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Articles / Applying to College / Gap Year Ideas for International Student?

March 3, 2015

Gap Year Ideas for International Student?

Question: I'm taking a gap year to apply to the US but have little to do during it. I'm interested in Engineering and was thinking of learning coding during this time. I wanted to know if this is a good idea and if you could provide advice on what to do during this time. I'm an international student.

Studying coding during your gap year is a great idea. One of my son's friends (a high school senior) has learned coding and now has a part-time job that pays far more than the typical teenager earns after school. A young woman I know, who received a bachelor's degree in digital media from a well-regarded US university, taught herself coding after graduation and then landed her dream job because of it. Studying coding is also a smart plan because it will show effort and initiative and it will be something you do on your own (or in a classroom with others) but not part of a pricey “program" aimed at gap-year students. College admission officials see a lot of such organized gap year “programs"—expensive group travel and “volunteer" activities. While these can certainly be valuable experiences for the participants, they usually don't help to distinguish an applicant from other “gappers."

But, when it comes to US college admissions, because you are an international student, the way that you spend your gap year will not impact your admission chances as much as several other factors will. These are:


  1. Your course selection, grades, and standardized test scores.

Although having an interesting and productive gap year on your résumé will certainly work in your favor, it will still be these application components that will play a starring role in your outcomes.

  1. Finances

When international students apply for financial aid, their admission chances plummet. In most cases, an international applicant who requires financial assistance must be MUCH stronger than the typical admitted freshman in order to be accepted. Only a tiny handful of US colleges and universities are “need blind" when making admission decisions, and these places are among the toughest institutions for ANY student to get into. So, if you are seeking aid, make sure that your college list includes schools where your grades and test scores put you at the top of the applicant pool, well above the median range.

  1. Nationality

While strong grades, test scores, and unique talents will help ANY candidate's admissions quest, hailing from a nation that isn't well represented in the applicant pool can be a big plus. The most sought-after institutions, for instance, are usually besieged with applicants from India, China, and Korea. So a candidate from one of those countries must really stand out in a crowd in order to get good news, while a candidate from a country that shows up only rarely in the applicant pool may get a little “hook" for geographical diversity.

So, as you make your gap year choices, keep in mind that it will be these other factors—much more than your gap year plans—that will make the most impact on your US college verdicts.

Good luck, whatever you decide!

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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