to apply, allowing you to incorporate those experiences into your application.
NOLS is a nonprofit global wilderness school that seeks to help you step forward boldly as a leader.