As high school seniors send out the last of their college applications and eagerly wait to hear whether they got in to their top choices, some will be faced with a growing trend that offers a place in the freshman class with a caveat — admission, but starting 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, have January freshman programs.
“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 freshman to start school in the spring semester. It’s a stream of revenue that was previously untapped and lets the college admit more students simply because it has room for them.
Starting in the winter can be favorable for incoming freshmen, 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 that have a tie to the school, such as a legacy applicant.
Sometimes, it’s assumed that the winter start freshmen aren’t as strong academically. This myth may have originated because these students are not included in the incoming freshman-class statistics, which are reported via the Common Data Sets or HEDS Consortium. These numbers are often cited as a way of showing how competitive a school’s admissions are. But Bigham says that is just a game that most colleges play. They might not count scholarship athletes either in their freshman class.
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 that was processing some 7,600 applicants for roughly 515 spaces (acceptance rate of 14.76), said Bonser.
Winter starts were not necessarily all waitlisted applicants. Last year, of about 800 students that CC offered a waitlist place to, about 300 accepted and 40 were admitted to the fall semester. Another 15 or so started in winter semester. The numbers are highly variable from year to year, said Bonser.
College counselors are often seen as a conduit for reconsidering students. “They are definitely part of the conversation," said Bonser. It’s conversational, he said, citing counselor engagement as a helpful insight that goes beyond standardized tests and grades.
One of the main concerns students have about starting in the winter is whether they will be able to graduate on time.
The answer to this depends on the school, and also the student. For example, on Middlebury’s site about Febs (what they call their winter start students), it clearly stated that they don’t expect student to “accelerate their normal four‑year program and graduate in three and a half years." However, if students were inclined to finish ahead of time, they can take classes at another school in the fall before they start the college, as long as they are not taking the space of another degree-seeking student at that institution.
At Colorado College, most students decide to make up for the fall credits in the summer or before they start college, so they can graduate with the rest of their class. Their site, however, explains that students can still decide to take the full four years to graduate if they choose.
In general, there are a variety of ways that students can get a semester’s worth of credits so they can graduate with the rest of their class: summer semesters, internships, taking classes elsewhere in the pre-college fall, getting credit for volunteering or working in their pre-college fall, and using AP credit.
Students want to know whether they will feel like a real part of the freshman class.
“Small colleges often do it best," said Bigham. “The ones that have been so successful are the ones where the colleges try to make sure the January transition point is as close to the fall’s as possible." A sense of community is key to making the program work.
At CC, winter starts are housed in the same area and can opt for one of four special freshman courses that are taught.
“The block plan keeps the entire student body in transition," said Bonser. This makes the transitions easier since “everyone is switching classes every month." Greek rush and activity fairs happen in the fall and the spring for winter starts and others who weren’t ready to commit to something in the fall.
It also helps when the students have 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.
One Colorado College applicant initially was waitlisted and then offered a place at the school as a summer start. Along with about 60 others, she started school in June. She went home for the fall semester, but was back in January. She was housed near the other summer starts.
“I loved it. We had a great group. Those ended up being my closest friends," she said. She spent her fall working near her home.
Her parents were initially hesitant about the delayed start, but once they learned about the program, and that this was not an uncommon practice, they were onboard. The student liked the summer learning program so much that she came back for a summer semester and was ahead in credits by her senior year.
Another student, now a University of Miami junior packing to go abroad, applied to 11 colleges and didn’t get into her top choices. She’d come from a small, private, girl’s high school and wanted a “Big Ten, rah-rah" type of school.
“Greek life, football, that’s what I wanted from college," said the sports administration major. Her grades and test scores were typical of accepted applicants at schools that rejected her. She was waitlisted at University of Miami and was about to commit to going to another school when her high school counselor offered to call Miami and plead her case.
“She said to me, ‘if I make this call, you have to go there if you get in." And she did. She spent her summer and what would have been her first fall semester working at an orphanage in Malawi and distributing water filtration systems in Africa.
“Honestly, the way that it worked out, I wouldn’t change it for the world. Those months were the best months of my life. It wasn’t what I wanted or what I prepared for, but it … worked out for me."
Using the fall to travel, volunteer, take classes, or explore career opportunities through internships and jobs can be fruitful. This time can help you better understand what you want to devote yourself to in college.
For more ideas of what you can do the fall before you start classes, check out this great resource from Middlebury.