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Making the Most of a 5th Year in College

Vicki Nelson


This is the second part of a two-part series about students who need or choose a fifth year of college. In the first article I looked at some of the reasons your student might want or need a fifth year. Here I suggest how your student can make an extra year productive.

You and your student have determined that they will complete an extra year (or possibly an extra semester) of college. This may always have been the plan — your student may have made the decision proactively — or circumstances may have caused the need for that extra year.

Now that you have a “Super Senior,” you need to help your student think about how to make the most of their fifth year so it's a productive and affirmative experience.

First Things First: Finances

One of the most important considerations for many families is the financial implication of another year of college.

Talk to your student about finances and how you (and/or they) will pay for an unexpected fifth year of tuition.  If you planned for this from the beginning, review your plan to make sure you are all on board.

Check in with the Financial Aid Office to see whether financial aid will continue for another year. Generally, as long as your student has at least one degree requirement remaining, aid will continue. The 150% rule for Subsidized Direct Student Loans provides aid for 150% of the time or credits that are normally required to complete a degree. This usually means six years or 180 credits.

Your student will need to meet the college’s definition of Satisfactory Academic Progress and be on track to graduate. However, there may be other loan limits, so be sure to talk to Financial Aid. Don’t make dangerous assumptions.

Some institutions do not give merit aid beyond four years, so if that is part of your student’s package, be sure to ask for clarification. Be sure that you have an accurate picture of what financial assistance your student can count on. You’ll also want to check on any private scholarships your student may have to see whether they will continue.

Be sure to file your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) once again, and if necessary, investigate Stafford and Parent PLUS loans.

Read Borrowing for College: Advice About Loans for Students and Parents >

Setting Out on the Right Foot

Once you and your student have a clear financial plan for the additional year, your student will need to create an academic and personal plan.

  • Meet with an academic advisor. Make sure your student creates a careful plan with someone who can guide them and who knows the college curriculum and policies. This is the year to tie up any loose ends. Don’t make any assumptions or risk overlooking some important detail. Your student’s academic advisor will know what your student needs to complete and will also know what classes may be available and when.
  • Work on mindset. This is especially important if your student didn't originally plan to spend an extra year in college. They may feel out of place as they watch friends and classmates graduate and move on. Remind them that they're not alone and that there are many different paths and timelines for completing college. Beware of a potential motivation slump; encourage them not to dwell on possible regrets but instead focus on moving forward.
  • Prepare for questions. You and your student now understand that there are many different timelines for completing college, but not everyone gets this. They should prepare for questions from well-meaning friends and relatives. “Why didn’t you graduate?” “What happened?” “When will you graduate?” Help your student practice responses that are honest but share only what they are comfortable sharing.

Setting This Year Apart

The fifth year of college may feel awkward. The normal categories of freshman, sophomore, junior and senior no longer apply. Your student has been at this for four years, and yet another year of the same routines may seem daunting and exhausting. Help them think about ways to make this feel like a meaningfully different year.

Living Arrangements

If your student has been living on campus, this could be the year to move off campus. This might help your student feel more like an adult professional. Perhaps they can find some young graduates to live with.

If your student has been commuting from home, is it possible to make a move to campus this year to change their residential experience? Talk about how making a change in living arrangements might feel.

Internships

Can your student earn credit for an internship? If they need extra credits, an internship is an ideal way to begin to bridge to a career. Some schools may allow your student to earn half or more of a semester’s credits through an internship. Your student will have the opportunity to get off campus and spend part of their time in a professional environment.

Volunteer

If credit-bearing internships aren't possible but your student has time in their schedule, there may be other ways to get out in the field. Encourage them to pursue volunteer opportunities in an organization or environment related to their field of study. Even if there is nothing career-related, volunteering in the community will give your student the chance to get away from campus and to work with other adults.

Share Experiences With Others

Your fifth-year student has a lot of college experience and college knowledge. If they made mistakes along the way, they've also learned important lessons from those experiences.

This makes it an excellent time for your student to share those lessons and to mentor other students by serving in a role such as a tutor, peer advisor, teaching assistant or residence assistant. Encourage your student to give back and to share what they have learned.

Take on a Leadership Role (or Let It Go)

Has your student been active in a student club or organization? This might be an ideal time for them to step up and take on a leadership role (and add that to their resume). Or perhaps they've shouldered the leadership responsibilities of an organization for the last year — or several years. In that case, they might want to step back and enjoy just participating for a change.

Study Abroad or Study Away

This opportunity will depend on what your student needs to complete during this final year. They can investigate whether their requirements can be completed either through a Study Abroad or Study Away experience.

Study Abroad will allow them to gain global experience (and add that to their resume) and Study Away (at another campus or location in the U.S.) will allow them to enjoy a change of scenery and gain professional experience. A student majoring in political science or government might study in Washington D.C.; a film or media student might head to L.A.; your business or theater major might spend time in New York City. Some schools have robust Study Away programs and others might be open to the plan if your student finds a program that makes sense.

Develop a Minor

Your student may already have a minor in addition to their major. This could be a time to add a new or second minor. This works best if your student simply needs credits rather than specific requirements. Some minors may only require 15–18 credits.

If your student needs additional credits, rather than adding them in an already completed major, they might consider a minor that pairs well with their major. Unique combinations of major and minor can increase your student’s marketability as they begin their job search.

Career Preparation

In addition to internships, your student might use this time to focus on getting ready for their professional transition. This is a good year to spend time on informational interviews, mock job interviews, resume building, cover letter writing, building out their LinkedIn profile, building their professional wardrobe and participating as a student in a professional association. Focusing on these next steps will help your student use the fifth year as a bridge to a career and professional life.

Participate in Something Brand New

Finally, this may simply be a good year to try something entirely new that your student hasn’t had time for before this. Join a new club or play a new sport, find places to meet new people, take interesting classes. Think outside the box. Have fun!

If your student enters into their extra year of college with a positive outlook, it can become an interesting and even an exciting chapter that bridges their college experience and the professional world. In many ways, by the time they graduate, your student may be better prepared than those students who stepped out of college after four years directly into a job. Help your student plan to set this year apart, use it to the fullest, and focus forward.

Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She has also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, in 2009 to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.

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