IvyWise Resources

How to Plan a Productive Summer Break

High school student reading outside over summer break

Summer will be here before you know it, and with time off of school, students should pursue activities and programs that align with their interests instead of coasting through their school break. A productive summer break can help students stand out in the admissions process — while also helping them to explore their interests and gain a better understanding of what they want to do with their college education.

The key to a productive summer break is to plan ahead! While June may seem pretty far off, many summer programs are already filling up with early March and April deadlines. Students also need time to investigate different options and determine what summer activities seem most exciting and rewarding.

How Do Summer Activities Affect College Applications?

For many colleges, it’s not just about grades and test scores. Most use a holistic approach to evaluating applicants, meaning the student’s entire profile is considered beyond just the numbers. Colleges will look at “soft factors” like essays, extracurricular involvement, community service — and summer activities.

As colleges evaluate student activities and interests, they’ll want to know how students spent their two or three months of free time during the summer. Just because the school year ends, doesn’t mean that meaningful participation in activities and interests should cease as well.

Free time in the summer gives students even more opportunities to explore their interests and deepen their involvement and impact. This helps students become specialists in their areas of interest — something that selective colleges are looking for when making admissions decisions.

Using the summer months to delve into an area of interest — rather than playing video games or relaxing by the pool — demonstrates maturity and a commitment to excelling in that field. For applicants to be competitive in the admissions process, they need to spend their summers in a productive and meaningful way. While a lack of summer activities won’t send a candidate directly to the “no” pile, it certainly won’t work in their favor.

Planning a Productive Summer

Whether you plan on interning, taking a summer course, or launching your own independent project, research and planning are essential. Keep reading to learn more about summer college prep and how to get the ball rolling on this important component of the college admissions journey.

Step 1: Start Your Research

Forget about choosing an activity based on what your friends are doing or what you did last year. Summer break is an exciting opportunity for students to expand their horizons and step outside of their comfort zones, so don’t be afraid to get creative. Consider looking into academic programs that relate to your favorite classes, specialized programs that will empower you to expand your skillset, and volunteer opportunities that relate to causes you truly care about. Some students may research activities that take place at colleges they are interested in so they can get a sense of campus life. Others may opt to stay closer to home and make an impact on their local community.

Step 2: Weigh Pros and Cons

There is no one-size-fits-all summer activity that will fit the needs of every student. Instead, it’s important to reflect on your long-term goals and preferences and pinpoint the opportunities that best align with your personal circumstances. If you’re torn between several different options, making a list of pros and cons surrounding each choice can help ease the decision process. Write down a few bullet points on what excites you about each opportunity as well as what you are hesitant about. The activity ideas that excite you the most are likely the options that you should most seriously consider.

Step 3: Consider Logistics

Dates, times, and details matter! Choose summer activities that align with your school’s break schedule and choices that can easily become a reality. Some summer programs may have specific application requirements; if this is the case for you, plan ahead so that you can complete summer program applications on time, and don’t be afraid to reach out with questions. If you are interested in traveling to a new location, start to research transportation options to gain a sense of what is involved and how you will be able to make it work.

Step 4: Make It a Reality

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of potential summer activities, work to make your top choice a reality. If you are interested in an academic program, start your application process earlier to provide ample time for editing. Some summer activities may require letters of recommendation from a teacher or supervisor, so reach out when needed. Students who opt to pursue options related to an extracurricular activity may need to include a portfolio of their work, a highlight reel, or a video clip.

Step 5: Start Off on the Right Foot

Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for your upcoming activities. At least a month prior to the start of summer, think about what you’ll need to do to feel as prepared as possible on your first day. This might mean packing for a month of travel, finishing up required reading, or stocking up on supplies for a trip.

15 Ideas on What to Do During Summer Break

You may be thinking that summertime is perfect for relaxing in the sun, hanging out with friends, and taking a break from school, but when it comes to college admissions, summer vacation is also a crucial time for planning and working on application materials. Furthermore, summertime is an excellent opportunity to explore personal interests that can be emphasized in college applications.

Here are some of IvyWise’s suggestions for spending your summer vacation in a wise, productive, and fun way with some tips on how to get started!

Do Some Soul Searching

Before you start applying to dozens of summer programs on college campuses, take some time to think about what you want out of your summer experience. Is it an immersive program with students interested in the same subjects? Or are you more independent and want to create your own adventure? Just like when building a balanced college list, it’s important to consider how good of a fit a summer program or activity is for you and if you think you’ll be challenged academically. Also, think about what excites you!

If sitting through more classes in the summer sounds boring, then an internship or independent project may be the way to go. Or, if taking some extra courses gets you excited, explore some summer programs at schools of interest that combine classroom learning with hands-on projects and collaboration with peers. There are endless possibilities, so take a minute to reflect on what you want your summer to look like.

Summer College for High School Students

Many colleges and universities across the country offer summer programs for high school students. These intensive academic programs allow high school students to take college-level courses, experience living on campus, meet students with the same interests from around the country, and often earn college credit.

Specialty programs in the performing arts, writing projects, and athletics can also serve as valuable ways to spend summer vacation for dedicated students, and you can commemorate your experience by blogging or keeping a journal during your time in the program. Focus on programs that are at least four weeks to demonstrate your depth of interest.

To find a program, meet with your school or independent counselor for a brainstorming session. Talk about your academic interests and which programs may best supplement what you’re already involved in or learning about in school. IvyWise also offers comprehensive research services to help students and families find the best-fit summer programs that have the most impact on an applicant’s profile by conducting in-depth research of offerings that match individual student interests.

Check Out Some Podcasts and Movies Related to Your Interests

One fun way to stay motivated over the summer break is to check out some materials that relate to your interests that you may not have had a chance to explore during the school year. Find some new podcasts to listen to while traveling for a summer trip or use some of your downtime to check out some documentaries or movies on Netflix that align with your core interests. For example, students who have a passion for cooking could watch Chef’s Table, Ugly Delicious, or any of the other varieties of cooking documentaries on the streaming service. What’s better, once you watch one, Netflix will recommend more programming that is similar — giving you plenty of options!

Research, Research, Research

Once you have an idea of the entire summer planning path you want to go down, do your homework! If a formal summer program interests you, take time to research all options open to high school students, including costs, financial aid if needed, program structure, timeline, deadlines, and more. Don’t just look at only the “name brand” schools for on-campus summer programs. See what other options may be available closer to you or at a school you haven’t considered before.

The key here is to find a good-fit program — not just a program at a big-name school. If an internship with some hands-on experience sounds more appealing, research local companies or organizations in your fields of interest and see if they have internship programs or open positions for high school students. Don’t be afraid to reach out to places you’re interested in to see what opportunities they have. If an independent project is more your style — like creating a new local hiking trail or creating your own business, do some research to gain inspiration from others and come up with a game plan.

Prioritize Programs or Internships With Hard Deadlines

So you’ve done your research and you’ve found a few opportunities that are a good fit for you and your lofty goals. Now’s the time to apply! Since many deadlines can be as early as March or April for a June or July program, it’s important to prioritize those summer experiences with hard due dates. Start by applying to programs with the earliest deadlines, followed by those with later deadlines. Then, after all, your apps are in, take some time to assess alternative options should you not gain acceptance to the programs or internships to which you applied.

Internships are an excellent way to gain hands-on experience in a field you may want to pursue in college. Opportunities at labs and local colleges can give high school students research experience that will help them identify academic interests and stand out in college applications. Whether a student is interested in medicine or journalism, reaching out to an organization for an internship opportunity can open doors in many professional industries.

To do this, finalize your resume and write a cover letter expressing your interest in that field as well as your achievable goals, strengths, and availability so that organizations can see how serious and dedicated you are from the moment you reach out. Have a teacher, counselor, or trusted contact in the field review your application before you submit it to give you valuable feedback!

Make Connections

Maybe you’re not applying to a summer program or internship with a hard deadline. Instead, you’re looking for a project or work experience that isn’t quite defined yet. This is when it’s important to make connections. Maybe your parents have some friends who work in a field that interests you who can point you in the right direction in order to find a summer job or internship. Or, if you’ve worked with a teacher previously on a project and want to do your own independent research this summer, reach out see if they can help you secure lab space or mentorship. Fostering these relationships can help you find new opportunities that you may not have considered before.

Explore Alternatives

Don’t be afraid to have a backup plan! Maybe the summer programs you applied to were highly selective and you didn’t get in. Or your internship at a local organization fell through. When planning your productive summer, have a plan B! This can be as simple as extending your current extracurriculars, like volunteering at a local youth organization teaching art classes or finding new ways to make an impact in your community through your interests.

Maybe you can start a blog about your interest in fashion and design or create a YouTube channel that chronicles your journey to building a new robot for competition in the fall. Don’t be afraid to get creative! Colleges just want to see that students are staying engaged in the summer and continuing to explore their interests in meaningful ways.

Standardized Test Prep

If your summer vacation begins in May, and you are preparing for June SAT or ACT dates, make sure you use your free time during the early summer season to take practice exams, meet with a tutor, and stay mentally prepared for testing. The best way to maximize your ACT and SAT scores is with test prep, and now is the time to get started with a tutor for help with the preparation and developing a test-taking strategy.

If you’re planning on taking a standardized test in September or October, IvyWise recommends getting a head start the month before school starts so that students can brush up on material and start the semester strong.

Formulate a study plan, set summer goals, and commit time to study every week. If you plan on taking your standardized tests in the fall, summer vacation is a great time to become familiar with the format, types of questions, and timing of these tests. You may wish to meet with a tutor to formulate a strategic plan for earning your goal score. But remember, you won’t put test preparation on your activity list for your college applications, so hopefully you will also engage deeply in one of your core interests during the summer.

Community Service

Use your summer vacation to spend more time on a meaningful community service project to which you may not have the time to sustain consistent commitment during the school year. Colleges and universities look favorably on applicants who have committed their time to one organization over a long period of time, and who have helped that organization grow, so expand your commitment and deepen your involvement during summer vacation.

Brainstorm with a parent, counselor, or service group coordinator about how you can make an impact over the summer. If you have raised money and supplies for schools abroad, deliver those resources in person and volunteer in the local community. If you help build houses for Habitat for Humanity once a week during the school year, volunteer every day during the summer, and initiate community outreach projects to raise more funds. By committing your summer to community service, you can help an organization close to your heart and use your summer wisely.

Register for Open Online Courses

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have made a splash in the world of higher education, and some are even being recommended to carry college course credit. Brands like Coursera, edX, and Academic Earth offer free or low-fee courses on topics such as biology, business, technology, law, history, and physics. Lectures, quizzes, and tests are available online for students to complete at their own pace.

Look for online courses or MOOCs that you can take at your own pace in between other activities, too. Sample courses on edX and Coursera include a Coding Bootcamp, Philosophy and Critical Thinking, and Medical Neuroscience, just to name a few.

Visit MOOC sites, like the ones listed above, and browse their course offerings. Write down a few that interest you, and create a summer schedule for yourself to take them over the summer. Ask teachers, counselors, or an IvyWise expert for their advice on which courses and subject matter may be the best for you to pursue given your core interests.

At the end of the day, a rewarding summer experience is one that students enjoy while also learning something new. Students don’t have to participate in prestigious summer programs to stand out or deepen their knowledge on a subject, but it is important to keep all options open by planning well in advance.

Take College-Level Courses

You don’t have to have a job or internship during the summer to learn more about a subject of interest or be productive. One way to delve deeper into your interests is to learn something new about them through online or summer courses. Check with local universities or community colleges to see if they have any summer classes in a topic of interest, like business, communications, art, or some other field.

Catch Up on Outside Reading

Reading books, magazines, blogs, and other publications related to an area of interest is one of the best ways to learn more about the things you’re passionate about and whether or not they’re a good fit for you. Prioritize summer reading and expand your understanding of topics that pique your interest or that you want to study in the future. Not only will this make you an expert in certain specialties, but it will also come in handy when filling out your college applications, as many colleges will ask what you are reading outside of the classroom.

Do Something Out of Your Comfort Zone

For a lot of students, travel and/or volunteering abroad can be a great way to step out of your comfort zone and enhance or challenge your worldview. If you are traveling with your family this summer, consider taking a few days during your volunteer trip. You can do so at a charity or school; any place that could use an extra set of hands. Observe the people and customs around you and absorb the things that stand out. Do your best to connect with the people and your purpose there.

If you have a good experience, you should continue your commitment to the work you do by raising money for the cause you’ve worked towards once you return home. The more you do, the better! Should you choose to write your personal statement about your experience, be sure to offer plenty of reflection.

Summer Jobs

In addition to earning some extra income, jobs can help students build valuable interpersonal skills. Pretty much any position can be a valuable learning experience if students approach it with an open mind and an eagerness to succeed. For example, working as a waiter can help students learn how to multi-task, problem-solve and remain professional throughout difficult situations. All of these skills can serve as building blocks for future internships and careers and summer can be the perfect time to work on this foundation.

Launch Your Own Project

If you’re ambitious, motivated, and ready to get a little creative, consider launching your own independent project this summer. Whether you create a blog, start your own business, or film a video series, conducting an independent project can be an excellent way to develop your entrepreneurial skills. If you’re interested in pursuing your own project, it’s important to create a plan of action and hold yourself accountable.

Personal projects are most impactful when you are consistent, committed, and pour your energy into learning from your experience. Create a schedule for yourself and outline which tasks you wish to accomplish when you will work on them, and what deliverables you would like to have ready by a set date. Students who are looking to make the most of an independent project might choose to work with a mentor who can guide them and offer valuable feedback throughout their journey.

What to Do the Summer Before College

If you are graduating this spring, your summer plans will look a little bit different. While you can, and should, pursue activities related to your interests early in the summer, it’s important that you prepare for your transition to college. Here are some things you should consider:

Sign Up for Orientation

Most colleges will require new students to attend a summer orientation session, where incoming freshmen will get to know the campus, meet other students, and sign up for courses. As soon as it’s available, sign up for orientation. Since many freshmen students will have to take the same general education courses, you’ll want to try to get in as early as possible before those classes fill up. This is where securing an earlier orientation spot can be key. Also, many orientations have a parent portion, so make sure a parent or guardian signs up as well!

Create a Packing List

Move-in day may still be a couple of months away, but there’s a lot that you’ll need to make a dorm room feel more like home. Sit down and create a list of dorm room essentials, like power strips, chargers, sheets, etc., and go through what you already have to see what you’ll need to buy. Many times, it’s wise to get smaller items like towels, sheets, and picture frames ahead of time and pack them up to take with you on move-in day. Larger items, like microwaves, mini-fridges, and other furniture might be best to buy when you arrive and have a better idea of the size of the space.

Also, coordinate with your roommate or suitemates to see who might be able to bring communal items, like fridges, TVs, and other commonly shared electronics or appliances. This can cut down costs and keep you from bringing duplicate items.

Get To Know Your Roommate

Speaking of coordinating with roommates or suitemates, this is the time to get to know them better! Since you’ll be sharing close quarters, you’ll want to get to know your roommate, his or her habits, pet peeves, interests, and more. Exchange phone numbers, email addresses, and even follow each other on social media. Make an effort to speak at least once a week or so, just to get to know each other and plan for move-in day. This way, come fall semester, you’ll feel like you’re moving in with a friend rather than a stranger.

Spend Time With Family and Friends

The summer before college is an exciting time, but it can go by fast. Make plans throughout the summer to spend quality time with family and friends. After all, it might be months before you see them again!

Continue Outside Reading

For some students, outside reading is always a necessary evil that they’re happy to give up once they get to college. Don’t! Outside summer reading is a great way to continue to develop your interests and keep your mind sharp. It’s also a way to connect with other classmates who might be reading similar material. This summer is the perfect time to pick up some books you may not have had time for during the school year.

Set a Budget

For many students, freshman year of college is the first time they’ll be away from home and managing their own finances. Take some time this summer to sit down with your parents and set a budget for the school year, accounting for the cost of books, school supplies, food, clothes, entertainment, and anything else you might spend money on. If your parents are helping with an allowance, decide if it’s weekly, monthly, or per semester.

If you’re paying for everything yourself, whether through savings or a part-time job, make an effort to guess your monthly income and adjust your budget accordingly. This will save you the stress of running out of money too soon during your first year.

Look For On or Off-Campus Jobs

Part of setting a budget is knowing where your spending money is coming from. If you plan to have an on- or off-campus job during the school year, spend the summer applying for opportunities that you think will fit your schedule. The first semester of college can be a little overwhelming for some students, so make sure you have some flexibility and don’t overextend yourself. After orientation you should have a good idea of your class schedule, so work around that when deciding how many hours per week you can commit to a job, taking into account time for homework, too.

Get To Know Your College Town

Chances are you already know a lot about your campus and college town or city through the campus visits and research you did when developing your balanced college list. However, the town can look a lot different when seen through the eyes of a new student. When you’re on campus for orientation, take some time to explore the surrounding town and area again. Talk to other incoming freshmen about what they most look forward to doing outside of class. This is a perfect opportunity to explore some areas you may have missed before, or revisit some of your favorite spots.

What Are the Benefits of Taking Summer Classes?

After the last papers are handed in and finals week is over, many students look forward to a summer of work, internships, and vacation. Others, however, choose to stick around campus and take summer courses.

While high school students fear summer classes, those in college find summer sessions to be a valuable opportunity to get ahead. Before you enroll, consider both the benefits and disadvantages of summer courses so you can get the most out of your summer.

#1 Put Students on the Fast Track

Taking summer courses allows students to earn credits “off-season,” which may allow them to graduate a semester (or year) early, saving money on tuition. These credits can also lighten a student’s course load during the fall and springs semesters, allowing them to better focus on challenging classes the following year. Students can use summer sessions to fulfill requirements they’re less than enthusiastic about or take a prerequisite course so that they can dive into a subject at a higher level come the fall. It may be easier for students to get into popular courses during the summer, a perfect time to dabble in subjects of personal interest or introductory classes for possible majors.

#2 Summer Sessions May Provide an Optimal Learning Environment

Some students may find that they learn better in summer courses. Class sizes tend to be smaller, guaranteeing more personal attention and interaction with the professor and other students. Because summer courses generally start within a few weeks of the end of the spring semester, students are able to stay in the studying frame of mind and may have an easier transition back to college in the fall. It is generally advised that students only take 1-2 summer courses at a time, as they are much faster and meet more frequently than typical college classes. Additionally, the summer often promotes a more informal, relaxed environment for students that may be preferable to the rigorous tensions of the rest of the year.

Are Summer Courses Right for Everyone?

Summer classes tend to be more expensive than courses taken during traditional semesters because there are fewer students but similar overhead costs. Students should also be aware that many financial aid packages do not cover summer classes. As mentioned previously, summer courses generally move faster than other classes because there is less time to cover the same amount of material.

Most summer courses meet between 3-5 days a week for several hours over 3-6 weeks. This can limit a student’s ability to get a job or internship during the summer, an ideal time to make money and build resumes, and can keep a student from enjoying a well-deserved vacation.

The summer provides a great opportunity for students to get ahead in their coursework with better focus and increased attention from their professors. It is important to recognize that summer classes are not for everyone, and their value is largely determined by personal preference and learning style.

If you do decide to enroll in summer courses, be sure to also include the classes you’ll be taking in your fall schedule so that if you are unable to complete your summer coursework you don’t lose your spot in that class. If you enroll in summer classes at a local university or community college, first get approval from the university you attend to ensure that credits and grades will transfer.

Some universities only accept credits from summer classes; in this case, it’s important to note that performance in summer courses will not affect your GPA. Once you have clearance from your dean regarding credit transfers and have created a feasible schedule, you’re ready to take on summer classes.

13 Great Apps High School Students Should Be Using This Summer

By being proactive and using technology to their advantage, students can stave off the summer brain drain and stay productive this summer. From brain training and critical thinking to language skills and creative writing, here are six free apps that all high school students should be using this summer:


Goodreads allows users to get personal recommendations on new books based on works they have already read, what their friends are reading, or a topic they might be interested in. This is a great way for students to expand their outside reading lists and discover new authors.


Students will need a way to organize their thoughts as they brainstorm essay topics this summer. Evernote is a great way to write, record, save, and organize notes and documents all in one app. Have a moment of brilliance on the go? Whip out your phone, open Evernote, and let the creative juices flow.

Elevate – Brain Training

Beautifully designed and scientifically based, Elevate is a hot new brain-training app that gives users daily challenges to exercise their brains. Not only will students enjoy the challenges, but they’ll also improve comprehension and writing skills.


Looking to improve foreign language skills over the summer? Offering courses in Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese (with many other languages still in development!), Duolingo is the super user-friendly answer to preventing students from losing basic grammar and language skills over the summer months.

Countdown – Event Reminder

Ditch the normal phone calendar and use Countdown – Event Reminder to keep track of important dates. From ACT and SAT dates, to the first day of school and admissions deadlines, this app helps students keep it all organized and lets them know exactly how many days they have left until those important dates. This is a great tool to help students develop useful timelines and prep plans; not to mention its sleek design and customization tools help students make it their own.

WWF Together

WWF Together is an Apple Design Award-winning app that allows users to experience beautiful, endangered animals from their iPads. The app is composed of interactive stories, animal origami, a 3-D interactive globe, and conservation news.

Math Ninja

Math Ninja requires students to defend their treehouse by quickly solving simple math problems. The higher the levels, the more challenging the math problems!

Art Authority

Art Authority is an amazing app that allows users to view thousands of world-class paintings and sculptures. The app features high-resolution image rendering and descriptive captions. No doubt about it, this is the ultimate app for art history enthusiasts—its services have even been employed by the art history department of Seton Hill University!


TED Talks are fabulous—if you’re unfamiliar with them, just know that they’re brief talks led by the world’s best and brightest education leaders, doctors, business people, musicians, and more. The TED app not only gives users access to thousands of TED Talks but also lets users create playlists that can be shared with friends and family. Spread the knowledge!

Cell and Cell Structure

Science enthusiasts will be happy to download the Cell ad Cell Structure app, which takes users on a journey through the basics of cell structure with the help of beautiful 2-D and 3-D graphics. The app itself has three modes: All About Cells, Interactive Activities, and Videos. The quizzes, models, and flashcards provided by Cell and Cell Structure are so effective that Apple has listed it among other “New and Noteworthy” apps.

DragonBox Algebra 12+

Tired of cramming for the math section of the SAT? DragonBox is an adorably animated game app that transforms learning algebra into some time for fun. Brush up on your basic algebra skills by completing puzzles developed by Jean-Baptiste Huynh, a math teacher, and Dr. Patrick Marchal, a cognitive scientist. Learn from a team who believes that “learning is not only about rules. It is about discovering what works, and what doesn’t.”


Brush up on your vocabulary this summer with Quizzitive. This app from Merriam-Webster is free and provides players with ten difficulty levels. Once you master each of the games found within the levels, you can compare your scores with those of other players. Let the competition begin!

At IvyWise, we work with students to identify summer experiences that will not only help them learn more about their interests but also keep them sharp and engaged during the break to avoid languishing this summer. For more information on guidance on selecting and applying to summer programs, learn more about our college counseling services.

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