Looking for a way to spend the summer that’s fun, interesting, maybe even challenging and also—you hope—impressive to colleges? If so, you’re on the right track, no matter whether you’re a freshman, sophomore or junior. You should be making plans right now, and I’ll offer a few suggestions. But, first, let me dispel some myths.
Despite what you may have heard, to impress colleges you do not need to do a fund-raising climb up Mt. Everest. Nor do you need to spend your summer in a small African village building huts for starving children. I’d go so far as advising you against these activities—unless you happen to live year-round in that small African village, in which case helping your neighbors might be an excellent plan.
When summer travel makes sense
Many of us enjoy traveling, and it’s a great thing to do. But don’t think college admissions officers will be swayed just because your family can afford to send you to an exotic location. Thousands of teenagers take expensive trips like this each year. As a result, in the world of college admissions, the “What I learned last summer from the poor people in Morocco” essay has become a cliché.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing a teen travel trip or a summer study abroad program. And, if the activities enable you to improve your skills in another language, they will certainly provide you with an advantage, in your education and in your life in general. But participating in such a summer activity won’t distinguish you from the crowd.
What colleges really want—and why
Colleges are interested in what makes you different from other teenagers. That’s because they’re looking for a person who will bring something special to life on campus. So start focusing on some of the unique things about yourself. Do you have a special passion, or a hobby—something you love to do in your free time?
Maybe you’re an inspired vegetarian cook, or you write poetry and perform at slams. Maybe you play stride piano, do step dancing, blog about gender issues, are obsessed with baseball stats, love to solve hyper-complex algebraic equations or construct crossword puzzles. Whatever you love to do, it makes sense to spend more time at it over the summer. What better way to develop your special talents?
If you haven’t found a passion–yet
If you haven’t developed a particular passion yet, or if you’d like to expand beyond what you already know, summer is also a great time to try new things. One way to do this is by taking classes. A wide variety of summer courses are available for teenagers, covering everything from creative writing to astrophysics to filmmaking.
Most major universities offer summer programs. Aspiring lawyers, doctors, veterinarians and business tycoons will find programs tailored to them at schools like Georgetown, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, University of Chicago and UCLA. That’s one way to dip your toes into the waters of a possible career.
But sometimes the best summer activities offer a break from academic pursuits. And often the most interesting opportunities may be right under your nose. For example, you could get a summer job in a local business, become a camp counselor, do an internship or volunteer to work for a political representative or a community organization.
Right in your own back yard
Working in your own community—whether in a paid job or a volunteer position—can help you gain a new perspective on your world and the people around you. It may also offer you a different view of yourself, as you take on new roles and responsibilities.
Finding the right opportunity may take some time. So it’s smart to start now. Make a list of local companies and organizations you might like to work for and reach out to them with phone calls, emails or personal visits. You can also search the Internet for internships in your area. And don’t forget to ask teachers, counselors, family members and other adults you know for contacts and suggestions.
There is no one “right” way to spend your summer. Colleges get that. Just make sure it’s an activity—or series of activities—that you feel good about. You’ve worked hard at school all year long, following a regimen that others set out for you. Summer is your chance to assert your identity and chart a course of your own.