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Summer is the time of the year when you have no academic responsibilities: no classes to attend, no tests to study for, and no homework to complete every night. But you do have to spend your time doing something.

Summer activities are the perfect opportunity to explore your interests, develop skills, or make an impact in your community. You have a lot of options to choose from — attend a merit-based program, get a job, pursue an internship in a field of interest, take a class, travel, volunteer… the possibilities are endless. What you choose to do with your freedom speaks volumes about who you are and what you are passionate about.

Your challenge is to decide how you want to spend your free time. With so many opportunities available—all with vastly different requirements, costs, and outcomes—how do you know what summer activities are right for you?

Planning your summer begins with identifying your interests and passions and researching opportunities that would best align with them. Perhaps most importantly, keep in mind that what you choose to do with your summer will tell a college about your passions and interests, so being strategic and planning ahead is essential.

Our comprehensive guide to summer activities will help you to navigate the process of intentionally planning your summer so that you spend your time in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to you.

5 Key Tips to Guide Your Summer Planning

Before you dive into the list of options you have to spend your high school summers, here are 5 key tips to guide your selection:

✓    Consider opportunities for your grade level

Opportunities available to you and the value of certain opportunities will vary based on what year of high school you are in. For instance, very few merit-based programs are open to rising freshmen and sophomore students, and a pre-college program can be a great way to spend your summer during those years. Alternatively, juniors and seniors will not generally benefit from pre-college programs and should instead pursue merit-based programs, internships, and work experiences.

✓   Maximize your opportunities

You can do more than one summer program or activity each summer, as long as their dates do not conflict and you can complete all of your responsibilities in a timely manner for each! For example, many rising juniors opt to both intern part-time and study for the SAT or ACT, or take a college course and work a part-time job!

✓   Mix up your summer activities

Avoid doing the same activity for multiple summers, and if you choose to do the same activity or type of activity, be sure that there is a clear differentiating factor from your prior experience. For example, if you have interned with a particular company and would like to work with them again, request an opportunity that would allow you to work in another department or at another level of the company.

✓   Do your research

If you are an athlete intending to go through the recruitment process, be sure to familiarize yourself with the opportunities and camps available to you—these are different for every sport but can be a great way to play in front of the coaches and assistants who recruit athletes.

✓   Have a backup plan

Make sure to apply to multiple opportunities and give yourself back up options, especially if you are applying to those merit-based programs with very competitive admissions rates.

Jobs & Internships

While you may think that colleges would prefer that students devote their summers to academic endeavors, this is not necessarily the case!

Colleges like to see students take initiative and demonstrate that they have a strong work ethic. Further, working a summer job or interning can help you to foster skills such as leadership, communication, and time management that you will take with you into college and beyond.

Jobs

Both working an hourly job and interning in a professional environment adjacent to your interests are valuable experiences in their own ways!

Working an hourly job will demonstrate responsibility and a strong work ethic. For example, scooping ice cream will help you develop customer service skills, babysitting will require that you are responsible for another individual (or more!) and waiting tables will help you develop time management and interpersonal skills.

As you enter the workforce for the first time, jobs like these will help you cultivate valuable skills such as financial literacy, leadership abilities, and interpersonal skills that you will carry throughout your life! Further, earning and stewarding your own money shows colleges that you are financially responsible, a skill that will serve you well as you begin your life as an independent adult. The University of California application, for example, asks students to explain how they intend to spend their earnings from their jobs:

“Please tell us how you’ve used your earnings from all of the jobs you’ve listed. This information will NOT be used to determine financial aid — rather, it gives us more context about you and your experiences. How have you used or will you use your earnings?”

Practicing financial responsibility now will give you something to share on your college applications!

Internships

Interning can be a great way to explore your interests and learn more about a career path that you are considering. While most internships are unpaid or offer a small stipend, internships can provide you with the valuable opportunity to experience the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities in your profession of interest. Through an internship, you might confirm your interest in the medical field and decide to pursue a pre-med degree for undergrad. Or, you might discover that the daily tasks of a marine biologist do not consist of swimming with dolphins and decide that the field is not right for you. Either way, you will gain valuable knowledge about yourself and hone your skills and professional goals.

How to find a Job or Internship as a High School Student

Finding a job or internship as a teenager can be challenging—many workplaces have very specific qualifications, and typically look for college students or graduates. However, don’t let this deter you—we encourage students to research internships and apply even when they don’t meet the minimum requirements, as there’s no downside to putting in an application. If you are interested in a position that isn’t intended for a high schooler, reach out to the hiring manager and see if they would be willing to take you on as an intern or consider taking you on in a training capacity. Ultimately, there is no harm in reaching out and learning how to market yourself as an applicant is a valuable skill that you will undoubtedly use throughout your professional career.

As you consider where to apply, the best place to start is within your network—do you have ties to someone in your local community or through a family member or friend who would recommend you for a position? A personal connection goes a long way to separate you from other applicants and underscore your qualifications to a potential employer. You can also look in your local community for opportunities—many coffee shops and community centers have corkboards advertising open positions!

If you are still left wondering where to look, LinkedIn is a great resource to get a better sense of what’s out there! If you are looking for opportunities in the technology sector, AngelList is a user-friendly site that can help you to connect with startups and other businesses looking for interns. Idealist is also a great search engine that includes options for specifying issue area, location, and internship/part-time job preference.

Volunteering & Travel

Volunteering can also be a fantastic way to show colleges what you care about and how you contribute to the community around you. Colleges want to know what you plan to do on their campus in the hours you’re outside of the classroom, and volunteering can demonstrate to them that you will give back and enrich their campus community.

When considering potential volunteer opportunities, first consider nonprofits and organizations whose work overlaps with your interests and passions. Are you a musician or artist? Consider volunteering with a nonprofit that creates public art installations or provides music education to kids. Do you enjoy being outdoors? Perhaps there is a community garden association or beach cleanup group that you can volunteer with. If you have volunteered throughout the school year, devoting more time to an organization you are already involved in can show consistency and dedication.

You can also check out sites such as GivePulse and VolunteerMatch to find an organization that aligns with your passions!

As you plan to engage in volunteer work, be mindful of the manner of your service and the organization through which you are volunteering. Colleges do not look favorably on “voluntouring”—traveling to a non-Western country and engaging in white saviorism packaged as charity. Make sure that you do your research about any organization you choose to volunteer with, paying attention to the cultural and social context of where and how you would be conducting volunteer work.

College Visits

As you plan your summer travels, consider incorporating college visits into your itinerary, as summer gives you the time and freedom to travel to even the most distant schools on your list. By visiting campus, you will be able to get a better understanding of the university’s location, its campus culture, and how you might fit on campus and within the area. If you are an underclassman, it is important to visit a few colleges in order to compare and contrast schools and to get a better sense of what college campuses are like! If you are a rising junior or senior, this is a particularly critical time to visit colleges before the rigor and busyness of your upperclassman schedules kick in.

Congressional Award

If you are applying for the Congressional Award, the summer is a great time to earn your hours! Whether you need more hours in public service, physical fitness, or personal development, you can devote your free time during the summer months to logging hours in the categories that are most challenging for you to log during the year.

Summer is also a great time to complete the Expedition or Exploration. This component of the award is a one-time experience ranging from one to five days (depending on the level of award), and you are responsible for planning it for yourself. This is an opportunity to develop self-reliance, tenacity, and motivation. The process of choosing and planning the experience is intended to help you take charge of your exploration. Because of this, you cannot complete the experience through an organization or institution that has designed a camp, workshop, or program for registrants—the Expedition or Exploration is unique to you and should be reflective of your specific interests and passions. The free time available to you during the summer makes this season the perfect time to embark on your adventure—particularly if you plan to complete a longer trip.

Dual Enroll in a Local College Class

If you want to increase your engagement with a topic while also earning college credit, consider dual enrolling in your local community college or another nearby higher education institution. Community colleges often offer courses at a low cost, and many colleges will allow you to transfer the credits you earned once you enroll in your freshman year! The experience can also provide you with a helpful window into college academics and allow you to explore a more specialized topic that your high school course catalog does not offer.

Attend a Summer Program

While you may think that colleges would prefer that students devote their summers to academic endeavors, this is not necessarily the case!

Colleges like to see students take initiative and demonstrate that they have a strong work ethic. Further, working a summer job or interning can help you to foster skills such as leadership, communication, and time management that you will take with you into college and beyond.

Merit-Based Programs

If you want to demonstrate the caliber of your academic skills to colleges, merit-based programs are an ideal way to enrich your intellectual abilities and exhibit your ability to rise to the demands of collegiate-level academics. Merit-based programs typically require thorough applications, have a competitive selection process, and may cost tuition (which could be covered by scholarships), be tuition-free, or pay students a stipend. These programs are offered in a variety of disciplines—whether business or STEM or the humanities—and they are particularly helpful for high school juniors and seniors to explore a subject of interest in more depth.

Merit-based programs that are most beneficial to attend require an extensive application (Essays/Assignments/Videos, Transcripts, Rec Letter) and are often quite competitive—some programs will indicate their acceptance rates on their websites!

Some well-regarded merit-based programs to consider include:

Yale Young Global Scholars

  • Interest areas: Innovations in Science & Technology, Literature, Philosophy and Culture, Politics, Law & Economics, and Solving Global Challenges
  • Open to: 11th & 12th

LaunchX

  • Interest areas: Business, Entrepreneurship
  • Open to: 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

New York Times Summer Academy

  • Interest areas: Writing, Journalism, Video Production
  • Open to: 10th, 11th, 12th

Summer Science Program

  • Interest areas: Astrophysics, Biochemistry, Genomics
  • Open to: 11th, 12th

Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop

  • Interest areas: Writing, Creative Writing, Literature
  • Open to: 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Note that all of the grades reflected in this list refer to the grade that students will be entering in the coming fall.

For more information regarding merit-based programs, check out Command’s list of 11 Best Merit-Based Programs!

Non-Merit Based/ Pre-college Programs

Pre-college programs hosted at various universities do not necessarily have the same impact on your application; though branded as “prestigious,” pre-college programs tend to say more about a family’s affluence rather than a student’s academic abilities. At the same time, these programs can still have their merits—they can help younger students discover their interests and passions, develop independence, and build their academic and social skills. Some students report that attending a pre-college program was one of the first steps to building their hook or creating a passion project. For example, a rising sophomore might attend a non-selective entrepreneurship academy, which, on its own, would not stand out on a college application unless it is accompanied by a broader passion project or independent study. These programs can also be helpful for students who are considering their college list and the type of campus they would thrive on, as pre-college programs afford students the opportunity to live in the dorms and explore life on campus. However, keep in mind that while it may help you get a sense of what you want in a college, attending a pre-college program at a certain school will NOT boost your chance of admission to that particular school.

MOOCs

If you are hoping to deepen your understanding of a topic, learn a new skill, or explore a subject that interests you, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are a great place to begin! MOOCs are free, unlimited, and available in a vast array of topics. Many are also interactive, allowing you access to a Teaching Assistant who will guide you through the course. If you have a busy summer planned, MOOCs also allow you the freedom to work at your own pace, so while you will have to be self-motivated in your learning, you can also complete the course in a timeframe that best suits you. You can browse and select from thousands of MOOCs through Coursera, EdX, and CodeCademy.

Self-Directed Learning and Research

Perhaps there is a specific research question you encountered during the school year that you want to explore further or a subject that you want to learn more about which isn’t taught at your school. If so, self-directed learning and research could be a great way to use your free time during summer break.

Embarking on independent research shows that you take initiative and demonstrate intellectual curiosity, while also allowing you to establish a network (which could potentially lead to the third letter of recommendation!) and teaching you to be resourceful. However, without a definitive strategy and measurable goals, it can be challenging to stay motivated and track your progress—so make sure you have a clear guiding query, a detailed plan of action, and a specific timeline to reach benchmarks on the path to your ultimate research goal.

Alternatively, if you have a specific research question that requires in-person work or would be explored best with guidance from someone knowledgeable in the field, consider getting in touch with a professor, scholar, or graduate student in your discipline about supervising your independent research.

You can also apply to a research program for more structured and directed research opportunities. Programs to consider include:

Stanford SIMR

  • Interest areas: Medicine, Sciences
  • Open to: 11th, 12th (16 years old or older by start of program)

ISB Internship for Rising Seniors

  • Interest areas: Computational biology, bioengineering, medicine, environment
  • Open to: Rising 12th

RSI

  • Interest areas: Sciences
  • Open to: Rising 12th

BU RISE

  • Interest areas: Sciences
  • Open to: Rising 12th

Mentor Immersion Experiences at Vanderbilt

  • Interest areas: Biomedical engineering, cancer research, neuroscience, etc.
  • Open to: 10th, 11th, 12th

Study for Standardized Tests

While studying for standardized tests should not be the only use of your summer free time, if you have not yet achieved the score you want to reach, test prep should be an important part of your summer plans. If you are not working with a tutor over the summer, make sure that you have created a detailed study schedule for yourself so that you have measurable goals and a plan in place to keep you on track. Choose the time of day that’s best for you and have a specific space that you know is quiet and conducive to studying. Remember that a little bit goes a long way—even if you are doing 30 minutes of studying a day, you are keeping the information in the forefront of your mind and will be better prepared to pick up studying in earnest in the fall as the test dates approach.

HIGH SCHOOL SUMMER PLANNING FAQ

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Why are summer programs important for college applications?

Summer programs are important for college admissions because they demonstrate your interests and skills to colleges while also deepening your engagement with your passions. What you choose to do with your time when you have no obligations in the classroom communicates volumes about the kind of student and community member you will be on their campus. By planning your summers wisely, you can show your unique qualities and hands-on experiences to schools on your list.

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Which type of summer programs and opportunities look best on a college application?

The summer programs and activities that will look best on college applications vary based on your interests and intended area of study. For high school sophomores and juniors, prestigious merit-based programs can go a long way in demonstrating your ability to rise to the demands of collegiate academics. While merit-based programs, online classes, and other academic opportunities can boost your application profile, keep in mind that these are not the only meaningful or well-regarded opportunities out there! A summer job or internship can convey to colleges that you are hardworking and motivated, while volunteering communicates your desire to contribute to your community. It’s not necessarily about what you do, but how you make the best of the opportunities available to you and articulate the value of these opportunities for your candidacy.

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Will a summer job help or hurt my college application?

A summer job will certainly not hurt your college application—summer jobs, even those not directly related to your area of interest, demonstrate frugality, self-motivation, and professional skill building. At the same time, you can best take advantage of your summers by engaging in more than one opportunity or varying the activities you engage in year to year. You may consider applying for a summer program one week of the summer or volunteering on the weekends when you are not working in order to diversify your activities.

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When is too late to apply for summer programs?

Deadlines for applications to summer programs vary from program to program. Many prestigious merit-based programs have deadlines in December and January, so early planning is essential if you hope to attend one of these programs.

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How can you explain summer vacation travel on college applications?

Colleges will not likely ask about your summer vacation travel unless your vacation was tied to a service project or other relevant community engagement project. However, you can use your summer vacations wisely by planning visits to colleges on your list that are near your vacation destination. Even if these schools are not at the top of your list, it can be helpful to compare different types of campuses, programs, and regions as you decide which school(s) would be a good fit for you.