The exhaustion felled Marisa Astiz in her first year of college.
Astiz started her long streak of overachieving with straight A's in the second grade. She worked hard in middle school and spent four years at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda on the run, every minute scheduled. Tough courses, swim team, cross-country running.
Next was the rigorous honors program at the University of Maryland, where she earned a full scholarship. That was also where the accumulated burdens of school, pressure from family and peers, and her own relentless drive for perfection crashed down on her. Wishing that she had taken a break before going to college, she decided she had to get away and decompress.
Astiz did what more students across the country are doing, and what many educators and college administrators are urging young people to do: She took time off from school, at the risk of losing her scholarship, to catch her breath and mature.
It is not clear how many students are taking time out, but officials at several schools across the country say the number of students who apply but then ask for a deferment is increasing, including at the University of Maryland.
Students are taking time out of the classroom to travel, reflect, participate in community service jobs or, in many cases, work so they can pay for college. Some use the time to beef up their resumes to help them gain admittance to elite schools that rejected them during the first go-round. Others are telling counselors that they simply want to decompress from the unrelenting pace and structure of their lives.
"We see more and more kids showing up in college who are just not ready to learn," said Adam Weinberg, vice president and dean at Colgate University in New York. "They are showing up with all sorts of stress-related disorders -- cutting, eating and others. It is a generation of young kids who have been pushed from birth . . . and who probably need another year or two to be mature enough to be prepared."
Weinberg called for a national conversation about instituting a year of national service for all students between high school graduation and college enrollment, saying it would be valuable in helping young people develop and understand the value of work and service.
Students who take time off and return to school within a year report that it helped them appreciate school more. Thorne Rintel spent last year teaching students in South America and in Belize before entering McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., this fall, an experience she said helped her "grow up fast."
David Lesesne, dean of admission at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., said students who have taken so-called gap years there have hiked the Appalachian Trail, herded sheep in Crete, played in a rock band, attended school in Guatemala, worked at an orphanage in Russia and done relief work in Africa.
A 2003 poll by the Princeton Review, a for-profit provider of education services, reported that of 350 students surveyed, 55 percent of those who had taken time off said the experience improved their grades when they returned to school. Fifty-seven percent said their experiences away from the classroom benefited their job search.
Taking time off between high school and college is more common in other countries, especially England, where more than 10 percent of students take a gap year. Even the royal princes follow the tradition: William spent a year in the Army in Belize and volunteering in southern Chile. His brother, Harry, spent his gap year in Australia and then in Africa, where he worked in an orphanage.
Barbara Elliott, director of enrollment management at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, noted that the average American leaves secondary school at least a year younger than counterparts in other countries. And the older Europeans still often take gap years.
Kevin Quinn, secondary level vice president of the American Counseling Association and a counselor at South Kingstown High School in Wakefield, R.I., said many youths in the United States enter college having no idea what they want to study -- and no idea of the value of money. It's not "such a bad idea," he said, for young people to take a year to work "to get an appreciation of life and hard work."
Indeed, some colleges offer an opportunity to do that for students who get to college and realize that they could use real-life experience. Northeastern University in Boston, for example, operates an extensive cooperative-learning program for sophomores, which requires them to work for a semester at a job connected to their studies. It gives them time to learn about the real world, Northeastern President Richard M. Freeland said.
A growing number of colleges and universities recommend that students take a year off between high school and college and are willing to defer admission. John A. Blackburn, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, said he is a big proponent of taking a gap year and recommends that students first apply to college and then ask for a deferment.
"It is easier for the student to do it that way than in trying to get materials together from teachers and counselors while working on a mission program in El Salvador or in a hospital in Nairobi," he said.
What's more, college counselors now tell graduating seniors that a year or more working before entering professional school can be valuable. Numerous law schools advise students not to rush into applying. Boston College's "pre-law brief" to applicants says: "Apply when you are ready to go. The average age of a first year law student is 26. Strengthen your application with internships, work or volunteer experience."
Astiz worked during her time off, which began in late 2004 during her second year in college. Her experience at a catering company -- where she was on her feet for hours at a time, setting and cleaning tables -- helped her realize how fortunate she was to have had the chance to get an education. It gave her the will to win back her scholarship and start classes last month with a new outlook on life.
Astiz has this advice for high school students: "If you don't know what you want out of college, don't go yet."