How To Maximize Your Summer Experience

As a student, summer becomes a treasured time of year, a time to relax, indulge, explore, and grow. A summer vacation can also become an experience that can shape who you are and how you view the world.

What you do with your summer can also add an interesting caveat to your college admissions applications, giving the admissions officer further insight into who you are or what you are passionate about. With these three months of opportunity looming ahead, now is the time to consider how you can use this summer to challenge yourself, indulge a favorite passion, and have whole lot fun.

There is no specific formula for creating a summer that will automatically get you admitted to any Ivy League college.

Lisa Sohmer, the Director of College Counseling at the Garden School in New York and a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, emphasizes, “Doing something just for how it will look is foolish”.

Instead, Sohmer said, students that “do things that they really care about and do them well are the ones that have the best experiences to tell”.

This advice ties in with the idea of developing a personal brand. Know what you are truly passionate about and actively look for ways that you can indulge that passion this summer. There are so many options out there but there is not one right way to approach a summer- look for something that you love, something that you think will be fun, and something that can challenge you.

Academic Programs

Most elite universities offer on-campus programs for high schools students, and these programs can be an excellent way to get to know a specific university while also broadening your academic horizons. Megan Isenhock, a coordinator for the John Hopkins Summer University program for high school students, said that summer programs at specific universities help students to “experience the college world before they get there”.

Johns Hopkins offers a five-week program that can earn students 6 college credits. These credits are transferrable to other colleges and universities, and constitute about half a semester of college classes. Students in the summer program can choose from over 100 freshman and sophomore level classes in subjects ranging from Arabic to Neuroscience. While in the program, students live in on-campus dorms and eat at the on-campus dining hall.

Most universities, Ivy League, and otherwise, offer programs based on a similar model- allowing students to mirror the college experience as closely as possible by living in college dorms, taking college classes, and using campus libraries, gyms, and other facilities. On-campus programs also give high school students the opportunity to speak with college professors about fields they are interested in, something Isenhock said she always encourages students to do.

Harvard offers a similar program for high school students, the Harvard Secondary School Program. Linda Cross, the public affairs director for the program, pointed out that “comprehensive college prep” is an important part of the Harvard summer program. Students can attend talks on what to expect during the application process, how to make their essays stand out, how to prepare for an admissions interview, and how to handle the challenges of college life. The program also offers students the opportunity to visit other New England colleges.

When considering programs on college campuses, it is not necessary to choose a program at your top choice school, but it might be helpful. Spending a summer at your top-choice university could give you an opportunity to simultaneously become better acquainted with the school and to impress admissions officers at that school with your high level of interest.

However, if you do not have a clear top choice, or if it is not feasible to attend a summer program at your top-choice school, attending a summer program at any school can help you get a better idea of what college will be like.

Either way, Harvard Program Director William Holinger points out that summer program students “experience all the responsibilities and challenges of college first-hand during a summer at Harvard, while the courses they take can help them to decide on a future major or career.” Many college summer programs have a rolling admissions process, so consider applying as early as you can.

Another option for using your summer to explore an academic interest is to take a class at your local community college. This option would tend to be more cost effective than the pre-college programs mentioned above, which can cost thousands of dollars in tuition. If at first you cannot get into a class at your local community college, try contacting the professor. More often than not, they will be happy to let you sit in on their lectures.

Whether you spend your summer at a community college or an Ivy League university, Sohmer pointed out that it is important to remember to take a class outside of what you would normally encounter in high school- study something you have never had the opportunity to study before.

Sohmer recalled one student who took a class on New York City comedy, and another who chose to study the history of baseball. Look for a class that is tailored to a particular interest that you have, or study a foreign language that you have always been interested in. If you choose classes that are more narrowly focused on your own interests, they will be more fun for you and more eye-catching for college admissions officers.

Outside the Classroom

If taking classes does not sound like your ideal summer, there are many other opportunities for a fun and rewarding summer experience.

Jill Tipograph, the owner of a business called Everything Summer, emphasized, “What colleges really want to see the kids do is grow. They want to see them push themselves out of their comfort zone.” What activity helps achieve this is different for different people, Tipograph said.

Everything Summer provides independent guidance to assist families in finding summer experiences that will help their child or teenager grow. The company helps students find programs ranging from overnight camps to cultural immersion programs to internships.

The company recently completed a survey of colleges across the country. The results, Tipograph said, indicate that colleges are looking for “kids to come to college who can weather the experiences that are going to be thrown in front of them.” Tipograph’s company, she said, tries to help students look at their abilities and passions to find areas where they can delve deeper, and to find a summer program that fits in with those areas.

“Summer is the time when kids get the opportunity to grow the most in the shortest amount of time,” Tipograph said. What colleges don’t want to see are students who are wasting their time.

So, this summer, do your best to dive into something that you could not do during the regular school year. Consider enrolling in a summer program like those offered through Everything Summer. Look around in your local community for programs or opportunities that fit what you are interested. Most of all, do not take your summer for granted- use it to learn, to explore, and to grow.

Summer on a Budget

It is important to keep in mind that a memorable summer experience does not have to break the bank.

Volunteering costs nothing and can be a valuable contribution to your community and an excellent opportunity for personal growth. Look around your community for charitable organizations that support something you love.

If you love animals, consider volunteering with your local animal shelter. If you are a voracious reader, many libraries recruit young volunteers to help with cataloguing and public programming. If you are passionate about politics, volunteer to help out at a local campaign office. These experiences are entirely free, allow you to explore a favorite interest, and can help showcase that interest to prospective colleges.

Another option, Tipograph said, is finding someone in your community that you could shadow. If you are interested in a particular career field, approach someone in that field and ask about shadowing or internship opportunities. If you are willing to donate your time, many companies are happy to let you experience the field and bring your own talents to the company. You might not get paid, but the experience in itself could be invaluable.

Having a full or part time job in the summer can also provide valuable experience, along with a tidy profit. Sohmer said that she speaks with many college applicants who feel like having to work a summer job is in some way a detriment their chances, since they cannot afford to pay for summer camps or college programs. However, Sohmer said that, in reality, “Students having jobs is as valuable if not more valuable in terms of experiences or what they are able to learn”.

Additionally, Tipograph said that students should look into financial aid for the pricier summer programs. If a student demonstrates a desire and a need, many companies and programs will come up with some sort of funding for that student.

Regardless of what you do with your summer, Sohmer stressed that it is important to be able to say that you learned something, whether it is about a subject, a political issue, your community, or yourself. She recalls one example of a student who felt like he was limited because his family went to Italy every summer to visit relatives. She suggested that he make a project out of the trip by reading books written by authors in the region.

Whatever direction your summer leads you in, take as much initiative as you can- make a reading list for yourself, or a list of local museums that you would like to visit. If possible, keep a journal or blog about your experiences. Such supplemental projects can create excellent memories and provide valuable topics for a college admissions essay.

Great Summer. Now What?

So, once you have found a summer experience that fits your personality and lifestyle, how do you showcase that experience in your college application?

Sohmer said that the essay is the most common space for conveying a summer experience. Adding personal stories or experiences into your essay can give the reader insight into you as a person- what you value, what you are passionate about, how you process your experiences.

Use your summer experience to remind the reader of what makes you unique- what passion will you bring to their university? What are some experiences that have shaped who you are and how you can contribute to the school of your choice?

Consistency in summer experiences can be a good thing, even if it is just a consistent spirit of adventure. Sohmer explains that it can look good if students return to the same job year after or year, or develop their interests in a leadership position. However, she also said that there is no need to be locked into one summer activity year after year: “Quality experiences are quality experiences even if they are varied”.

Though summer experiences do not have near as much weight as test scores and transcripts, the way you spend your summers can reinforce the overall image of your personality that is conveyed in your application.

William Holinger, the director of Harvard’s Secondary Summer Program, stated, “We advise students to emphasize in their college applications the relationship between their summer academic endeavors and their expectations for their undergraduate education, and life beyond college-if possible.

How did a summer course relate to what they want to study in college? What did they learn over the summer that has changed their sense of why they want to attend a particular college, or what they wish to study there?”

Most importantly of all, be genuine. Both in choosing your summer experience, and in conveying it in your essay, think more about who you are and what you have to offer than whatever it is you think colleges are looking for.

Sohmer pointed out, “It is important that students and families look at the summer not just as a way to get some place else, not just what you do to go to college”.

Summer is a time to explore yourself and explore what you love, and any route that you take to do that will give you ample material for your college application.

Next Steps

Make a list of your interests and do research on local organizations that could serve as outlets for those interests.

If you are planning on applying to a summer program, begin as soon as possible, as many of them have a rolling admissions process.

Check out listings of summer classes at your local community college and contact the professor to discuss taking a class.

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