There is no right or wrong way to spend your summer.
Whether you’re participating in a program or creating your own summer experience (a backpacking trip with your friends, doing some job shadowing, or spending every evening getting caught up on the books you’ve always wanted to read) what’s important is that you pursue the activities that genuinely interest you.
It’s a great way to learn, and there isn’t a college admissions officer in the world who will look at your list of accomplishments and say, “Hmmm—it looks like Johnny took too much initiative in high school. We’re not looking for that at Stanford.”
So let’s dispel some of the myths surrounding summer planning and college admissions:
Myth #1: Your Summer Must Be “Impressive”
Unless your summer activities result in the discovery of extraterrestrial life or the authorship of the next Great American Novel, there’s pretty much nothing you can do in two months that will cause an admissions officer to stop reading your application and choose the “admit” option.
Summer is an important part of your high school years, but it’s certainly not the only part, and colleges know that. Students who try too hard to impress colleges often find themselves in summer programs they don’t really enjoy AND end up doing things that lots (and lots) of other students do. That’s no way to stand out.
So don’t worry about what “looks good.” Worry about what you will enjoy and what will help you to grow, whether it’s intellectually, athletically, or artistically. Remember, admissions officers are just people, and what’s impressive to one person isn’t always impressive to another. Most importantly, you don’t have any control over what your application reader finds impressive.
If you’re considering a highly selective school, don’t look for shortcuts. There’s no summer program or activity that will magically ensure your admission. Instead, the admissions officers will look for evidence that you’re hungry to learn, and that you will have a positive impact on the community around you. And while some programs absolutely provide for that kind of experience, so do a lot of other things that don’t involve flying halfway across the world to practice your Spanish or scuba dive in the Bahamas in the name of science.
Many students simply built themselves a great summer by bagging groceries at the local market, wedging in an online course or two in the evening, and spending their weekends diving even deeper into a volunteer program they’d already been a part of throughout high school. In other words, doing more of what they already loved—even if it didn’t come with a fancy certificate of participation.
Myth #2: You Need to Spend A Lot of Money to Have a Productive Summer
If your family has the means to send you to shear sheep in Tibet this summer, knock yourself out. But please don’t do it because you think you need a splashy or expensive summer experience to get into college. There’s no need to break the bank in order to have a productive summer, and you won’t impress Harvard just by paying thousands of dollars to attend their summer school. There are plenty of productive things you can do with your summer that don’t cost a thing—or that pay you, like a summer job—that are just as valuable in the admission review process.
What’s important is that you choose what you want to do (not what Mom and Dad choose for you) and that you do it well. So, if a language immersion program isn’t in the cards for you, that’s completely fine. Get a job at a local store. Take a cooking class. Volunteer or intern at the community newspaper, or coach a Little League team. You’ll shine just as brightly in your college applications as the kid who went to robotics camp at Caltech.
Myth #3: You Can’t Have Downtime During the Summer
We don’t really know who came up with the idea that students shouldn’t relax or have any fun at all during the summer (and if we did, we might let the air out of their tires). You officially have permission from the counselors at Collegewise—and from colleges—to take a step back and enjoy yourself without feeling just as busy and rushed as you do during the school year.
Colleges know that being a student is more than a full-time job. You put in long hours, including nights and weekends, and you deserve to have some time to recharge your batteries and get ready for the upcoming school year. If you enjoy some downtime over the summer, you’ll be better prepared to make an impact and hit the ground running at the start of the school year.
Sure, if you spend three months doing nothing but sleeping in and watching TV, colleges will start to wonder what kind of a contribution you’ll make to their campuses. But work ethic, curiosity, and passion aren’t seasonal traits. Kids who love to learn want to do it all the time. Kids who enjoy being productive don’t just suppress that trait for three months. And a student who loves playing soccer, programming computers, or playing guitar will probably find some (enjoyable) way to maintain a connection with that interest over the summer.
Some formal program options, like the ones offered by our friends over at Summer Discovery, even offer great experiences as short as two or three weeks. So learn, be productive, and (YES) have fun!
Want to learn more about summer planning? Check out our guide.
Have general questions about the college admissions process?
A Collegewise counselor can help!