As high school seniors send out the last of their college applications and eagerly wait to hear whether they got into their top choices, some will be faced with a growing admissions trend whereby a college offers a place in the first-year class, but with a caveat — that the applicant start in January.
An expanding number of colleges, including Middlebury, University of Miami, Boston College, Colorado College, Washington University in St. Louis, and University of Southern California now extend offers of January admission.
Why does it happen?
“It’s about filling beds,” said Marie Bigham, director of college counseling of the Greenhill School in suburban Dallas. During spring semester, many college students go abroad, move off campus, or transfer. There is room for more students, so colleges might extend an offer for some potential first-years to start school in the spring semester. This option provides colleges with a previously untapped revenue stream and enables them to use their physical and human resources more efficiently.
Starting in the winter can be favorable for incoming students, too.
“It’s a way for students who really want to be at a college to get in,” said Bigham, who has seen the offers made to kids who “were right on the bubble.” She says she tends to see schools make the January start offer to applicants for whom that college is a first choice, or those who have ties to the school, such as legacy applicants.
Colorado College (CC) has a winter start program for about 45 new students each year.“It’s a strong group of students for us, but in some cases, they just slightly missed our marker for what our fall [admitted students] would look like, but still students that we would like to have at CC,” said Matt Bonser, one of CC’s directors of admissions. He’s seen an increase in students requesting gap years — delaying college by one year — who might be offered a gap semester instead, and start college in January.
“We think this program may give them some time,” he said, noting that many take time off to “go do extraordinary things.”
Sometimes, winter start students are applicants who have requested a gap year, have a “significant sense of adventure,” or didn’t get the strongest show of support from the 13 person admissions staff, said Bonser.
Can you still graduate on time?
One of the main concerns students have about starting in the winter is whether they will be able to graduate on time.
The answer depends on the school and the student. For example, Middlebury’s page about Febs (what they call their winter start students) states that they don’t expect student to “accelerate their normal four‑year program and graduate in three and a half years.” However, if students are inclined to finish ahead of time, they can take classes at another school in the fall before they start the college.
At Colorado College, where most students decide to make up for the fall credits in the summer or before they start college, in order to graduate with the rest of their class, students can still decide to take the full four years to graduate if they choose.
There are a variety of ways that winter admission students can get the credits they need to graduate with the rest of their class: summer semesters, internships, taking classes elsewhere, getting credit for volunteer or paid work, and AP credits.
Will you feel like an outsider?
Students want to know whether they will feel fully included in the freshman class.
“Small colleges often do it best,” said Bigham. “These colleges make sure the January transition as similar to the fall’s as possible.” A sense of community, she adds, is key to making the program work.
What can you do during the fall?
Winter entry students should craft a plan for the fall when all their friends are away at their first year of college. What they spend their gap semester doing will often inform how they approach college. But initially, students may feel left behind.
“It was kind of a bummer. It was college, you know? Everybody I knew was going to start in August. It was upsetting,” said one winter start student.
“For almost every student I have seen, it has been very positive,” said Bigham. One student said he wanted to work as hard as possible, so he took jobs in two city delis. When he got to college, his semester of work had matured him and made him a better, more serious student. Bigham could only recall one student who washed out by starting in second semester.
Using the fall to travel, volunteer, take classes, or explore career opportunities through internships and jobs can be extremely fruitful. The extra time can help students better understand what they want to devote themselves to in college.