But we also know that there is a lot of pressure to pick the “right” activities. After all, what’s the point of taking time away from your friends and family—and the beach—if it’s not going to also help you become a better student or applicant in some way?
So, what counts? Well, truly anything could count. We’ve met students who taught themselves Esperanto or coached a second-grade robotics team. Neither summer activity is inherently better than the other, but each reflects a student’s individual interests. That’s the most important part of the equation, find something that you’re excited to do, learn, or experience—instead of something you think you should be doing—and your summer will be both enriching and enjoyable.
For those of you looking for specific ideas to make your summer count, however, here are some ways to become a better student and applicant: note the order.
Take a class
Do you need to remediate that English class from freshman year? Will taking a math class allow you to take Calculus during the school year or meet prerequisites for that physics class you can’t wait to take? If so, consider taking a summer class through your school, online, or at a local community college. If you don’t have strategic needs like these, consider what areas you’d like to discover or explore in-depth. Whether it’s learning how to program through Khan Academy, taking a community college creative writing course, or learning about the impact of pirates on global empires through a summer program, colleges love students who pursue their academic passions—no matter what they are.
Get career exposure
If you can’t wait to learn more about your planned career path, summer is a great time to explore. Start with your personal networks and if you have access to professionals in your chosen field or even something similar, ask them about shadowing or mentoring opportunities. If you don’t have a deep personal network or there are limitations to what you can access, be creative and consider what aspects of your career you can train for now. If you want to run a small business or be a child psychologist one day, you can develop applicable skills by volunteering to teach children at a day camp or running a fundraiser in your community.
Build your portfolio
If your interests gravitate towards the arts or other forms of creation, such as engineering, use your summer to throw yourself into projects and creative works. And if you’re planning on pursuing these interests in college, documenting your works for future portfolios will give you a head-start on college applications. Just remember that a little structure goes a long way. Give yourself clear and achievable goals, whether it’s producing a 15-minute short film or building a trebuchet that will launch a projectile 50 feet, and you’ll be motivated to follow through.
If you’re not sure what you want to study, or just know that you want a more relaxed or simply non-academic summer, there are plenty of options:
Get a summer job
Bagging groceries or mowing your neighbor’s lawns all summer doesn’t sound glamorous. A summer job is, however, a great way to learn an entirely new skill-set. You’ll be working with adults, functioning in a professional environment, earning money and, if you take the job seriously, gaining experiences that show colleges you’re responsible and college-ready.
Explore new passions
Whether you have no idea what your interests are, or you have too many to count, you can use your summer to learn something new. Hobbies, whether they’re artistic, athletic, or eclectic, can be hard to maintain or start up during the school year. But during the summer commit yourself to finally learning more than two chords on your guitar, picking up Photoshop, or trying out Geocaching. Colleges don’t care if your hobbies relate to your academic interests—or if they’re academic at all—they just want to see you commit to things that interest you!
Whether you decide to spend your summer taking an economics class, working retail, or something completely different from anything on this list, remember that the summer that counts for you is different than the summer that counts for your neighbor or best friend. Take stock of what you want to do or accomplish and work your way back to have a summer that colleges—and most importantly—you, will love.