“Will taking a course at “X” university’s pre-med program look good?”
“Is this unpaid internship better than the job I got?”
“I’m going to be a camp counselor, but that means I won’t have time to volunteer this summer. Is this okay?”
“I can’t get a job because I have to take care of my younger sister while my parents work. Will this make my application look weak?”
“I got an 1100 on the SAT. Should I spend July studying?”
These are just some of the perennial questions I hear as a high school guidance counselor. Like clockwork, in the last weeks of school I field a series of questions about how students should spend the summer. In fact, it seems the only youngsters who haven’t asked me to help them plan are my two teenagers. They know better because they can see the backyard projects that are waiting for them.
So what is a summer well spent? Relax first. Take time to rest and rejuvenate – you deserve it. The academic calendar can be intense and the past few years have been particularly challenging. Find time to recharge. But don’t take the summer offswitched off“take the summer”in“. Embrace everything in your own unique way. You may still be wondering, “What about getting into college and being a competitive applicant?” Here is a guide to decision-making based on truth as I know it from years of counseling high school students and many conversations with admissions officers. As you weigh your options for the next few months, consider these seven questions:
1. Do you have a choice?
In his new memoir, “The Beauty of Dusk,” bestselling author Professor Duke and The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni writes about the enduring paradox. He says, “We have no control over what happens to us; we have a huge amount of control over what happens to us.” The reality is that some students have no control over their summer plans. Family constraints, schedules, travel and/or responsibilities may dictate what you do. Make the best of your circumstances and don’t obsess over what you can’t control. You may spend the summer helping to care for a sibling or grandparent, supporting the family business or helping with finances. Colleges value these responsibilities, so embrace your reality and trust that the right school will recognize your contributions.
2. What guided your decisions?
Why should you do what you do? If your first answer is “to look better for colleges”, then check for yourself. You cannot predict what any admissions office “wants to see.” They’re most interested in your context and story, so consider how your summer plans are part of that story. Be careful not to let college admissions be the driving force behind your decisions. Ask yourself this: If you get rejected from your top choice school, will you still be happy with how you spent your summer?
3. Will you be full of energy?
No matter what grade you go to, you have to bring your best to school in the fall. There’s a reason it’s called summer “break.” As you decide how to spend the next few months, try to imagine that you are back in the first week of the academic year. Will summer leave you feeling rested and energized, or will you be exhausted and still in need of a break? Do a cost-benefit analysis of how you plan to spend the summer. If you plan to study for tests every day or try to complete a year’s worth of language or math so you can advance to the next level, will you come back in the fall when you already need a vacation?
4. Is it time to sample?
When deciding on your summer plans, consider how much free time you will have to explore. The school year can often feel overwritten. Between classes, art, sports, clubs, homework, and other obligations, your schedule may lack room for sampling. Summer can be a great opportunity to delve deeper into an area of interest. Angela Duckworth is the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, co-host of the Freakonomics No Stupid Questions podcast, and author of “Grit: The power of passion and perseverance.” He advises: “Try something new – if you like it, keep going, if you don’t, change direction. The beauty of sampling is that whether your experience is good or bad, the start of a lifelong obsession, or an ordeal you promise never to repeat, you learn something important about the world and yourself. Sampling opens the door to chance.” Leave time for a wonderful summer!
5. What will you know?
Learning doesn’t stop when you leave the building on the last day of school. Summer can be a wonderful opportunity to learn new skills or delve deeper into an area of interest. This may not include textbooks and homework, nor do you have to earn credit for what you research. But think about how your role as a student could grow over the summer—in general. Maybe a college course is right because you don’t have access to the course during the year at your school. But there may be an online program that will help you develop a particular skill. Some students take advantage of the summer to conduct informational interviews and/or participate in job shadowing to gain a first-hand understanding of various fields. At least think about how you would get to know each other better after the summer and how your choices will help that.
6. Will it be important and/or will it bring you joy?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no “activity checklist” that admissions offices follow. Reviewers do not eliminate candidates based on what they did or didn’t do with their summer. Should you volunteer this summer? Of course, but not to chase admission. Serve your community because it’s the right thing to do and it can bring joy to you or others. Should you work a job, look for an internship, or attend boot camp. Yes, but none will be the “golden ticket” to your dream school. If this experience is important to you, it will also be important to your application.
7. Will you regret it?
Life is too short to look back wistfully. As you finalize your summer plans, ask yourself if your decision will force you to miss out on an opportunity you’ll later wish you had taken. If you’re having serious hesitations now, they’ll probably be even more pronounced when school starts back up. Of course, most decisions involve compromise, and you can’t do everything. However you spend your summer, don’t look back. Take advantage of the experiences you choose.
Take ownership and be proactive. If you don’t, your summer plans may be made for you. Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to spend your summer, but don’t procrastinate or overdo it. It will be over before you know it, and you might wish you had been more intentional. Or, like my own kids, you may find yourself assigned those backyard projects you’ve been trying to avoid. It is wise to use either choice for a summer well spent.