Middle school is an important transition time for students between childhood and the teen years, and yet it fills so many parents with dread. Many questions arise, like: What do I concentrate on now that my kids are older? What do they need to do now to get into a “good” college later? What’s the balance between hovering over them and letting them try and possibly fail?
When it comes to deciding what to do for your summer activities, it can be hard to make sense of what matters to colleges and what doesn’t. Given the wide range of options, what are the best things to do? How should students prioritize? And when is the right time to get started?
Some programs have bumper-sticker names and the price tag to match. While it seems simple and logical that big-name programs are correlated with competitive positioning in the college admissions process, that’s not really how it works. There are a few exceptions to the rule, of course; a handful of summer programs (very few!) that by name alone will turn an admissions officer’s head. But even those special opportunities are not likely to make or break your application on their own.
Colleges want to see students use their time to explore interests, expand depth of understanding or exposure to a subject, or further develop a concentration or talent.
When I meet with students and their families about the college admission process, the topic of choosing the right extracurricular activities for college admissions is one they want to discuss with a level of seriousness usually assigned to matters of national security. I can’t say I blame them given that talk of college usually begins almost immediately after a child loses all her baby teeth. One question is always raised: how many extracurricular activities should my child be doing?
Extracurricular Activities vs. Academic Work
As with many things related to college admissions, it depends. Some students can manage 20 hours of activities per week while still maintaining their academic work, while others are only able to handle eight.
Over the last week I enjoyed four conversations with four different college bound students about their summer plans:
- The first student, whom we’ll call “Charlie,” is a junior and avid soccer player who will play a portion of the summer with his traveling soccer league and will then take a two-week course on a college campus to learn more about engineering. He’ll also travel to Europe with his school’s soccer team to compete in tournaments.
- The second student, we’ll call her “Sara,” is a sophomore who studies three languages outside of school during the academic year. She will work at the Girl Scout camp she has attended since the seventh grade.
- “Jaimie,” our third student, hopes to attend a six-week summer study in architecture at a university with a renowned architecture program in order to determine if she would like to indicate architecture as a major on her college applications this fall.
- And finally, “Steven,” the fourth student, will shadow a veterinarian in the mornings and volunteer at a local shelter in the afternoons when he’s not traveling around the country with his family visiting colleges.