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. In the end, it’s not ‘what’ you do so much as ‘why’ you do it. It is what you put into a summer activity—and what you take away from the experience—that will impact your college admission decisions. Every student should start with one question: “If I could explore anything, what would it be?”
Job or Internship
Think you want to go into business? Looking for an opportunity to expand your people skills? Need to earn money? These are all wonderful ways to see what a possible career is really like on a day to day basis. Colleges appreciate the value of a day’s work, especially from a high school applicant. In order to give yourself the best chance to get that job or internship, you’ll need to start looking early in the year. Speak frequently with program directors or employees who may let you shadow them in the summer. Give yourself and your intended mentor time to figure out how this may work, and whether it is possible. For a more traditional internship, you should also be sure you meet all application deadlines.
Volunteer or Service Program
Giving back to the community, helping others, and meeting new people comes in many forms and provides great experience for everyone. Students often forget that they can give back right in their own neighborhoods and cities—you don’t have to fly thousands of miles from home and spend thousands of dollars to help those in need! Look at programs early in the winter and spring because many desirable positions do fill up early!
Research or College-Level Coursework
Take something you learned about this year and expand your knowledge in a class at a local college. Find a local faculty member or research institute and inquire about opportunities to serve as a lab assistant. In some cases, advanced coursework and an additional application can open the door to meaningful research programs at universities across the country. These programs can be quite competitive, and often have essays and deadlines early in the calendar year.
Sports and Visual or Performing Arts
In the winter, contact colleges and universities of interest and ask if they are going to host camps, clinics, or classes that will allow you to showcase your skills to those who run college programs. If you want to play a sport in college, go to your top-choice school for camp. A program will not recruit without seeing you play.
Try Something New
For those students who have no idea what they want to do in college, using a summer program to learn about themselves can be a great growth opportunity. Try something totally new at a place completely different from the place you live. These months provide you an opportunity to explore and learn about yourself. In the end, there’s no right answer, only great experiences to be had. Whatever you decide, start thinking about things early—winter break will do—so that you can stay on top of deadlines and get all the help you need along the way.