Your homeschool high school student will be a senior this coming year, and he's been perusing college guides for the past six months trying to figure out where he wants to apply. There are only two problems: first, you think he still needs to grow up quite a bit before he heads off to an independent life apart from his family, and second, the kid has no idea what he wants to study or where he wants to go.

Perhaps your rising senior is making noises about wanting to take a year off from academics before committing herself to the intensive four-year college experience. She wants to spend her days sketching, painting watercolors, doing fancy needlework, and baking. Another time for such creativity and sheer freedom probably will never appear.

Maybe your senior needs to earn some significant money before he will be able to go off to college. He simply must take a year between high school and college to work full-time and save money for a car, insurance, and/or all the other expenses (like travel, books, shoes, and toothpaste) that come with life as a college student. In addition, Mom and Dad could use some help with tuition and room and board costs.

It could be that your family has had unexpected health problems, and your teen would be a real asset at home next year, helping with the younger kids--or possibly with a grandparent who is suddenly in need of constant care. Perhaps the opportunity to travel to another country and work with a mission organization beckons. Maybe your graduating senior wants to apprentice in a practical trade skill, like carpentry, for a year.

The reasons to consider taking what is commonly referred to as a "gap year" between high school and college are many and compelling. Interestingly, though colleges look approvingly on students who take a gap year, most parents and students have never heard of such a thing. The gap year is a tool that is highly underused and something that all parents and high school seniors should seriously investigate.

WHAT COLLEGES REALLY THINK

Across the country, colleges are inundated every winter with applications from high school seniors who are obviously not ready for college. Each year, college officials watch while many of the freshmen at their schools flounder with juggling schedules and responsibilities they are not yet able to handle. Then there are those students who foolishly abandon all semblance of studying in favor of wasting their first year or two at school. About the beginning of their junior year, students often wake up to their need to settle down and grow up, but by that point, the reality of what looms ahead of them can be daunting. Of course, there is no going back and reclaiming those lost months and years.

My oldest son took a gap year this past year, and every college where he applied loudly applauded his decision to take such a break from academic studies. During our tour of Northwestern University near Chicago, admissions officers commented that they wished many more students would follow such a route after high school. "We've found that students who take gap years tend to be more mature and self-confident than the general freshmen applicants. Gap-year students seem to know exactly what they want out of college, and they really hit the ground running when it comes to their studies," one official told us.

I recently conducted informal phone interviews, and when asked, schools as varied as Stanford, Wheaton, Cedarville Bible College, MIT, Illinois Institute of Technology, BJU, Claremont McKenna, and UC Davis were strongly positive in their view of gap years. Over fifty colleges, widely varying in size, cost, selectivity, worldview, and focus, reported that they believe a gap year between high school and college would be an excellent choice for many high school seniors. These colleges agreed that a well-spent gap year is a big advantage for the freshman applicant.

These comments come as no surprise to my family. As my son plans to double-major in Physics and International Relations, he applied to schools that offer solid programs in both of these fields, yet differ greatly in other aspects. One of these schools was a Christian college, strong in science and history, but generally open to all who apply. Another was a top engineering school, and another has a highly respected school of international studies as well as a great music conservatory.