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
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
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. …