Students: Taking a College Break? What To Say and To Whom

Posted by on Jun 14, 2012 in General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities | 4 comments

Keeping track of the college calendar and taking good notes before you take your college break is key to a successful return! Okay, you're probably going to do this in your phone... I know!

(It would be unrealistic for me to overlook the fact that not every student is returning for fall term. I wanted to devote a post to the students who, for whatever reason, are taking a little hiatus. Even if you are staying in school, you never know when life circumstances might force a break or when you might need to support a fellow classmate who has to make a sudden exit, so read on…

Programming note: Speaking of taking a break, I have a few breaks scheduled, myself, as my child winds down from school and to enjoy a little bit of summer with my family–once we get it in Seattle, of course. The blog will return the week of the 25th!).

In the past few weeks, three students have indicated that their college plans have changed.

One nontraditional student is getting some killer work opportunities and can’t turn them away.

Another young student is having performance-related dreams come true and canceled a full roster of summer classes (they hadn’t started yet, don’t worry!). The student was likely not going back in the fall.

Yet a different student who was earning incredible grades and working part-time just received a fantastic full-time offer.

In all of these situations, college goals are going to have to wait a little bit longer.

And, of course, all the scenarios are happy ones. We can’t forget that not every student who takes a break from college leaves in a happy way.

I sure didn’t. My dad died and I faded out. Some students take a break from college because they fail out, or their life circumstances make it impossible for them to continue.

I’m going to write this post from the assumption that you, wonderful student, have done everything that you can possibly do to save your situation before you just fade out or fail out. Because everything that I write in this blog, if you’ve followed for any length of time, is designed for you to self-advocate before the worst case scenario happens.

But let’s say that you’ve determined, or life has determined (with your help!), that a break from college is imminent. For great reasons or not-so-great reasons, you just have to do it. What are your next steps?

1.  Talk to the campus counseling center.

This is the first place to visit. Whether your reasons are academic or personal, your plan has now changed. Get support for yourself! This is what they are there for! You’ll want to say, “I have to take a break from college, which was unexpected. I could use some help sorting this out so my absence is not longer than I intend.” You also want to ask, “May I touch base from time to time to ensure that I’m on track to return?” You are going to want people keeping tabs on you to make sure you come back on time! The counselors/therapists at the counseling center are your people!

2.  Find out any particulars with respect to re-admission or financial aid.

I realize that when you are in distress, you want to run away. Clean up on “aisle reactive” is way, way harder than being proactive now and getting informed, even though the information may seem overhwleming. Simply say, “I am going to need to leave college for a term or two. Will I need to re-apply? What will happen to my financial aid?” If you can’t even find those words, then just say, “What’s going to happen?” and let your distressed nonverbals (body language, facial expressions) tell the person that they need to give you information… now. Then be proud of yourself for getting it. Write down what you are told or ask the person to e-mail you, if possible.

3.  Go touch base with a professor or two with whom you made a connection.

Your key here is to “untie,” not cut ties. Tell the professor, “I am going to need to take a term or two off, but I want to make sure that I keep connected to the college. Would you mind if I e-mailed you a couple times to discuss my progress on returning?” Your mission to stay in touch with a prof or two is to stick with the rhythm of the college calendar, which is easy to fall out of once you’re no longer in college. So, keep those contacts. If those profs agree to stay in contact with you, then they are rallying for your return as much as you are. But don’t just say you’ll keep in touch. You’ve made an agreement. Don’t lose credibility by falling off the face of the planet!

4.  Visit the Registration/Admissions area one more time.

Another question critical to your return is when the registration periods are. When you’re in school, arrows are practically being shot at your forehead with reminders. When you aren’t in school, it’s easy to forget that you need to schedule classes months in advance. If you know that you won’t be coming back to college for a term or two, then ask someone in admissions/registration, “Can you help me ballpark when registration might occur for Spring semester in 2013? I have to take a couple of terms off and I want to put a reminder for myself in my calendar so I don’t miss it.” Then get out your phone or planner and put those reminders in.

5.  Rally current students and trusted friends/family to help you re-enter.

The last thing you want to do is break off ties with classmates with whom you’ve befriended. Don’t let them go just because they’re in school and you aren’t. Even if you aren’t day-to-day buddies, maintain some connection and keep tabs, just like you will those professors I mentioned earlier. People who are in school can be great allies to getting you back in school. Trusted friends and family are the same. You have to tell people what you need, which I realize can be extremely difficult. If you can possibly stomach the idea, share your feelings: “I am scared/I feel sad/I am worried because I had to leave college. I am concerned that I won’t be able to go back for a while/that I won’t be able to afford it/that I’m going to lose motivation/that this job is going to be so great that I won’t want to go back. I need you to keep me accountable so I stick with this goal. I need to register in October for next Spring. Can you check in with me to hold me accountable? (Or whatever else you need).”

I know that breaks happen for all sorts of reasons, but don’t let your break from college be a “break up” (wasn’t that a line between Ross and Rachel on Friends? Or am I mis-remembering? I digress…) that lasts longer than you intend.

Stay connected. Keep your communication lines open.

You’ll be back and on track before you know it.

The most incredible thing about college is that its doors are always open for you.

I know I’m not the only one who has taken a break. Mine lasted an unexpected six years, which could have gone much differently had I had this advice earlier. Anyone else want to tell a story? The comments are open!

Do you know someone who is entering college for the first time? Did you know that a top reason students leave college is because of lack of meaningful connection to the institution? I have a guide to help students connect and communicate during that challenging initial year!



  1. Great timing based upon some of our offline discussions, Ellen. Sometimes the unexpected comes up.

    I do get concerned about people who leave college because a “high-paying” opportunity came up. High paying can be fairly relative. If you were a high-schooler, and you get an opportunity to make maybe twice what you were making previously…that may seem like you are rolling in the dough. However, that is a a drop in the bucket compared to the earning potential that opens up with a college degree.

    Momentum is hard to break. Once you get momentum going away from a college education, it becomes much more difficult to find your way back to that college campus. Life’s momentum ties on more financial/familial obligations that can be very real distractions from a formal education.

    “Get while the gettin’s good” is my opinion.

    • Hi, Brian,

      I went on a little mom-cation, so I’m behind on replying to this post. I apologize!

      Even in grad school, I had colleagues leave college due to work. What was interesting is that those folks had assistantships that paid, but, of course, the assistantships were not a full salary. They covered our tuition and paid us funds up and above. It wasn’t substantial, but substantial enough. Time and time again, the students who left the assistantship took far, far longer to finish their thesis. So, your point about leaving the momentum of a college campus is particularly true. I tell students, “Take one class. Keep an online class… anything… just to keep your ties to the campus and your rhythm of the academic calendar.” I know that an online class is not for everyone. But it is better than nothing. And you can acclimate to anything for just one term.

      Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful words :-) .

  2. Hey Ellen,

    Great outline of what to do when you’ve got to go! Only under the most dire of circumstances would I consider dropping college once I started. To me, it just unravels all the work you’ve already put into it. I do understand the cost-benefit analysis, though, of getting lucrative offer from an employer.

    But, I’ve come to believe that college (although there is a significant financial investment involved) isn’t solely about making more money. I know many people that go back to college and earn their degree (or another degree) AFTER having successful careers.

    At a Toastmasters meeting recently, I was moderating a discussion about whether or not college was worth it anymore. There are a LOT of students sitting on degrees and working fast food or retail. Many students don’t even go to college to get a job; they go to “find themselves.” One of my fellow Toastmasters (who was sending a son off to college) piped up during the discussion and put in her two cents: “I don’t care how much it costs; go find yourself.” That put it into perspective to me.

    Education is about learning and growing–intellectually and emotionally as well as professionally.

    • Hi, Doug,

      I am so glad to hear from you! I am with you. At this stage, if I were to return to school, it would take an awful lot for me to just drop out. For students who get a lucrative offer for employment, my hope would be that the employer would continue to support their education!

      Yes, the debate rages on about whether or not college is worth it. I agree about college being a mechanism of “finding oneself,” but I also think that these jobs that don’t require college are going to suddenly use a degree as a weeding out point. What do you think about that? I think it could certainly happen. I also believe that a college degree is going to remain a barometer of intellectual growth and flat-out completion of something for a long time. I just don’t see that going away.

      I hope students realize that their time in is worth something… more than they think.

      Be well. Again, so glad that you wrote :-) .


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