What are the best things for a high school student to do this summer, to prepare for the shifting realities of college and career that await them down the road?
Summer vacation is one of the most misunderstood parts of the admissions process. While students think they need to do something truly amazing—hike Kilimanjaro, study sea turtles on some exotic island, or do high-level science research at a prestigious university—the reality is that this is absolutely not necessary (or even recommended). In this guide to high school summers and college admissions, I’ll talk a little bit about why summer vacation matters and how anyone can have a constructive, meaningful summer experience.
About The Author
Will is a veteran of the college admissions process who has read thousands of applications and successfully counseled hundreds of students through the admissions process. Story2 teaches students applying to college how to write powerful personal statements, supplemental essays, and scholarship essays. Previously, Will was the Associate Director of College Counseling at an independent school in Connecticut and a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College. Will is a graduate of Wake Forest University and the University of Pennsylvania.
March in New England the weather can be unpredictable. It was a cold, dreary day, I was working in College Counseling, and my advisees trudged into my office, one by one, each of them sopping wet even with a raincoat.
I glanced quickly at my Google Calendar and saw that Avery was my next appointment. He walked in and without even taking off his coat launched into conversation.
“Mr. Geiger,” he said, “I honestly have no idea what I want to do over the summer.”
Avery continued to explain that he really just wanted to hang out with his friends and work as a counselor at the summer camp he attended when he was younger. He said he felt safe and happy there, and he loved working with the younger kids.
“But my mom thinks that this is not going to be good enough for college.” he concluded, slumping down in his chair.
I reassured Avery that doing what felt good and right for him at this moment was totally okay and was not going to doom his admissions chances.
This question—“how can I use my summer to set myself up for college admissions?”—and the feeling of fear that underlies it, are quite common, particularly among students who have their sights set on selective colleges and universities. This summer is no different, but it often feels even more confusing because so many of the usual opportunities are not available, or they’ve gone from in-person to virtual, or things are so uncertain generally that there’s a feeling of sadness and anxiety hanging over the whole thing.
WHY DOES SUMMER VACATION MATTER FOR COLLEGE ADMISSIONS?
In the eyes of the college admissions officer, summer vacation matters because it provides insight into how you choose to spend your free time. In the broad assessment of an applicant, summer is grouped together with your other extracurricular activities.
Remember, when you attend college you will be part of a campus community. Admissions officers are interested in building a community of students who are going to be involved in a variety of activities and areas. To be even more specific, they are interested in students who are going to make an impact on campus and after college as an alumnus or alumna. So you reveal things about who you are and what matters to you based on how you spend your time.
The questions you want to ask yourself aren’t about what colleges are looking for, but what matters to you and how you can build and grow and learn new things based on those things that matter to you.
Here are some broad categories to consider regarding your personal growth:
- What else can I learn?
- What can I do to make a difference in my school or community?
- Who are the people who influence me to be and do my best? How can I spend more time with them? Where can I meet more people like them, but different from the people I already know?
If you start with those broad categories, and think of summer as a chance to grow, you do not need to travel to a far-flung place or secure a prestigious internship. You simply need to explore, learn, and do more of the things you want to be doing as a member of your college campus community.
IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON HIGH SCHOOL SUMMERS
Now we know that the summer of 2020 will be different from past summers. Many summer camps, internships, and other opportunities are cancelled. Nonprofits may not be taking volunteers, and you may be restricted in whether you can even leave your house. This means that you need to be more creative and think about how you can make an impact from your home:
- The budding author will have plenty of time to write and perhaps you can self-publish the novel or poetry anthology that you have been imagining.
- If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, there has never been a better time to start a business. What do Instagram, Venmo, Apple, and Microsoft all have in common? Sure, they are billion dollar companies now, but they were all founded during an economic recession.
- For students who want to study more formally, there are tons of free resources online where you can take university courses including edX and Coursera.
Admissions officers understand that this is a difficult time for high school students, and they are absolutely going to understand if students were prevented from taking advantage of their previously planned summer activities. However, it is ultimately up to you to be creative and make the most of your time.
Next, let’s get more specific about how you can identify the best possible summer activity for you:
HIGH SCHOOL SUMMERS FOR STUDENTS WHO WANT TO SERVE
If you love volunteering and giving back, the summer is a great opportunity to make an impact in your community. While students sometimes think that traveling will make this more impressive, this is absolutely not the case. Instead, think local and find organizations that are aligned to your interests and values.
Nonprofit organizations love volunteers and chances there are many opportunities to make a difference close to home. Some of these opportunities may not be publicly listed, so you may have to do some cold calls or emails to people who work at the nonprofit or social impact organization in question. Be persistent, and let your commitments be known!
HIGH SCHOOL SUMMERS FOR STUDENTS WHO WANT TO EARN MONEY
College is expensive and summer jobs are a great way to help pay for college. Summer jobs teach students new skills and help demonstrate that you are a responsible person who can work well with others. When I was in high school I worked in a restaurant doing kitchen prep and was able to learn how to cook (to this day I can cook a dozen different soups from scratch).
HIGH SCHOOL SUMMERS FOR STUDENTS WHO WANT TO CREATE
The school year is busy, and for students who are passionate about art, entrepreneurship, coding, or writing it can be difficult to find time to build. The summer offers a ton of open time, which is great for creators. My suggestion is to treat your craft like a job and create a schedule for yourself, as well as goals that you want to reach daily throughout the summer. This will ensure that you are working towards a final product that can be useful during the admissions process.
No, I did not forget about Avery. He wound up working at summer camp, had a blast, and was able to enjoy spending time with friends. He also wound up attending his top-choice college. The moral of this story is that if you are spending your summer in a productive way that provides you with meaning, you are on the right track. There is no secret formula or specific activity that will help you in the admissions process. But if you think about where you are going and what matters to you, your choices will be on the right track!
One more thing to remember: the school year can be stressful and the summer also offers an opportunity to relax and recharge. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, enjoy time with friends and family, and prepare for the upcoming school year.
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