Most kids look forward to summer vacation so that they can relax, get away from the demands of school and recharge before the next school year. In the past, many teens divided their summers between working and hanging with friends, but the situation today is different. In general, today’s teens feel more pressure to be productive during summer vacation because they think colleges are looking for kids who do it all or are the very best.
But what do colleges look for? Your Teen asked high school counselors for their opinions on summer activities for teens: Ms. Eileen Blattner formerly of Shaker Heights High School, Mr. Terry Kennedy from Westlake High School and Ms. Terry McCue formerly of Hathaway Brown School.
Q: What are the benefits of attending summer programs such as the National Youth Leadership Forum, or programs that solicit kids with: “You have been nominated?”
Blattner: Colleges know that affordability plays a major factor in attending these expensive programs. Yet, participation can bring out the four qualities that colleges value: initiative, intelligence, looking beyond oneself and leadership.
Kennedy: These programs can be beneficial, but teens can also attain these benefits through other activities, like a summer job. If you choose to attend a program, participate for the content. Do not participate solely to look competitive for college admissions.
McCue: It is not difficult to be “nominated” for one of these programs, so colleges won’t see this as an elite experience. However, a program can serve as a good introduction to subject matter, and provide a positive experience to explore new topics, travel and meet people.
Q: Is there value in attending summer college residential programs for high school students?
Blattner: Again, not all kids have the opportunity to do this due to family circumstances or finances. Attending these programs can be beneficial if a student is excited about learning and wants to pursue an interest. In rare instances, an outstanding student can even connect with a professor, who might write a letter of recommendation.
McCue: Most summer programs operate independently; therefore, attending one of these programs will not help a student gain admission to that college, with one exception – some small liberal arts colleges use summer programs to recruit students. However, if a student really loves a subject matter and finds a college that offers interesting classes, this can be a great experience to live away from home and pursue an interest.
Q: What do you think about traveling or teen travel programs?
Blattner: These trips can engage a teen in community service, result in college credit ,and offer a beneficial opportunity for a student to live away from home. However, the experience must be unique and transforming to make a difference for college admissions.
McCue: Travel can be life changing and offer a great opportunity for those interested in languages. To write about travel on college applications, make it a reflective piece (not a travel log) on how it affected you and contributed to your growth in an authentic way.
Q: How important is work experience during high school?
Blattner: If you need to make money, get a job that really pays, like construction. Otherwise, find a job that enhances personal development or helps you discover a career interest. However, if a student pursues non-work activities, it is okay to indicate “no experience” on a college application.
McCue: Some students need to work in the summer, and that’s fine. Teens can gain significant experience in an area of genuine interest. Colleges don’t feel that a student must work, but they do respond to kids who do work.
Q: What do you recommend your students do with their summers?
Blattner: Do something that is important to you. You don’t have to travel, take classes or spend a lot of money to learn and grow. Show initiative by tutoring, starting a camp, or learning a new skill. Take your interests a step further. For example, it’s good to write for your school newspaper, but take your interests a step further and be a correspondent for a local paper. There are no musts; just don’t spend your summer on the couch.
Kennedy: Formal programs can be beneficial but should not be purely for resume value. Do something. Working over the summer or volunteering, perhaps at a camp, can be very beneficial to a high school student.
McCue: Colleges can easily identify interests motivated by passion, so you should use the summer to pursue your interests in an in-depth way. The more authentic your interest, the more potential for growth, leadership and opportunity. If you like to write, take a weeklong course at a local university, do some creative writing at home or help a young neighbor learn how to read or write. You can even do all of this while working.
Be authentic, contribute to your own growth and the growth of others and be excited about your endeavors. That’s what colleges look for. Doors open when you try new experiences and pursue your interests in a genuine way.