What the British have been doing for decades — taking time off between high school and college — "is definitely increasing in popularity," according to Menlo School director of college counseling Mark Clevenger. "It's likely this year two to four kids (at Menlo School) are thinking about it seriously, whereas five or six years ago we had nobody."
"Some kids are more tired at the end of four years (of high school) and rather than burn out, they're looking for something else to do," he explains, adding: "Colleges love it because it's a great chance for students to mature a little bit."
For example, Harvard's website states the university "encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way. ..."
A business is growing around gap years, too. There are gap-year fairs, where various advisers and programs set up booths for students, parents and college counselors to peruse. Mr. Clevenger says he hasn't attended a fair yet, but a representative of an organization based back East, the Center for Interim Programs, made a point to swing by his Atherton office to introduce the counseling service. Since 1980, the company has been advising students on where to spend their gap year, and it claims to have thousands of ideas.
Annie Madding of Atherton is now a sophomore at Vanderbilt University. She was one of five Menlo School students who took time off after graduating. She used the Center to help start her search for options.
She chose first to travel to the Shamwari a game reserve in South Africa, where, she says, she was the only American there at the time. "We did some manual labor, veterinary work, and helped with the general aims of the reserve," such as tracking elephants, she says.
During the winter she studied art history and Italian alongside mostly British gap-year students at the British Institute of Florence. After traveling around Italy for a month, she interned at Mpala, an ecology research center in Kenya, where she helped collect data and run experiments.
"The experience has definitely changed what I am studying in college," Ms. Madding says. She is majoring in political science with a minor in biology and possibly Italian, and is going back to study in Italy this fall "because I miss traveling so much."
Claire Gilhuly of Woodside is graduating from Duke University next month with a major in European history and a minor in French literature. She lived in London for five years before attending Menlo School and says very early on she set her mind on taking a gap year. "I knew it would help me grow, and would make me a very well-rounded and open-minded person," she says. "I just figured, if I have the opportunity to do something like this, why would I not?"
Ms. Gilhuly also began her gap year in South Africa, in the small, rural town of Kurland Village, where she worked with preschoolers in the morning, and spent afternoons at a safe house for abused girls.
She then moved to Park City, Utah, to become a ski instructor at Deer Valley Resort for the winter.
In the spring, she flew to Paris to attend a language school, then headed south to Montpellier to stay with a family and go to cooking school. Finally, she traveled with friends in Europe.
"By the time I got to college, I had pretty much spent everything I'd earned, but it was totally worth it," she says. "I became very self-sufficient and independent. ... I came into college refreshed and excited to learn."
Her brother John, a recent Menlo grad, is just wrapping up his gap year, which combined studying music in Los Angeles with a ski-season job in the meat department at a grocery store in Jackson, Wyoming, and then a service-oriented trip to Australia offered by Rustic Pathways.
Jack Sieber of Woodside is a freshman at the University of Puget Sound, where he is majoring in Chinese. After graduating from Menlo in 2011, he wanted to beef up his language skills. "I had already been to China and wanted to be somewhere where I hadn't been before." He chose to study at the National Taiwan Normal University Mandarin Training Center.
"My parents weren't very big supporters of this idea, so I had to put up a lot of the money myself. I had to be very entrepreneurial," he says.
To raise funds before his departure, he helped people set up their iPhones, iPads and Macs, served as a driver for a family, and worked at American Apparel. By November he was ready to go overseas, initially staying in a hostel, then finding an apartment with a San Franciscan and a Taiwanese.
He finished out the summer working the night watch at a hostel, where he slept in one of eight bunk beds. He says he's grateful to have just one roommate now, and some personal space.
Christine Rogers of Atherton is a freshman at Stanford, one of four kids who opted to take time off after graduating from Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton in 2011. Her mother, Mindy Rogers, says: "It took a fair amount of convincing her to take a gap year. She had been at Sacred Heart ever since she was 3 and we wanted her to travel, get more independence. ... She was pretty much of a homebody."
The younger Rogers started out as a cooking intern at Southern France Youth Institute, where, her mother estimates, "a third of the 22 students were trying to get a better college choice by retaking SATs" and reapplying.
Ms. Rogers then interned at John Bentley's restaurant in Redwood City for a stretch, before returning to Europe to study at cooking schools in Italy and England.
Now, her mother's take is: "Christine is so much more confident and outgoing than before she went away," and she's happy to be social by cooking for her dorm.
Betsy Van Wagenen, director of college counseling at Woodside Priory in Portola Valley, sees two to three kids out of about 60 graduates take gap years. "It's routine now. ... I would encourage every student to do it. Kids in rigorous college prep schools work so hard for so long, they almost need a break."
At Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, college and career specialist Alice Kleeman counts "a handful" of students taking gap years. She notices another trend: "More colleges are offering students the opportunity to begin in spring" so some students end up taking a gap semester.
The college and career adviser at Woodside High in Woodside, Zorina Matavulj, recalls just one student who went to Paris last year and plans to attend Lewis & Clark in the fall. "Gap years are a luxury, and most students on our campus would be challenged to afford them," she says. But she say she believes "a year off between high school and college should be mandatory nationwide. Students could probably benefit from time away from school especially if they could do service work in the meantime."