A few months after I graduated from college, sufficiently decompressed from four years of a staggering load of dense academic texts, I rediscovered reading for pleasure. Suddenly, I had time to crack the spine on books that people recommended to me long ago; time for newspaper articles that needed more than a few minutes to read and digest; time for sprawling, exhaustive articles in the New Yorker. As I read, I discovered vastly different writing styles, expanded my vocabulary, and satisfied old interests while stoking new ones. One week, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, catapulting myself to the top of Everest. A month later, I was thousands of feet underground in Blind Descent, reading about cave explorers competing to find the deepest place on earth. You can experience tremendous adventures as a reader, but there are collateral benefits to your college applications as well. Reading broadly and deeply will expose you to new words and new writing styles. It will give you more to talk about (great fodder for interview conversations!) and teach you about different perspectives and ideas. We become better writers, better thinkers, and better collaborators by reading more—there isn’t an admission officer in the world who wouldn’t say that more reading makes for a better applicant. And the time to start is now. To make the most of your summer reading while you can still make it count, consider some of the tips below:
Sandwich your tougher reading with pleasure reading
Sometimes the books that we feel we ought to read aren’t the books we’re quite as excited to read, and that’s okay. At the start of the summer, the best thing you can do is get yourself into the habit of reading. Been itching to start the Twilight saga? Go for it! Want to see if the Game of Thrones books really are better than the show? Please do! But before reading book after book from a series, think about sandwiching your assigned summer reading between novels. You’re likely to go through your pleasure reading at a much quicker pace, and you’ll find that you’ll stick to the tougher stuff much more faithfully if you have a reward (A Clash of Kings?) waiting on the other side. You can make the most of your reading by first creating the habit and then satisfying that habit with more challenging and interesting content as the summer wears on.
Take 30 minutes a day to read the news
The amount of time that we waste surfing the Internet can be mind-boggling. After an hour of clicking around between Buzzfeed, Facebook, the AV Club, and Pitchfork, you might find yourself in a zombified state, wondering what exactly you just learned and where exactly you were. To get the most out of your web surfing, set a goal to read at least two articles from major newspapers every day (The Washington Post, New York Times, or the Guardian are all good places to start). Choose a topic that interests you, like politics, education, technology, international news, or the arts, and read closely and thoughtfully. For rising juniors, this is an excellent way to practice for the SAT without realizing it: you’re working on reading comprehension and expanding your vocabulary. And for devoted readers, you can take things a step further by creating a quiz for yourself. What was the main idea of the article? Who were the major actors? Where is the conflict? What potential resolution to the problem can you anticipate? After a month of reading two articles a day, you’ll find that you’re much more informed and that your reading skills have improved enormously. Your parents may even be impressed when you share your perspective at the dinner table.
Find and read good, creative nonfiction
Last week, I began brainstorming essays with a couple of rising seniors. Before we started, I asked them both, “when was the last time you wrote a reflective, personal essay?” The answer was unsurprisingly somewhere between fourth and fifth grade. College essay writing is already a serious challenge for students, but unfamiliarity with personal narrative makes it even more difficult. To help introduce you to different styles of narrative, crack open some creative nonfiction. David Sedaris is great (though you shouldn’t try to be as funny as he is), and Sarah Vowell is similarly phenomenal (even if you’ll never do as much research for your writing as she does). If you want a book with a long title and a unique style, try A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers; if that’s too much, you can read College by Stephen Akey and experience the ups and downs of higher ed before you even get there. Your objective should be to recognize the wide range of voice in creative nonfiction and to start to feel comfortable thinking about what your voice might be and the way that you might use it to tell your story. In choosing your reading and writing your essays, remember that there is really no right answer, just the answer that best fits who you are.