It was hardly the average teenager's idea of a good time. Gerrit Lansing spent his days shoveling out a barn and crushing grapes under the hot Mediterranean sun.

But Lansing calls the year he took off before college one of the best things he ever did. Burned out and aimless after high school, he spent part of the year working on a farm in Greece in the mornings, then taking afternoon classes that helped him develop a love of classical poetry.

"It gave me time to just sort of figure myself out and what I wanted to do and what I was interested in," said Lansing, now a junior classics major at Sewanee, the University of the South, a small college in Tennessee. "I felt coming into college I was just a step ahead."

Many college admissions officers support the idea. While cautioning that a "gap year" between high school and college is not for everyone -- and that just goofing off is not worthwhile -- they say that many students who take one return more confident and self-aware.

"Students feel this sense of ownership over their time," said Paul Marthers, dean of admission at Reed College in Oregon, where an unusually high number of incoming students, about 10 percent, defer admission. "They made the decision."

Still, the popularity of gap years appears to be increasing only modestly -- if at all. Most of a dozen or so colleges contacted said the number of students who defer admission is relatively small, and flat year to year or even declining as an overall percentage.

In other countries, notably the United Kingdom, gap years are far more popular, and an entire travel industry has grown up around them. About 11 percent of all British students take them, according to Tom Griffiths of Gapyear.com, and as many as a third do at some prestigious prep schools. Employers there look beyond degrees and at life experiences when hiring new graduates, he said.

In the United States, however, experts say the increasing stress of college admissions makes parents nervous about any kind of unusual path.

"These are families that somehow see this as not part of the grand plan," said Gail Reardon, who founded a Boston company, Taking Off, that helps students plan gap years. Adds Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania: "Not wanting to break stride is the American way."

But experts say that as the admissions process gets more stressful, the case for a gap year gets stronger. Colleges generally encourage the practice -- as long as students who have committed to one school do not use the extra year to apply elsewhere. Since the 1970s, Harvard has used the letter it sends to admitted applicants to advise them to consider a gap year. Some, such as Sarah Lawrence College, have sent similar letters after realizing more students than they expected planned to show up in the fall.

Generally, schools make students submit a proposal beyond "lying on the beach," but often little more is required. The University of Chicago says it will grant deferrals for almost any reason as long as students do not apply elsewhere.

"It's reached the point where a lot of us in admissions are talking about ways to get students to just kind of relax," said Martha Merrill, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College.

Of course, instead of deferring, students can postpone applying to college -- and their gap-year experiences could make them more attractive candidates. But there is a momentum to the process that makes it easier to apply in high school, and parents' concerns about getting off track are understandable. Lansing's parents backed his plans but insisted he have a college lined up.

Students seem to be getting more creative with their gap-year plans. An incoming Wellesley College student will serve as an intern with a pastry chef at a famous California restaurant this year; a Penn student will volunteer in Vietnam. Reardon recalled a student who worked as a beekeeper and shepherd in France.

Kristel Keegan, who plans to attend Cornell University, will spend next year teaching in Costa Rica, working as a ski instructor in Colorado and then perhaps working in New Zealand or South Africa.

"I knew I was looking at many, many years of school," said Keegan, of Greenwich, Conn., who is thinking of becoming a veterinarian. "Before I went into it, I thought it might be good to do something different."

Gap years need not be a luxury for the rich. Some students use them to earn money for school. Many programs offer scholarships or compensation for labor; AmeriCorps offers a living allowance and education funding. Reardon says anyone would be hard-pressed during a gap year to spend the $30,000 or more many of them would be paying for college.

Besides, "if you look at the investment of the first year of college when your kid is not ready to go," Reardon said, "it's money well spent."

Lansing says the experience continues to pay dividends.

"I don't think there's any rational explanation to just run to college," he said. "There's no reason. It's just what everyone does."