Skip to main content

For typical high school seniors, NCAA March Madness may serve as a welcome distraction from the waiting game that has become the process of awaiting March-end college admissions notifications.

With the arrival of these admission notifications, in short order, many graduating seniors will have a definitive response to the oft-asked question, “where will you be going to school next year?”

However, some may have a different experience. In the increasingly competitive world of college admissions, often, the admission decision goes differently than a student applicant envisioned it. With a simple series of email notifications dings, what had seemed so crystal clear about a student’s plan for the year ahead, is now significantly murkier.

Last March, a young friend of mine, Gemma, experienced just this. I am sharing the story of how she charted her own course to pursue her college and vocational goal in hopes that others may learn and benefit from her experience.

A Plan Pivots

When you are an accomplished student who has experienced academic success throughout a young life, a college rejection – or, as in Gemma’s case, the acceptances received were to schools she did not have much interest in attending – can land heavily. Like many who have experienced rejection, she was confused, sad, and more than a little frustrated. All very natural emotions. Her mom encouraged her to put some thought into the schools and programs from whom she had received acceptances; however, after a few weeks of deliberation and a couple of campus visits, Gemma decided to forego heading to college in the fall with her classmates – choosing instead to re-apply in another year. She would take a gap year.

Plan for a Gap Year with a Goal

We have seen the growing popularity of taking gap years – an entire industry is built around them. Google the term, and you will scroll through plenty of “gap year” services and programs touting travel and volunteer experiences in exotic locations. What has impressed me most about Gemma’s approach to her gap year has been her singular focus and dedication to getting as much out of her year at what I’ll call the lowest cost expense and highest experience value as possible to put her in a position for tremendous success. Gemma’s goal for her gap year was two-fold: 1) to gain experience to improve her college application standing and 2) to earn and save to supplement the college savings that her mom has set aside for her.

To fulfill her long-held dream of becoming a nurse and having already seen how competitive admissions to nursing programs can be, Gemma decided to use her gap year to double down on her commitment to healthcare by getting an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification. While her high school senior classmates spent their graduation summers traveling, selecting roommates, and shopping to furnish new dorm rooms, Gemma was taking classes at our local community college (paid for with funds from her college savings plan!) and by early fall had become a certified EMT. Soon after that, Gemma was testing her mettle by working non-stop 12-hour shifts as an EMT servicing 911-dispatch calls across San Francisco.

Achieving the Goal

Between her shifts working as an EMT last fall, Gemma re-applied to several competitive nursing programs across the U.S., hoping to receive different outcomes over the previous year. It came as no surprise when I learned that her plan, growth, and investment in herself over this past year have yielded different results – it is just one year later and she has already begun receiving early word that several competitive programs are now vying for her enrollment with letters of acceptance accompanied by generous offers of merit scholarship funding. What an outcome!

Gemma’s story serves as a reminder that while the college admissions process remains daunting with obstacles aplenty when things do not go as planned, with perseverance, flexibility, and a little creativity, solutions will present themselves. And when this happens, the best of our young people are able to successfully chart their own course and thrive.


A mom of two recent college graduates, Vivian has been a vocal advocate of saving early and often for loved ones’ educations through college savings programs. She has served in management and leadership roles with financial services organizations TIAA, BlackRock and Morgan Stanley, and has worked in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Taipei, Los Angeles and New York. Vivian is a Certified Investment Management Analyst and a Certified Private Wealth Advisor and has been the Chair of the College Savings Foundation since 2020. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.