“Will taking a course at “X” University’s pre-college program look good?”
“Is this unpaid internship better than the job I landed?”
“I am going to be a camp counselor but it means I will not have time this summer to volunteer. Is that okay?”
“I can’t get a job because I have to take care of my little sister while my parents work. Is that going to make my application look weak?”
“I got 1100 on my SAT. Should I spend July studying?”
These are only a few of the perennial questions I hear as a high school counselor. Like clockwork, during the final weeks of school, I field a range of inquiries about how students should spend their summer. In fact, it seems the only young people who have not asked me to help them plan are my own two teenagers. They know better, as they can see the projects in the backyard that await.
So, what is a summer well spent? First, relax. Make time for rest and rejuvenation–you have earned it. The academic calendar can be intense and the past few years have been especially challenging. Find time to recharge. But don’t take the summeroff”, take the summer “in”. In your unique way, take it all in. You might still be wondering, “What about college admission and being a competitive applicant?” Here is a decision guide based on the truth, as I know it, from years of counseling high school students, and many conversations with admission leaders. 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, Duke professor, and New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, writes about an enduring paradox. He says, “We have no control over what happens to us; we have enormous control over what happens to us.” The reality is that some students do not have control over their summer plans. Family limitations, schedules, travel, and/or responsibilities may dictate what you do. Make the best of your circumstances and don’t obsess over that which you cannot control. It could be that your summer will be spent helping care for a sibling or grandparent, working to support a family business, or helping with finances. Colleges place a high value on these responsibilities, so embrace your reality and trust that the right school will acknowledge your contributions.
2. What is driving your decision?
Why might you do what you do? If your first answer is “to look better for colleges” then check yourself. You can’t anticipate what any given college admission office “wants to see.” They are most interested in your context and story, so consider how your summer plans are part of that story. Be wary of allowing college admission to be the driving force behind your decisions. Ask yourself this: if you get denied admission at your top choice schools, will you still be happy with how you spent your summer?
3. Will you be energized?
No matter what grade you are going into, you need to bring your best self to school in the fall. There is a reason it is called summer “break”. When deciding how to spend the next few months, try to picture yourself returning to the first week of the academic year. Will your summer leave you feeling rested and energized or depleted and still needing a break? Do a cost/benefit analysis of how you plan to spend your summer. If you plan to engage in test prep every day or are going to try to complete a year’s worth of a language or math so you can advance to the next level, will you return to the fall already needing a vacation?
4. Is there time to sample?
When deciding your summer plans, consider how much free time you will have to explore. The school year can often feel overly scripted. Between classes, arts, sports, clubs, homework, and other commitments your schedule may lack space to sample. Summer can provide an excellent opportunity to dabble in an area about which you are curious. Angela Duckworth is the founder and CEO of the Character Lab, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, the co-host of the podcast Freakonomics No Stupid Questions, and author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” She advises, “Try something new—if you like it, keep going, and if not, change course. The beauty of sampling is that whether your experience is good or bad, the beginning of a lifelong obsession or a trial you vow never to repeat, you learn something important about the world and yourself. Sampling opens the door to serendipity.” Allow time for a serendipitous summer!
5. What will you know?
Learning doesn’t stop when you walk out of the building on the last day of school. Summer can be a wonderful opportunity to gain new skills or study an area of interest in more depth. This might not involve textbooks and homework, nor do you have to earn credit for what you explore. But consider how your role as a learner–in more general terms–might grow in the summer. Maybe a course at a college is the right fit because you don’t have access to the subject during the year at your school. Or perhaps there is an online program that will help you develop a specific skill. Some students use the summer to conduct informational interviews and/or participate in job shadows to understand different fields directly. At the very least, think about how you might know yourself better after the summer and how your choices will support this.
6. Will it be meaningful and/or bring you joy?
Contrary to popular belief, there is not an “activity checklist” that admission offices consult. Reviewers are not weeding out applicants based on what they did or did not do with their summer. Should you volunteer this summer? Sure, but not to chase an acceptance. Serve your community because it is the right thing to do and could bring joy to you or others. Should you work a job, seek an internship, or attend a camp. Yes, but none will be the “golden ticket” to your dream school. If it is a meaningful experience for you then it will be meaningful to your application.
7. Will you have regrets?
Life is too short to look back wistfully. As you finalize your summer plans, ask yourself if your decision will force you to pass up an opportunity that you will later wish you had seized. If you have serious hesitation now, they will likely be more pronounced by the time school gets rolling again. Of course, most decisions involve compromise and you can’t do it all. However you spend your summer, don’t look back. Make the most of the experiences you choose.
Take ownership and be proactive. If you don’t, your summer plans may be made for you. In the end, there is no right or wrong way to spend your summer, but don’t delay or ruminate too long. It will be over before you know it, and you might be wishing you had been more intentional. Or, like my own children, you might find yourself assigned to those backyard projects that you have been trying to avoid. You are wise to exercise whatever choice you have for a summer well spent.