How to Spend Your Summer: A Guide for High School Students

How to Spend Your Summer: A Guide for High School Students

by Allison Hoffmann and Lauren Plaxa, MMA College Counselors

The wintry weather may suggest otherwise, but summer is within arm’s reach, and with it, a wealth of summer enrichment opportunities available for high school students. With such myriad options, many students setting their sights on college might wonder which, if any, summertime commitment would look best on their future college applications – and whether it wouldn’t be easier simply to bury their heads in the Avalon sand until August.

The best way for a college-bound high school student to spend a summer depends upon several factors: the student’s interests and future plans, their financial and family circumstances, and amount of time they’re able to commit to a summer endeavor. As with many facets of the college application process (perhaps frustratingly!), no “right answer” exists that will suit every student. There are, however, several important ideas to keep in mind when considering enrichment programs or summer jobs.

The “right” program doesn’t exist, but the right one for the student probably does.

The ideal summer enrichment program is one that a student is excited to attend, not necessarily the one that seems most impressive or selective (unless they are one in the same, in which case, all the better!). In applying to summer programs, students and families should consider their reasons for submitting an application. Is it only to gain a competitive edge at a particular top-tier college? Is it only to dazzle an admissions team at a highly selective college? Summer program participation may help fill out a resume, but in all likelihood, won’t give any significant advantage in admissions at top-ranked schools. 

Admissions teams at the most selective colleges in the United States seek to build a strong incoming class, one with a diverse array of talents, passions, and backgrounds. They admit students whose applications reveal a clear, committed, and enthusiastic interest in something –  humanitarian efforts, journalism, animal welfare, computer science, or theater arts – that has spanned for multiple years. Participation in a summer program, even if it’s hosted by the college reviewing the application, will have little, if any, bearing on admissions at the most competitive colleges. So unless they have a genuine interest in science, future poets and political scientists should not feel pressure to enroll in STEM-related enrichment programs in the hopes that they would “look good” on college applications, and future Ivy hopefuls should not plan to spend a summer at Yale unless they’re truly, genuinely interested in the content of the summer program.  Dedicating an entire summer to simply adding a line onto a resume, with no enjoyment or passion for the work, will sap the fun out of a summer and may potentially lead to burnout before a school year even begins.

Choose a program that fits your family’s financial and logistical needs.

Before applying to a summer program, be sure to carefully consider the direct cost as well as the indirect cost, which could include airfare, supplies, and medical insurance. Be sure to look into available financial aid options, which should be published on the program’s website. For example, Harvard University’s two-week pre-College session costs $5,500, with only a limited number of scholarships available. For most families in the United States, this cost is steep, if not prohibitive.

However, there are many excellent low-or-no cost opportunities available for bright and talented students of all backgrounds. Some colleges offer summer programs at no cost to families who qualify, or, perhaps better yet, may even provide a stipend to students who successfully complete them. The University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Princeton University, and The University of Southern California all offer summer programming for highly motivated high school students from families with demonstrated financial need. 

Consider engaging in independent research. 

Particularly at research universities, prospective students who initiate and execute an independent research project can stand out among their peers. Students who cannot make the necessary time or financial commitments to a summer program can still dive into research on an academic topic they are interested in, and develop a portfolio or paper that they can submit to colleges. MIT and Cornell both include space on their applications for students to submit portfolios or research projects related to their interests, even if they’re not related to their particular major. 

Don’t forget – paid summer work and family obligations will count on the Common App, too!

The truth is that not every student can spend weeks at a time away from home for personal and financial reasons, and there are other ways to demonstrate that a student has strong soft skills necessary for success in college. The Common Application, accepted by more than one thousand colleges and universities in all fifty states and twenty countries, includes space for students to list employment and family caregiving responsibilities among their extracurricular activities. Caring for an elderly relative, or working at a fast-paced restaurant, indicates to admissions teams that a student is trustworthy, hardworking, and able to work well with others – all important traits in a college-bound student. 

The learning experiences at summer programs extend beyond the classroom.

During my experience working as a Residential Assistant at a college summer program for high-achieving middle and high school students, I witnessed firsthand the transition many of these students took living away from home for the first time. While typically experiencing some homesickness or anxiety their first day or two, the majority of these students ended up adapting to and learning how to live independently. Although the days were very scheduled and structured, they still needed to manage their time so as to not be late to class or miss assignments. Students were offered the opportunity to experience communal dormitory living, eating at a college dining hall, and taking seminar-style college-level classes, all of which are valuable experiences to have before transitioning to college. Students also learned self-advocacy skills when having to ask for help when needed, oftentimes for the first time on their own. Due to the cost of these programs, many of these students were from a more affluent background. However, these students came from all over the country and the world and had diverse racial and religious backgrounds, allowing for a richness in perspective and cultural competency. 

One of our seniors, Jonae Thomas ‘24, participated in summer programs at both Syracuse University and the University of Chicago. During her time at Summer College at Syracuse, a summer program all high school students are eligible to apply for, Jonae had the opportunity to live on-campus and take a class in Broadcast & Media and Digital Journalism. In her course, she had the chance to create different media and tour the New School. She said some of her favorite parts were, “getting to meet different people, living in a college dorm, and getting insight into what it would be like to attend the school.” 

At the University of Chicago, Jonae was a part of the Woodson Summer Scholars, a program for students engaged in the Black/African American community. This competitive program allowed her to visit and stay on campus free of cost while taking mock classes daily and learning about the college admissions process. Jonae says that she appreciated getting to “meet minority leaders from across the country, learning about the city of Chicago and its history, and getting to travel without an adult for the first time.” Although Jonae decided UChicago was not for her, she noted many of the friends she made in the program were offered a special rolling Early Decision deadline, where they got an admission decision sooner if they were sure UChicago was the place for them. 

No matter how you decide to spend your summer, you can build important college-preparatory skills and values. 

Developing independence, self-advocacy skills, cultural awareness, and  knowledge of your strengths and talents is not exclusive to participation in a college summer program. Motivated and hardworking students can gain valuable experience and personal connections through full or part-time employment, volunteering and service projects, or internships.