Summer, once the last sweet bastion of youth, has become for many college-bound high school students just another opportunity to set themselves apart.
When I was growing up, summers meant jobs scooping ice cream or answering phones behind a desk. Weekends at the beach. The paycheck wasn’t much, but it was a symbol of delicious freedom. For most of us applying to college back in the day, our summer activities were rarely fodder for an amazing college essay.
Fast-forward to today’s competitive college environment. What does the ideal summer activity look like to a college admissions counselor? Should your teen take enrichment classes, work, or volunteer?
With so much seemingly at stake, it seems more important than ever to make summer count. But the truth is, there is no one “right” choice.
“You need to keep the individual student in mind and see what works for them,” says Cecilia Castellano, vice provost for strategic enrollment planning at Bowling Green State University. “I like to see that students have done something with their summer, because I think that leads to a better, more well-rounded student both in and outside of the classroom.”
“If your goal is to be admitted into an Ivy League school, how you spend your summer is a different conversation than if you’re looking to be admitted to a school within your state or a private school that is moderately selective,” says Castellano. If it’s Ivy League or bust, summer may be a time to be strategic. “In addition to perfect grades and test scores, you’ll need to consider a job or community service. Choose with intention that makes you stand out and will help you contribute to those elite institutions.”
4 possible summer options for teens:
1. Additional classwork
If your teen needs to beef up their transcript, this could be the perfect time to take another class. Burying their nose in a textbook or coddling a Petri dish may not be their ideal summer, but if it helps to lighten their load during the school year and boost their GPA, the tradeoff could be worth it.
Volunteering can be a great way to help spend the summer, but only if it’s genuinely fulfilling for your teen. “My kids volunteered not because it looked good on their college application but because we value contribution to the community as a family,” says Ohio mom Bonnie Jean Feldkamp. “You have a better work ethic when you understand that you are part of a community and your job contributes to a better quality of life for you and your neighbors.”
According to Castellano,”there’s nothing wrong with working at the local ice cream shop. Having the experience of being responsible and showing up are valuable life lessons.”
4. Summer camp.
“Attending summer camps can also be a great way to do some career exploration if you’re interested in a particular major or field of study,” says Castellano.
College counselors are an invaluable resource to help students make their summer plans. “When students ask me what they should do over the summer, we come up with exactly what they’re missing right now or what they wish they had more time to devote to,” says Sara Harberson, college counselor and founder of Admissions Revolution. “Summer should be spent filling a void—either a personal or an application one. One specific thing doesn’t fit all students.”
Most would agree that the impetus is to do something meaningful and productive. But all work and no play is a mistake.
“Students also need to have some downtime,” recommends Castellano. “I don’t think that students need to be scheduled 40 hours a week. There’s something magical about summer when you’re a student, so you still want to let them enjoy that.”