Creative Summer Planning in the Time of Social Distancing

By Ashley Nieblas


creative summer

The summer plans many high school students formulated earlier this year are no longer available. Many summer programs, classes, and camps have been cancelled entirely in the name of safety. Others are taking a much different form — summer school, college programs, and even some sports camps are shifting to a modified online version.

Of course, creative summer planning isn’t new — millions of Americans don’t have access to these types of programs and have always had to be resourceful when thinking of how to make use of the additional free time available when school is not in session. Summer has never been a time when anyone had to attend these structured programs, but what has changed is what’s available and for whom. And now, understandably, some students are experiencing burnout from online classes. So now the question remains: what should high school students do this summer?

First step: set some goals for your summer

When our college counselors meet with students to brainstorm ideas for summer plans, we ask students to consider two overarching goals: by the end of your summer break, (1) you should have learned something new and (2) you should have a better understanding of yourself. The pathway to achieve these goals can and should look different for each student.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you consider what you want to accomplish this summer:

  • Are there any skills you’ve always wanted to acquire but haven’t previously had the time to work on?
  • Is there a subject you find fascinating and want to dig deeper into?
  • Is there a passion you have that you can share with friends and family?
  • Do you have a hobby that you can share with your community?

Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to play an instrument, wished you spoke a foreign language, or wondered what it took to master the art of origami. Now is the perfect time to explore these interests!

Another great place to start is to consider what you’re missing most. For many students, the answer is social contact. Even those who aren’t the fondest of school are suddenly reminiscing on the days spent in their classrooms. While state and local guidelines may not allow students to arrange gatherings outside of their home, they have a myriad of opportunities to connect with friends online. 

Next steps: make a plan and outline the steps

Consider the resources available to you: online courses, podcasts, books, documentaries, social media platforms, online forums. Also keep in mind the resources in your local community that you can safely access given your state and local restrictions. Struggling to think of ideas? Check out this list of online opportunities that includes categories like volunteering, research, and how to develop life skills.

Perhaps you’re interested in exploring subjects not available to you at your high school. Check out websites like Coursera and EdX. You can study subjects like biomedical engineering, British literature, and social media marketing. Spend some time exploring the listings — you might be surprised by what you can learn.

Maybe you’re passionate about environmentalism. Look up how to create a solar panel on WikiHow and Youtube. Research composting and talk to your family about making this change as a household. Check out podcasts and books to learn more about the changes you and your community can make to live a more sustainable lifestyle.  

Dig deeper: find ways to share your interests with others 

Once you’ve found something you’re interested in pursuing this summer, be it learning a new skill or trying a new hobby, consider ways you can be even more creative with this venture. Better yet, find ways that you can make an impact in your community and help others via your passions.

Why do we recommend that you take an interest a step further and share it with others? First and foremost, we know that this will encourage students to grow as individuals and feel a greater sense of reward in sharing things they enjoy with others. Second, we know that admission readers are looking for students who have an interest that they share within a community.

Some colleges are more transparent in how they evaluate this — take Caltech, for instance. In their supplemental essays, they ask students to share examples of how they’ve pursued their passions and to consider how they plan to collaborate with other students should they be admitted. Caltech readers expect students to have earned strong grades in rigorous courses — that is the bare minimum. Your transcript shouldn’t give them a reason to say no, but they’re not what gives admission readers a reason to say yes. These supplemental essay prompts enumerate the qualities Caltech admission readers look for in a prospective student who will be a good fit for their school. This also underscores some of the soft skills that differentiate smart, accomplished candidates at highly selective institutions.

Now that we’ve talked about why taking an interest a step further is important, let’s look at some examples to get a sense of what this can look like.

You love cooking, and you want to master a certain number of recipes this summer. Perhaps you want to channel Julie and Julia and blog as you attempt to master the art of French cooking. Track your progress on Instagram and tag your photos with targeted hashtags to connect with other food lovers. Reach out to local retirement and community homes and ask if they would consider allowing you to bake treats for its residents’ birthdays. Discuss ways to cook and transport these to the facility safely, and then deliver each birthday treat with a handmade card.

Your desk at home isn’t sufficient for everyday use, and you want to learn how to build your own. Look up YouTube videos and search Reddit threads for instructions and lists of supplies you’ll need. Ask a parent or sibling for help on the project — it could be a great bonding activity! Once your project is complete, consider what other furniture you may want to build. Start your own small business by selling items to people in your local community via platforms like Next Door and Offer Up.

You love chess and you’re hoping to improve your skills. Set a goal to improve your time and statistics by setting aside a certain amount of time to play and study moves each week. Reach out to local chapters of the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club to see if they’d be interested in offering virtual lessons and tournaments to children in the community. Ask friends, family, and neighbors to donate what they can so you can gift each participant with their own chess set.

What admissions officers will look for in this summer’s activities in particular:

The global pandemic is affecting everyone in very different ways, and college admissions officers recognize this. They are also facing shelter-in-place orders, adhering to social distancing, and some even have loved ones’ health or jobs affected by the coronavirus. Admission officers understand that this summer looks a lot different than the summer of 2019. They don’t expect you to travel somewhere interesting and unique. They understand your plans to get a summer job may no longer be feasible. They also recognize that for the vast majority of American teens, travel and summer programs with high price tags were never a feasible option. Finding ways to be creative and scrappy with your summer utilizing low-cost and free resources is just new to a small subset of students. The defining difference is that this is something nearly all students will have to abide by due to national and local restrictions on public gatherings and businesses.

The admissions officers recognize that your life has changed in substantial ways. That may mean students or their parents have suffered a job loss, lost a close family member, or encountered other substantial difficulties during this time. If that is the case, you don’t need to be concerned with setting ambitious summer goals and adding activities to your plate. Take the time to take care of yourself and your family. And come fall, make sure to give context to the hardships you’ve faced in your college applications so that the admission readers better understand the nuances of your circumstances.

But if you’re someone whose major hurdle during the pandemic has been boredom, then it’s time for some tough love. The one thing college admissions officers won’t be sympathetic towards? Spending your entire summer binging Netflix or playing video games. Admissions officers still expect you to find a way to productively use the time you have available, and while they will be understanding of the hardships you and your family may be facing, they won’t be understanding if you’re making excuses to be lazy.

Some colleges have clear formulas for entry: earn this GPA and this test score, and you will receive an offer of admission. But the vast majority of colleges don’t follow a clear formula (that’s why unfortunately there’s no clear-cut answer when someone asks, “How do I get into X school?”) When admission officers review your application, they ask themselves what story each piece of information is sharing. They review your transcript see if you challenge yourself in the things you say you care about. They examine your activity summary to see how you’ve spent your time outside the classroom. They read your essays to understand how you think and to get a sense of your personality.

Highly selective colleges never have a shortage of extremely qualified candidates. Every year, schools like Yale, Stanford, and MIT could fill a second freshman class with students denied admission who have 4.0 GPAs and perfect test scores. These colleges simply don’t have enough spots to admit every single high performing student who applies for admission. Admission officers at highly selective colleges expect you to do well in high school — what earns you a spot at one of these institutions is everything else. When you apply to these types of schools, you will be in a competitive applicant pool with students who, in spite of whatever hurdles and challenges they may have faced, found a way to pursue the things they were passionate about, embodied a love of learning inside and outside of the classroom, and demonstrated initiative and leadership in their pursuits. Every piece of your application serves to showcase your talents and provide context for what you’ve done in high school, so don’t forsake that opportunity to distinguish yourself simply because there are a lot of great TV shows and movies available to stream online.

If you are facing significant hardships, take care of yourself and your loved ones. But if you have the luxury of time and space this summer, then remember: have fun and find ways to better yourself and your community (however you may define that.) And above all, stay safe.

To download a brief guide with summer planning tips, click here.