Even though it’s the dead of winter and in some places the thermometer is hovering just above zero, this is the time to start planning how you will spend your summer vacation. Don’t leave the planning until the last minute!
Whether a freshman, sophomore or junior, how you spend your summer vacation is very important. What you choose to do with your free time can have a significant impact on your college application, not to mention your learning experiences.
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You might ask yourself, why do I have to “work” during the summer if I’m doing what colleges want me to do all year?” The answer is that colleges and universities want to see what you choose to do with a substantial amount of free time. Schools are looking to enroll students who want to engage in their academic experience and be involved participants in their classroom and campus communities. By looking at what you do with your summers, they can get a sense of how you will take advantage of the education and opportunities made available to you once you are a college student.
So let’s take a look at some things that you can do to signal to colleges that you are the type of student they are looking for.
Yes, more school work! What admissions officer doesn’t like to see that a student has chosen to enroll in more classes when they have free time? The benefits of this are many. You can take a course (s) through programs offered at colleges and universities, which allow students to explore an intended area of study. Most will offer students the option of taking courses for credit. If you do well enough, you could earn college credit that would transfer to the school you eventually enroll in.
You do not, however, have to enroll in an expensive program to receive the same benefits. You could take classes at a local community college, or a course offered at your high school over the summer. If you do well enough in a high school course, you might be able to move up to an honors level class the next year or take an AP course, all things that are noticed by admissions committees.
For those students who have excelled in an academic area, a summer research experience may be just what you want to try out. Check with your guidance office to see if they know of programs you can apply to, or reach out to a local college or university department to see if you could intern with them for the summer. Don’t be shy! High school students who take initiative like this impress most people and the personal and academic rewards can be many.
Work experience is great, but don’t think you need to limit it to just scooping ice cream at your local ice cream parlor. Why not start a business? Before you roll your eyes and think, “Yeah right!”, think again. Your business could be mowing lawns, babysitting, pet walking, or tutoring students in subjects you are good in. All of these show initiative on your part and help put some money in your pocket.
Immerse Yourself in an Academic Field
“Try on” what you think you might want to study for a month or 6 weeks. If you are considering a major in a foreign language, try a summer study abroad program. Some can be very pricey, so shop around. Programs like Rotary Youth Exchange have summer study abroad programs that allow students to experience life with a family in a foreign country and usually only ask students to cover airfare and incidentals and that their family host a student in return. If you think a theater or music major is the direction you would like to take, consider a summer conservatory. I have worked with students who have changed their minds about their major after such an experience, while others have found their passion for the subject deepened.
Summer is also a time to expand your leadership experience. Being a camp counselor or being a part of a Boy Scout or Girl Scout summer program can teach you a lot about yourself and help you to gain valuable skills. Often times, these opportunities require you to have spent many years working up to a leadership role. Admissions officers understand that and will give students credit for staying committed to an interest for a long period of time.
Take some time to give back by volunteering. Programs exist that can take you around the world and back again, but you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to join a volunteer program to make the time worthwhile or to make a difference. If there is a cause you believe in that is in your own community, find out how you can add some service hours or weeks to your summer schedule. You and your community/cause will benefit.
The above list, of course, is not complete. Athletics, internships, shadowing a professional, band camp and many other activities are all very worthy. The bottom line is that you should use your summers to grow and learn and deepen your understanding of, or commitment to, an academic area or cause as well as enjoy yourself.
When you are deciding what you want to do for the summer, remember to give yourself the benefit of time to research and apply for programs and jobs. And keep in mind that admissions officers are impressed by what you do, not how much money you spend to do it. At the end of the day, colleges want to see students involved in their education and finding their own interests and passions. Happy and involved students make a happy and involved college community, which is, ultimately, what everyone wants.
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by Anna Seltz, a former admissions officer with American University and Johns Hopkins. She is currently an independent college counselor at Higher Ed U, College Admissions Consulting.