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Summer Break: Not Just for Sleeping In

In my work as an instructor for the University of California – Irvine’s College Counseling Certificate Program and in my conversations with parents and students, people often ask me if students need to “do something” over the summer.  Of course, summer is a hiatus from academic rigor, where students should take the necessary time to rest, relax, and recharge. But summer is not just for sleeping in.

Summer is a valuable time for students to engage in activities that enhance their college application. While a student’s academic profile is almost always the most important factor in a student’s application, colleges want to admit academically qualified students who are interesting. Activities showcasing initiative, dedication, community contributions, and a readiness to tackle challenges can help students demonstrate that they are both intelligent and interesting.

Here’s how these elements can be woven into various summer activities:

Academic Enrichment with Initiative and Dedication – Enrolling in a pre-college program demonstrates a proactive approach to education. A student who independently researches and chooses a challenging course shows their interest in the field and their self-directed nature. Successfully completing the course with high marks can serve as solid proof of a student’s academic abilities and initiative to go beyond the high school curriculum. This is particularly helpful for students who have ups and downs on their high school transcript and want to demonstrate their academic readiness for college.

Volunteering – Contributing to the Community: Volunteering is not just about filling community service hours; it’s about making a tangible impact through dedicated service to causes that matter to a student. Taking the lead to set up a community tutoring program for low-income kids showcases a student’s initiative to address educational disparities. Through this, they contribute positively to their community and demonstrate their ability to identify needs and mobilize resources to meet them, underscoring the impact of their involvement.

Outdoor and Travel Programs – Tackling Challenge: Participating in outdoor adventures or travel programs illustrates a student’s readiness to step out of their comfort zone and embrace new challenges. These traits are highly attractive to colleges. While participating in an outdoor travel program, one of my students took on the unenviable job of clearing debris from a mound of mulch. Despite the task’s unpleasantness, she crafted a powerful essay on the teamwork lessons she learned from this experience and how she successfully applied these skills in her school environment.

Internships and Research Projects – Fusing of Initiative and Challenge: Seeking out internships or engaging in research projects requires initiative and often involves navigating challenges. For instance, reaching out to professionals in a field of interest for shadowing opportunities or proposing a research project to a mentor shows high self-motivation. Overcoming the challenges inherent in these activities, such as solving real-world problems or contributing new knowledge through research, positions students as a determined and capable individual.

Part-time Work – Demonstrating Impact and Accepting a Challenge: Holding a part-time job might seem ordinary, but it’s an excellent opportunity for students to demonstrate the impact of their efforts and their ability to handle challenges. One of my students took the initiative to improve customer service at a local cafe, leading to a noticeable increase in repeat customers. This showed the student’s impact on the business and their ability to identify areas for improvement and take action.

Incorporating the themes of initiative, dedication, impact, and challenge into a student’s summer activities does more than enhance their college application; it sets the foundation for a narrative about who they are as a person. Colleges want applicants who excel academically, engage deeply, solve problems, and contribute meaningfully to their communities. By thoughtfully choosing and engaging in summer activities that reflect these qualities, students create a compelling story that resonates with admissions officers, highlighting their readiness for the challenges of college.