By Nikki MartinezInstead of making the direct leap from high school to college, some choose the road less traveled: the gap year. Already a longstanding practice among students across the pond, Americans are beginning to pay more attention to the benefits of taking a year off. Students like it because it gives them a chance to break free from the one-way education highway and get a taste of what life is like outside of school. Colleges find that students who take a gap year before matriculating are often more mature than their peers, with the additional focus and perspective that can come from experiencing life outside of academia.The WhyThere are a number of reasons why seniors opt to take a break before college. Some “gappers” put college on hold because they weren’t admitted to their top choice schools. Rather than investing in a college for which they have only lukewarm feelings, they want to use their time to beef up their resume and re-apply. Of course, during their time off some of these students realize that getting into their first choice school wasn’t so important after all. “I applied to only one school before my gap year and didn’t get in,” says Nate, a 2006 graduate of Wesleyan University. “I had my heart set on going there and had decided that if I got denied, I would just apply again during the gap year. As it turns out, I realized I really didn’t want to go there and didn’t end up re-applying.” Nate deferred college to join AmeriCorps, where he did four two-month service projects focusing on environmental work, mentoring, and renovation. He also worked as an apprentice carpenter.There are also a number of students who have been admitted and know where they are going to college but want to but put academia on the back burner while they explore other interests. With the ever-shrinking college acceptance rate looming over their heads, high school students are understandably burnt out by the end of their senior year. Once they receive those acceptance letters, students can speak with admissions officers to find out if they can defer enrollment and re-focus their energy on other endeavors.The WhatWhat students do during their gap year varies greatly. Some travel abroad and explore the world, while others stay close to home and volunteer or work. And then there are those who choose the gap simply to be different: “Everyone around me was going straight to school, so I was rebelling, as it were, against my peers,” says Nate. Whatever the course of action, college counselors agree that the success of the gap year hinges on having a plan. They suggest that after the deferral process is settled, students should think seriously about their goals and have a written course of action to help them stay on course and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks on paper before making a final decision. A detailed plan can also help to appease the biggest doubters of the gap year: mom and dad.The HitchDespite the benefits that some students reap from deferring college, many parents still cling to the myth that if their kids are sidetracked from school, they may lose momentum and never return. However, according to USA Today, “Counselors are recognizing that there are many pathways to college. They see that, if properly vetted, these opportunities could actually help students succeed in college.” Many gappers attest that they welcomed a break from the pressures of homework and exams, but found after some time away that academia beckoned once again. Nate says, “It was also excellent to leave home before committing to a school as it taught me about what I actually wanted to get away from and go towards.” Gappers often come back refreshed and with a newfound appreciation for learning and a range of additional experiences under their belts.The PayoffsOne student after the next claims that taking a gap year taught them invaluable lessons that put them at an advantage over others. In college, Nate recalls, “I was the guy who stayed in all the time and did all the reading. Because I knew I had been waiting, I was very ready to be there.” The independence they gain from living away from home for the first time softens the blow when it comes to moving into the dorms because it isn’t their first exposure to a less structured life. Unlike their peers who are getting a first taste of freedom, many gappers have had time to get accustomed to the responsibility of taking care of themselves.Another benefit reaped by some gappers is a better idea of what they want to study. Colleges are noticing the difference as well. Princeton University is working to create a “bridge year” program that would enable newly admitted freshmen to spend a year abroad doing public service work before they start school. The program would be tuition-free and would be open to about 10 percent of each class, covering roughly 100 students. “The bridge year initiative would engage students at an early stage of their educations, and heighten their awareness of the importance of international perspectives – both in their college years and later – in their eventual roles as world citizens and leaders,” says Sandra Bermann, head of the bridge year group. Universities may view a year off as part of a student’s education, rather than a divergence.In the coming years both high school counselors and college officials predict that more students will take advantage of the gap year. In today’s increasingly competitive college admissions game, students are looking for ways to enrich their education – and stand out from the crowd – outside of class. Indeed, it may not be long until the gap year goes from the road less traveled to the new path to higher learning.