Summer may be months away, but it not too early for high school students to start making plans. There is so much anxiety around college admission that choosing the “best” summer activity can be intimidating, but there are no rules about how you should spend the summer.
Perhaps there is one rule. The more money you have to pay for a summer experience, the less impressive it will look on college applications. Admissions officers want to see what the student has done, not what kind of experience her parents have bought for her. They are looking for evidence of initiative, leadership, intellectual curiosity, creativity, long-term commitment, impact on the community.
Academic programs that are selective and require an application with teacher recommendations, like the California State Summer School for Math and Science (COSMOS) or California State Summer School for the Arts, enhance college applications.
Internships can be a great way to explore a potential career. One student completed an internship in a science lab, and her work was compelling enough that she was invited to present it at a conference. The experience enabled her to write an essay that demonstrated her intellectual curiosity as well as the impact she was already making in the field.
Work experience is also valuable. I have heard admissions officers say they would love to read an essay from a student who spent the summer bagging groceries. In addition to learning how to manage time and take on responsibility, students who have a job gain confidence as they find they have something to contribute to a workplace.
Taking a summer course at a college is a way to explore a possible future major or study interesting subjects that aren’t offered in high school. Some colleges offer online courses. If you want to experience life on a college campus, attending a residential program at a college is an opportunity to try life in an urban environment or a college town. Some of these programs offer enrichment courses, which do not provide college credit but allow you to explore a subject you find fascinating. If your high school grades are not as strong as they need to be, taking a course for college credit can help demonstrate that you are capable of college level work. This strategy only works if you are willing to work hard during the summer, so choose a course you are excited about taking and commit to doing well in it. One student whose grade point average was a bit low for the college he wanted to attend took a summer class at a local university, and because he picked a subject he loved, he not only got an A in the class, he got a strong letter of recommendation from the professor, and best of all, he ended up getting into his favorite college.
Students who have a demanding course load during the school year often devote more time to community service during the summers, and that’s certainly a worthwhile activity. A long-term commitment to one organization, where you have taken on increasing responsibility each year, has more impact than occasional volunteer days at a variety of places.
While more colleges become test-optional each year, test scores are still an important factor in admission decisions at most schools and summer can be a good time to focus on test preparation.
There are so many possibilities. Be careful not to overload your schedule. Admissions officers are looking for quality, not quantity. More important, you don’t want to have a miserable summer. Protect your mental health by building in some time to relax and hang out with friends.