Gap Year: Keep them engaged and committed

Institutions are facing a growing population of students who defer enrollment to take a break between high school and college. Whatever their motivation—travel, career exploration, or simply getting to know themselves as young adults—students are embracing the gap year. While the phenomenon has been popular in Europe for some time, it’s gaining traction here in the U.S. In 2012, Ethan Knight founded the standards and accreditation non-profit, the American Gap Association, to help students and organizations create meaningful gap year experiences. Forward-looking schools are putting plans in place to understand what students hope to achieve during their gap year and to motivate them to matriculate on their return.

It turns out that a gap year makes a great student. A 2011 study conducted by Middlebury College found that students who take a gap year earn higher GPAs than their peers after re-enrolling—and they have a lower dropout rate. So, how can admissions professionals identify and nurture gap students—and make sure they’re ready for matriculation?


Gap Year Phases

A well-planned nurture strategy during the gap year is key to maintaining a strong relationship between your institution and students who have deferred attendance. We suggest segmenting nurture campaigns into three phases, each of which will require a different set of marketing activities. We’ve outlined the basics below and then look at each phase in more detail in the rest of this article.

What it is: Before a student takes a gap year, right after indicating an interest in deferring attendance.
Marketing basics: Market to that student explaining the success other gap-year students have had, during their gap year and while re-enrolled at your institution.

What it is: The gap year itself.
Marketing basics: Maintain a personal connection by having counselors check in with the student. Make offers to connect that student to other gappers doing similar things.

What it is: Toward the end of the gap year, approaching deadlines associated with matriculation.
Marketing basics: Provide useful information about next steps.

Let’s take a closer look:

Pre-Gap: Getting Started

Clearly, the most crucial element of successfully marketing to students interested in gapping is locating those students in the first place. Though gap year is becoming more accepted in the U.S., students are often anxious about declaring an interest in gapping for fear of losing their spot at your institution. So, when you’re collecting student information—whether from surveys, questionnaires, or through personal correspondence—make sure to indicate that students considering a gap year will not face an admissions penalty. That information will ease anxiety and will also help you edge out competitors who aren’t as up front about their gap year policies.

Once you’ve established student interest, start engaging that student before gap year starts to demonstrate your commitment—to the student and to the idea of a gap year. You might detail the academic and professional successes of gap students who are now alumni. Or you might want to recommend some resources so that the student’s gap year is a meaningful one.


Gap: Continue the Conversation

Nurturing during the gap year itself, when the student is engaged in a new and enriching experience, is critically important. Admissions reps should keep the conversation going, inquiring about how the gap year is going, but still allowing the student plenty of room. Above all, don’t be pushy—or sound desperate. Some correspondence threads might be:

  • What have been some of your best experiences so far?
  • Would you like to be connected with some other students who are taking a gap year?
  • Have your experiences changed the way you think about your future education or career?

Since this population is still relatively small, a single admissions rep could maintain contact with this particular cohort.


Transition: Messaging to Matriculation

As the year concludes, messaging can transition from the personal to a more institutionally formal tone to convey information about matriculation requirements and financial aid applications. If a student is abroad or performing service in a rural area with limited access to technology, remember to leave plenty of time for these communications. In any event, your communications should provide helpful information that addresses all the necessary steps for matriculation, while simultaneously galvanizing the student’s resolve for a confident return to formal education.



Gap Year Ambassadors

These are current students who can connect with prospective students to provide insight into their experience at your institution—gap year ambassadors can be invaluable because they’ve had experiences that your admissions reps may not have had. Gap ambassadors can help gapping students:

  • Understand their financial aid options, including any grants they qualified for by gapping
  • Handle the transition process
  • Figure out potential credit for gap experiences
  • Recognize the ‘normalcy’ of the gap decision
  • Find additional resources to make their gap year meaningful


Gap Year Microsites

Building a microsite that displays only to students interested in pursuing a gap year is a great way to provide a repository of valuable information without demanding too much work from reps and counselors. It can include:

  • Options for domestic/abroad/career-oriented/volunteer-oriented/exploratory gaps
  • Stories and testimonials from gappers who successfully transitioned back to college
  • Checklists with important dates and deadlines
  • Contact information for counselors at your school

The gap year is gaining traction in American higher education. Fortunately, gappers are a small subset of prospective students, so that dedicating time and attention to them shouldn’t drain admissions resources. A successfully supported gapper is extremely likely to return and enroll. Schools with a plan to keep gap students engaged can enroll high quality students and gain a competitive advantage over other institutions. Embrace the year deferred as a chance to strengthen the bond between your institution and a prospective student.