On paper, Mike McCarthy looked like college material. And indeed he was: The star football and baseball player graduated from Metro Central High School in Springfield, Mass., last year with a 3.9 grade-point average.
But he was 17, and felt like he could use another year of seasoning on the playing field before entering the college ranks. So he enrolled for a "postgraduate year" at Deerfield Academy, a private preparatory school in western Massachusetts.
"I knew if I came here and did well, I'd open up another tier of schools that were available to me," Mr. McCarthy says. Indeed, he now plans to attend nearby Williams College in the fall.
A perennial offering at many elite New England prep schools, a postgraduate or "PG" year remains a largely hidden option for parents and students in other parts of the country, where it is available at only a scattering of private schools.
Sports is a key reason many students pursue a PG year. Some college coaches use it almost as a means of "redshirting" players, encouraging them to become faster and stronger without losing a year of college eligibility. But others are motivated by considerations of age, social maturity, and a desire to beef up an academic record for a run at a big-name school.
Indeed, in some cases all of those elements come into play at once. While McCarthy's primary concern was athletics, his mother's was his overall maturity and academics; she considers his standout year as a quarterback, which opened a number of Ivy-covered doors, to be a bonus.
"My primary focus was that Michael was very young," says Nancy McCarthy. "Over the years I had contemplated keeping him back at some point, but I was discouraged from doing that because his academics were so strong."
Traditionally, PG years have attracted more boys than girls, because of the emphasis on sports and the general belief that girls mature faster. But school officials say more girls are starting to participate, perhaps because of a parallel rise in girls' sports and a greater equality of opportunity.
In most PG programs, the student is considered a senior and takes a regular academic course load, although it's usually elective-heavy, since most students have completed their high school requirements. Likewise, PGs are rarely segregated; their classes and living and eating arrangements are all what other seniors would experience.
While PG years have been a part of some prep-school programs for decades - and in some cases for half a century - they still retain something of an asterisk status. The schools value these students for the jolt they give to sports teams, and for the financial advantages of filling the dorm rooms of underclassmen who have dropped out. One private-school academic adviser calls postgraduates "cash cows." But too many 19-year-old PGs can alter a school's chemistry, culture, and carefully crafted sense of community.
The New Hampton school in New Hampshire recently reduced the number of PGs it accepts each year to between 14 and 18. While Andy Churchill, dean of admissions, declines to specify the reasons for the change, he says that "we want to make sure [the PG year] is not disproportionately large compared to the rest of our student body."
Indeed, PGs can be something of a distraction for prep schools. "We're generally more interested in kids coming in at early grades because we have a four-year curriculum and we're designed to prepare kids for college," says Peter Upham, assistant head of enrollment and college counseling at the Asheville School in North Carolina, which accepts only one or two PGs per year in a student body that totals 200.
There has also been something of a backlash against the use of PGs for sports purposes. Some prep leagues have banned PGs from teams; others have set up a quota system. Typically the number of PGs at a school drops or the program even disappears when athletic eligibility is eliminated.
But the practice of colleges recommending a PG year may be on the rise. Such recommendations do not constitute admittance with a deferral - although they can come pretty close. The Naval Academy routinely recommends a PG year not only at its own prep school in Rhode Island, but also at 26 prep schools around the nation with which it maintains an association.
"We tell the students: If you complete the prep year successfully, we will essentially guarantee you a seat at the Naval Academy the following year," says Capt. Richard Hammond, director of admissions at Annapolis. But he adds that there is a downside to recommending a PG year.
"We have a limited take rate on our offer of a prep year, because in many cases their credentials are good enough to get them into a reasonably good college, just not a top-tier school like the Naval Academy. So they have to ask themselves: Do I want a year of prep or do I want to go directly to college?"
While there appear to be few negatives associated with a PG year, aside from the added financial burden, Nancy Donehower, an independent college counselor in Portland, Ore., does sound a note of caution for students who opt for a PG year with the express purpose of getting into a targeted school.
"My hunch is it might be more productive for a student to go to a less-selective college, take a rigorous course load, do well, and try to transfer. My sense is they might leave themselves with more options than if they did a PG year and applied as a freshman to a particular college.... In some places the transfer pool is not as competitive as the freshman pool."
For those who do choose a PG year, it can sometimes be an almost magical passage, a much needed bridge between high school and college.
"I would definitely recommend a PG year to anybody who is thinking about it," McCarthy says.
Lee Wicks, secretary of Deerfield Academy, says a surprising number of people who are on the boards of private schools or are central to alumni volunteer organizations are PGs.
"Sometimes that one year hits at a moment when these young people are really ready for it, and it becomes a life-changing experience."