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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. This summer, as usual, high school graduates are searching for dorm room bed sheets or laptops for college. Others are getting their passports in order to head off on a kind of sabbatical. A growing number of students are taking what's called a gap year after they've been accepted into college, as NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: As a self-described perfectionist at one of the best prep schools around Boston, James Clark didn't really surprise anyone when he got into a bunch of top colleges. What was surprising was when he wrote back to his first choice, saying he wasn't coming, at least for now.

Mr. JAMES CLARK (High School Graduate): I mean unless I turn out to be a rock-and-roll star or something like that, you know, I'll never have time to do whatever you want, and so I knew that I had to seize this opportunity. So...

SMITH: Clark says he desperately needed time to get out of his books, as he puts it, and into the real world, so instead of hanging his corkboard in his freshman dorm, he's off this fall to do field research in the Tibetan mountains, martial arts in Tiananmen Square, and scuba diving somewhere in South America.

(Soundbite of computer keyboard)

Mr. CLARK: Here we go, the famous whale shark.

SMITH: Clark says he can't wait to do what he wants without worrying what colleges will think, like he always had to do in high school.

Mr. CLARK: You can't just say, oh, you know, this is what I want to do. I revise it in my head, you know, saying is this right? I want to do things a little bit differently than I have been doing them.

SMITH: You want to loosen up a little.

Mr. CLARK: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I want to unwind.

SMITH: Gap years have long been popular in Europe. In the U.S. there's no hard national data, but colleges, consultants and travel-abroad programs all say more kids are doing it.

At Swarthmore, the number doubled this year. Dean of admissions Jim Bock says he thinks overscheduled and overachieving kids are trying to reclaim the downtime that that used to come naturally.

Mr. JIM BOCK (Dean of Admissions, Swarthmore College): Summers have disappeared completely, sadly, because many - so many are doing things which they think will look good on a college application, and so I actually would say that the gap year may be the new summer.

SMITH: For some kids, the gap year means time to pursue a longtime passion. For others, like Nicola Rentschler, it's about pushing yourself into new territory. Never an animal person, she signed up to rehab wild penguins in South Africa.

Ms. NICOLA RENTSCHLER (High School Graduate): You have to, like, wrangle; you have to hold them. They bite, they claw. You'd be surprised how many ways they can actually hurt you. It's a - it was sort of a confidence thing because I had to push myself completely out of my comfort zone, so...

SMITH: Gap years vary in cost. Many kids work first at home to save the few thousand dollars they may need to teach English in Peru for a few months or help a beekeeper in France.

Some parents are happy to foot the bill for that, rather than let a kid who's not ready for college waste a full year's tuition. Schools say kids come back from gap years much more mature, ready to learn and self-sufficient than they ever were when they graduated high school.

Ms. GAIL REARDON (Program Director, Taking Off): A lot of these kids are coming out with only one set of skills and that is how to be a good student. You know, they need to sort of see that that doesn't really give you life skills.

SMITH: Gail Reardon, a consultant with Taking Off, helps kids plan their gap years.

(Soundbite of telephone)

GEORGINA: Hello?

Ms. REARDON: Hi, Georgina.

GEORGINA: Hello.

Ms. REARDON: How are you?

SMITH: Reardon's business has more than tripled in the last few years as more kids take gap years and need help making it happen.

GEORGINA: I'd really like to do dolphin and turtle research in Mozambique.

Ms. REARDON: Okay. Let me just ask you a question. Have you ever scuba-dived?

GEORGINA: No.

Ms. REARDON: Okay, so before we get too far along, what you need to do is find a place...

SMITH: Reardon likes to say gap years are about letting kids make their mistakes before their mistakes really count, but as gap year consultants and programs proliferate, consultant Steven Roy Goodman says not all of them give kids that chance.

Mr. STEVEN ROY GOODMAN (College Consultant): If everything is taken care of for a student, that does defeat some of the purpose of why we're engaged in this in the first place.

SMITH: Others worry that gap-year programs will become the exclusive province of upper middle class kids who already head to college with many advantages. Gap years tend to be more common with wealthier kids looking for the kind of grittier, real-world challenges that Johns Hopkins Professor Stefanie DeLuca says other kids can't avoid.

Professor STEFANIE DeLUCA (Johns Hopkins University): For, you know, the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the gap year, it's not called the gap year, you know, it's just called life.

SMITH: Colleges say a gap year doesn't have to be costly. Students could intern with a state representative or work in a national service program, but the concern was enough that Princeton University is planning to actually subsidize students who spend a year doing public service. It's hoping to convince 10 percent of freshmen to take a year off before starting college.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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