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5 Summer College Prep Realities You Can’t Afford to Ignore

With all of the unavoidable summer distractions and widespread mixed messages, it’s sometimes hard to separate fiction from fact. How is anyone supposed to know what’s actually expected of a competitive student over the summer? You’re informed enough to realize that television (and the characters and personalities therein) is neither a wealth of reliable knowledge, nor does it produce an excess of shining role models. But that doesn’t make it any easier to gauge the gap between the right, the wrong and the horribly wrong. Case in point: Did no one on Gossip Girl study for the SATs ahead of time? Are we really expected to believe that lounging in the Hamptons all summer will get any of these folks into Dartmouth, regardless of their sensationalized connections? With universities reporting their lowest acceptance rates ever and some schools claiming single digits, wasting the summer away is not an option for anyone – fictional or otherwise. Without further ado, I present to you the insider’s top five summer checklist.

Summer Test Prep – Avoid Hardcore Studying
There is no one right way to prepare for the SAT I, II or ACT. But there is a wrong way. It’s called cramming.

Studying new vocabulary words, common math equations and basic literary themes does help, but only if done over a sustained period of time during the school year. Like training for a marathon, preparing for standardized tests only improves with time and effort. Intense summer test prep is not encouraged, because it tends to go through one ear and out the next. But don’t let your brain turn to mush either. Spend twenty minutes every night reviewing the subject the ACT or SAT will test you on, but don’t worry about meeting with standardized test tutors.

It’s always better to learn in context, so bring a book to the beach and get ahead start on your English class’s senior year reading list.

Do What You Love – But Do It in a College Level Class
Think about the academic subjects and extracurricular activities that interest you most and take them to the next level – the college level. Not only will taking college-level classes over the summer save you money in the long run, but the extra courses could help you place into an AP class in your senior year. If your school doesn’t offer an AP course, there might be the opportunity for you to take courses at your local community college. There are also summer programs on college campuses. Study abroad programs (many are designed for language and cultural immersion) may also fit this bill, although you ought to make sure any program you choose lasts at least six weeks to demonstrate your commitment and to really make an impact.

Work It – Paid or Otherwise
A summer job may help you confirm your career aspirations, discover new interests and gain firsthand experience. If you can explore your interests, it’s unlikely that you’ll dread going to work. And if you do dread it, you’re one step closer to knowing what you absolutely do not want to waste a semester studying in college.

But it’s not just about earning money – it’s about getting hands on experience. Often, the importance of an activity is not in the activity itself, but rather in the learning, growth, and meaning you take from the commitment.

Devote significant time to your summer job or volunteer position each week. You’ll make more of an impact when you commit at least twenty hours a week throughout the summer. Find a way to make the experience interesting for you and valuable for others. Don’t just show up. Your summer job or community service needn’t be particularly unusual or impressive sounding; very few can explore the moon’s surface with NASA. Take advantage of the opportunities available to you and be sure to use your particular talents to make the activity your own. Do this, and you’re sure to impress.

Do a Little Research Now and Save on Gas Money Later
Start your research early – as in, right now. Use guidebooks (e.g, Fiske Guide to Colleges) websites and local college fairs to find overlap schools. Once you’ve read a bit about a college, you can do more research about it online by taking virtual tours and reading about professors, course offerings, clubs and organizations, community service, internships and study abroad. After awhile, you will really start to get a feel for what it would be like to go there. Only after researching a college thoroughly should you then decide to visit the campus.

College Visits – Getting Inside
Nothing can replace the experience of visiting school campuses during the academic year. But let’s be realistic. Busy schedules, physical distances, and limited budgets can make it extremely challenging, if not impossible, to visit all of the schools on your list (we recommend 8-12) while they’re still in session. With that in mind, summer is a fine time to schedule some campus visits. Take advantage of your flexible schedule. When you visit, attend both the information session and the campus tour, allowing for two different points of view. Generally, an admissions representative leads the information session, while a current student leads the tour.

It is also a great idea to make contacts while you are on campus. Find out who will be reading applications from your area, and start an email dialogue with this individual. This is the perfect way to get thoughtful responses to your questions from the person who will eventually be evaluating your application.

Summer is a wonderful time to explore academic interests, develop talents, strengthen weaknesses and gain practical skills. Colleges are interested in seeing how you’ve spent your free time during high school – so it’s important to plan your summers. A key point to remember, as Dr. Kat says, is that “your summer experiences should be deep and impactful.” You cannot do everything. But you must do something.