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Planning on taking a year off after high school to plan your college career?

Students taking a year off after high school may face unique challenges when applying to college.

Gap year students can take classes or retake the SAT or ACT to stay in an academic mindset or improve their test scores before they apply to college.

Taking a gap year before college – as President Barack Obama’s daughter, Malia, plans to do – can be an enriching opportunity. Whether traveling, working or volunteering, the year off after high school can open new paths.

A gap year, however, can also present unique challenges when it comes to college applications. Read on for four tips on how to address these issues.

1. Start the application process early: For most students, four months is a reasonable time frame for preparing college applications. However, gap year students may have a schedule that is busier and less structured than that of high school students. This is especially true of students who are traveling during their gap years.

One way to work around distractions is to start your college applications six to eight months before your earliest deadline. Mark your most critical dates, such as application submission deadlines and testing dates, on a calendar, and set reminders one month and one week in advance.

With such a long time frame, it may be tempting to procrastinate – especially if you are spending a lot of summer days in the beautiful outdoors or are working hard at a part-time job or an internship. It is up to you to set deadlines, although you can ask a parent or a reliable friend to help you stay on track.

[Discover how a gap year can make students successful.]

2. Capitalize on technology: Visiting campuses is an important step in finding the right schoolfor you, but if you are out of the country, physically visiting a college or university could be prohibitively expensive. Even if you stay in the U.S., your gap year obligations could prevent you from taking tours.

Consider taking a virtual tour instead. Many schools offer them, and a virtual tour can give you valuable insight into the look and feel of an institution.

If a virtual tour is not available, or you’re concerned that the one offered is not an unbiased portrayal of the campus, do a bit of sleuthing on YouTube, Reddit or Instagram. College students love to share their adventures, and you can learn a great deal about a place by watching the videos and reading the stories posted by current and former students.

Better still, ask questions online. Some students will be in “sales mode,” and they will talk up their schools. Others will have more negative opinions. Weigh all of the feedback together, so that you get a clear picture of the culture and atmosphere of your prospective college or university.

3. Use networking to your advantage: Contact the alumni networks for your prospective schools, and ask whether there is a local chapter – or even a local individual who has graduated from one of your target institutions. Get in touch, and ask for a short informational interview to discuss the person’s experiences with the school.

Many institutions that recruit nationally or internationally rely on their alumni network to conduct interviews with prospective students. The University of Chicago, for example, arrangesinterviews with volunteer alumni for those students who are unable to visit campus.

This strategy likely works best for those students who are considering large universities. You may be surprised, however, at the global reach of many small colleges. Even if there is no local representative, you may be able to arrange a video chat with an alumnus or alumna.

[Learn how to master the college video admissions interview.]

4. Bolster your application selectively: If necessary, take advantage of the extra year before college to retake entrance exams or to enroll in additional classes. Although you’ve graduated from high school already, you can still retake the SAT or ACT to improve your scores.

You can also take courses online or at a community college. There is nothing wrong with delaying college for a year while you live at home, work and save money for tuition, and earn credits you can later transfer to a four-year university. That will enable you to graduate with less debt later, giving you more options after earning a college degree. Taking these courses will also be helpful items to showcase on the college application.

Don’t let the gap year be a waste academically. Keep your brain active, and your application strong, by taking a class to boost a weak point in your high school transcript. Alternatively, you can take a course in a topic that you are considering as a major.

A for-credit class through an accredited school will deliver the greatest return in terms of future applications, but even a massive open online course, known as a MOOC, or a series of classes through Treehouse or a similar portal will demonstrate your intellectual engagement. The key lies in securing documentation that you can share with admissions committees as part of your college applications.