It's a growing trend in New Jersey and across the country: high school graduates taking a "gap year" to do all sorts of things before they start college.

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According to Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs in Princeton, research shows gap years are becoming increasingly popular for a number of reasons.

"Students' GPAs are higher, they're leaders on campus, they have far fewer emotional issues and dramas," she said. "They finish college in a shorter period of time, so they're more efficient students. They're hitting college with way more vigor, and then doing better."

Bull said taking this kind of time out gives students a chance to "explore interests, grow up a little more, step out into the world, step away from the classroom which they know really well. I think they're more rested."

When you give a young person a chance to choose what they're going to do, and for them to grab the reins of life after following a school schedule since they were little, Bull said that can be very liberating.

At the same time, she said by senior year of high school, a lot of students have become burnt out from all the pressure they face.

"So heading to college after a summer, they're not bringing anything fresh or exciting to the table," she said. "But with gap year students, they've had a chance to step back and say, 'Hey, who am I? What am I interested in?' They're really just looking at what they might want to check out."

The gap year experience usually stays with young people for their entire lives, Bull said. She explained that kids can do a number of different things for a gap year -- for three, six, nine months or an entire year.

"Staying with a local family in Central or South America and doing local service projects, studying Spanish, conservation projects, adventure travel, all kind of woven together," Bull said in detailing some student experiences. "Or, they may do an internship in business, publishing companies, journalism, teaching, environmental issues, event management."

She said some programs are shorter and more intensive.

"Somebody could go off and get their wilderness EMT, or it could be learning how to run a recording studio, or doing intensive filmmaking," Bull said. "I recommend to students they really 'think big.' This is the time in their lives to do this, and it can be a wonderful and rewarding experience that really gives you clarity."