IvyWise Resources

College Prep 101: How to Utilize Summer Experiences to Stand Out

By Victoria, IvyWise Master College Admissions Counselor

It’s nearing that time of year when school lets out for the summer and you can finally relax, kick back, and binge watch your favorite Netflix shows or just hang out by the pool all day, right? Well, not really. For high school students who aspire to go on to college, they should know that colleges pay attention to what you do over the summer. Many colleges even ask on their applications what you’ve done in past summers, so deciding what to do this summer is especially on the minds of rising junior and seniors.

So why do colleges and universities care about how you spend your summer? Just as colleges get to know you as a whole person through your activities, hobbies, and extracurriculars within the academic year, they also look at what you do over the summer to get to know you better. How you choose to spend your time outside of the school year provides insight into how you might utilize that time when you are a part of their community. After all, college students spend their summers doing internships, researching, working, taking classes, or spending time pursuing their hobbies or activities, so it makes sense that they would take into account what you’re currently doing during with your summer months.

How Should You Spend Your Summers?

How to spend your summer is not always an easy decision. There are many factors to consider – from the type of budget you are working with, to your interests, to how to balance being active with time to relax. What works for one student may not work for another, so try not to compare yourself to other students. Instead, focus on what your interests are, and how you can challenge yourself to push them further this summer. Focus your summer activities, rather than stringing together a bunch of one week experiences where you didn’t actually have enough time to learn anything. Just like with any other extracurricular, summer activities are about quality – not quantity. Colleges want to see that any activities you do over your summer are genuine, so it is more important to do something related to your interests rather than do a multitude of things that you think “look good” to a college. And you should still have time to enjoy your summer and get some vacation time in. It’s important to reset before another hectic year at school!

Summer Programs

Summer programs for high school students at colleges and universities are a popular option for many students who want to challenge themselves in an area of interest. It also gives students a chance to explore what it is like to be a student on a college campus. Programs differ between institutions, running anywhere from one week to eight weeks, some granting credit and others being non-credit bearing. At IvyWise, we always advise students to seek out summer programs that are at least four weeks in length, as that gives students plenty of time to learn and make an impact. Also, colleges see these summer learning experiences as a students challenging themselves academically and they generally consider classes for credit to be more challenging than non-credit bearing courses, something you may want to consider.

One downside to these programs is that they are typically quite expensive, so if budget is a concern, a student might want to pursue a different option. These programs often have early application deadlines, with some stretching into the end of May, so it’s important to get started on your application early if you plan to spend your summer in one of these programs. It is also important to note that your acceptance and attendance at a particular school’s summer program does not necessarily mean you have a better chance of getting into that particular college.

Internships or Research

Another option could be to find an internship or research opportunity. This requires a little more legwork and some networking, depending on what your area of interest. But with a little research, it is possible to find these opportunities. I always work with my students to figure out what they like to do, and then we talk about who they can reach out to in order to find opportunities. Sometimes it’s as simple as cold calling or emailing people in the business or academic area you are interested in, introducing yourself and seeing if they might have a spot for you to intern with them this summer. Again, it’s important to find an internship or research opportunity that’s at least four weeks long – one or two weeks is not enough time to really make an impact.

Be Innovative

Another way to really stand out is to do something creative or innovative with your summer. If you’re an artist, showcase your art in some major way over the summer. If you’re interested in business, start your own enterprise targeting another area of interest. You can gather your peers to tackle a large community issue, or combine your passion (whatever it is) with true community service or social justice. Make an impact in your community in a real and genuine way. Colleges are looking for students who will be active in the school’s community, so I always tell students to figure out something they love to do and then dream up something fun to do with it in their broader community.

College Prep

Last but not least, for those rising seniors, don’t forget to carve out time to start preparing for college applications. The summer is a great time to brainstorm essay topics and start writing. Spend some time journaling leading up to the summer and then do timed free-writing over the summer, making sure to spend time writing without judging what you’ve written. Look for themes in what you chose to write about when you weren’t stressed out by the idea of writing the college essay. There is no one right topic for an essay, and sometimes the right essay for a student is a topic that, at first, might have seemed like an odd choice. Let yourself be unique! Remember, the beginning of the school year is always a busy time, so the sooner you can begin the essays, the stronger you can make them. Most importantly, you can avoid the dreaded beast – procrastination – who always tends to rear his head during the college application process. Colleges gain a lot of insight about who you are and how you think about the world in your essays, so you want to make sure you get your awesome personality on paper, something that takes quite a bit of time.

What NOT to Do This Summer

It’s tempting to use the summer for other activities you might not have had the chance to get to during the school year. However, the majority of your summer experience should be about learning and making an impact, not playing catch up. Don’t spend your summer solely focusing on other activities like test prep. It’s ok to work on these tasks in between your regular summer activities, but don’t commit your summer solely to them. Also avoid other activities like visiting college campuses over the summer. At IvyWise, we advise against this as school is not in session and you won’t be able to get a real feel for the campus atmosphere since most students won’t be there.

Remember, how you spend your summer can have a huge impact on your college admissions experience. Be thoughtful, focused, and purposeful in how you spend your time. At IvyWise, we help students make the most of their opportunities when it comes to college prep — including summer planning! Contact us today to see how we can get the most out of your summers.


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