The college admissions process is more competitive now than ever before, and ambitious high-school students need to use every available opportunity to distinguish, and prepare, themselves as candidates. Summer – that two-plus months long break from the hyper-structured school year – presents a truly unique opportunity to do something compelling that will differentiate them in the college process. However, because summer can play such a crucial role in this process, students and parents can sometimes approach summer planning with an outcome-oriented perspective. They are eager to identify specific opportunities that will provide an extra edge to their application and will cement their ambitious college dreams.
The reality however, is that there is no one “right” path to take. Of course, some opportunities are more compelling than others – competitive academic programs, impactful community service initiatives, and part-time jobs are all looked upon favorably by many college admissions teams. But ultimately, summer is not about one-off opportunities to build or polish a resume – instead, summer is a unique opportunity for students to explore and deepen their genuine interests and build upon those in ways that they simply cannot during the school year. It is a time to focus on self-discovery, to take on new challenges, and to prioritize personal growth. And this growth is what will ultimately make them more compelling college candidates (and more mature individuals).
Identify Key Interests
At Everything Summer, our philosophy is that all summer plans must derive from organic, existing student interests or passions. Forcing a student to spend valuable summer time doing something “desirable” that does not resonate with them, with the sole goal of impressing college admissions teams, will only be met with resistance from the student in question. They will not embrace their experience, and as a result they are unlikely to learn about themselves and what they like – and furthermore, admissions officers can see through this veneer.
We begin every summer planning process by meeting our clients, either in person or via video conference. We focus on the things they genuinely like (or seem intrigued by), and try to strategically marry these interests with related opportunities. A student who likes video games may enjoy game design, a student who loves sports might be interested in sports management, a love of animals might lend itself to wildlife conservation. Remember, all interests are interesting – it is what you to do build on those interests that will make all the difference.
Focus on Fit
Once you have targeted the area(s) your teen wants to explore, it’s vital to identify those opportunities that will help them explore their interests in a suitable environment. A student with a preliminary interest in coding should not be thrown into a college-level course – this will only serve to discourage them, and that kindling interest may very well be smothered before it can truly develop. Likewise, a program that is too ‘light’ might not be enough to excite an intellectually curious student, and they may then deem their own interest a frivolous one.
Of course, there is much more to fit than the rigor of the program. When considering a given opportunity, it’s also important to weigh the accommodations, the make-up of the students, the day-to-day structure, and the social structure. These are areas of focus whenever we work with Everything Summer clients, and with every family we strive to present well-researched options that will foster their interests while supporting them as individuals. Remember, growth only happens when students are pushed outside their comfort zone – but when pushed too far, they may simply shut down, leading to stagnation and resentment.
It’s vital that a student’s summer works within a larger plan and framework, both academically and developmentally. When working with Everything Summer clients, we closely consult associated professionals, such as college advisors or therapists, to get a holistic sense of how the summer will function within the scope of this student’s story and development. A college advisor may point out a gap in a student’s profile that can be addressed during the summer – for example, an underachieving student with high test scores might benefit from taking an accredited college course, thus proving they can do college-level work at a high level – or recommend that a student dedicate a certain amount of summer time to test prep or working on their college applications. A therapist can provide guidance regarding how a teen functions in certain social situations or how they handle downtime, which can be extremely important when selecting the right pre-college opportunity, as mentioned above.
Vital Skills & Valuable Information
The opportunities presented by summer programs also allow students to develop skills and gain information well beyond whatever subject area they study, or whatever avenue they choose to explore. A student may enroll in a campus-based program in entrepreneurship – but in addition to learning how to pitch a business, they’ll learn invaluable skills like time management, effective group communication, and independent living skills. Students who study neuroscience at a college will learn all about the brain – but they’ll also learn whether they like an urban/rural environment, and whether having a campus is important to them. In the past, some Everything Summer clients have even decided to attend the colleges that hosted them during their pre-college summers, and those high-school summer experiences were incredibly illuminating and valuable when it came time to make those college decisions.
Many high-school students will have upwards of 8-weeks of summer vacation, and it can be extremely valuable for them to take advantage of this free time by trying multiple experiences. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every moment of every summer day should be scheduled – this can lead to burn-out, and students do need time off (between and after experiences) to recuperate and recharge in advance of the academic year ahead.
However, by providing students with opportunities to explore multiple interests, you not only allow them to maximize their time – you also provide them the opportunity to consider their interests as they compare to one another. Spending part of the summer shadowing a doctor and another part doing local community service might allow a student to realize that their interest in medicine is not actually as strong as their desire to work with children. Spending the whole summer working in a restaurant might be stifling – but combining a monthlong part-time job with an out-of-state organized adventure trip could provide an admiration for the outdoors, and an appreciation for the hard work that allowed them to experience this.
When we work with Everything Summer client families, we guide and encourage students to initially focus on a core area of concentration – the one thing they want to do above all else. Once that has been determined, you can more easily identify those secondary opportunities that can complement the core program, both from an experiential and a logistical perspective.
Building on Summer Experiences Year-Round
Summers are not best served a la carte. A singular summer experience will ultimately have little value, both personally and in the college admissions process, if it does not tie into a student’s larger story and profile. When an Everything Summer client completes a given summer program or undertaking, we always debrief with them – and we encourage and guide them to reflect on their experience. Did they enjoy it? What did they enjoy (or not enjoy) about it? What did they learn and accomplish? How can they continue building on what they liked and achieved?
A student who enjoys a writing program may pitch a weekly column for his or her student newspaper. A student who spends the summer learning about nutrition and entrepreneurship might launch a small business providing healthy food plans for their classmates (with professional oversight, of course). Remember, it can be as helpful for a student to learn what they don’t like as it is to learn what they do – that way they don’t pour more valuable time into something that is ultimately not a driving passion. By exploring opportunities in this way, students can continue building on past summer experiences – both during the school year and future summers – while also laying groundwork for potential fields of study and/or careers. This added depth and introspection is all but certain to make them a more compelling college candidate (and a better prepared college student).
Planning for summer can be stressful, as there’s no set curriculum and no single proven path for students to take. However, if you trust in your teen and their interests, treat summer as a part of a larger plan, embrace summers as learning experiences, and encourage your student to reflect critically upon their summer experiences, you will position them well to have impactful summers that will aid their college admissions efforts. And more importantly, you will help them grow into a more well-developed person, helping them to further discover themselves and their own identity, and positioning them not only to get into – but also to succeed – in college.