For many high school students in the U.S., the summer months offer an opportunity to recharge after a long school year. Some popular summer activities include traveling, hitting the pool or beach, and binge-watching Netflix shows. While it’s perfectly fine to spend some time in the sun (or in front of a screen) this coming summer, it’s also important to use this break from school to work toward some of your personal, educational, and professional goals.

How exactly should you spend your summer?

First, keep in mind that you don’t need to be doing something “productive” every minute of your summer break — you should aim to strike a balance between productivity and rest, as you want to make sure you have time to recover from the previous school year and mentally prepare for the next! That being said, there are a variety of summer activities you can participate in as a high school student. You should plan your summer in a way that aligns with your values, interests, and schedule. Here is a guide to help you get the ball rolling on mapping out your summer itinerary.

 

Why do my high school summer plans matter?

 

1. College applications ask about how you spent your high school summers

If you’ve taken a look at some of the questions on college applications, you’ve probably noticed that many universities ask about what you did to fill the three-month gap between school years. As you can imagine, admissions officers aren’t looking for a 250-word description of trips to the beach. Instead, they are looking for evidence that you are a motivated individual who would positively contribute to their college’s community. Carefully chosen summer activities are a fantastic way to show how you might contribute to campus life and also to differentiate yourself from your peers.

 

2. Summer activities can allow you to explore potential career paths

High school summers are a great time to explore career paths that spark your interest. Whether you spend time volunteering at a local clinic or teaching a class on a topic you’re passionate about, taking time during the summer to dive into professional opportunities will help you figure out what you enjoy and don’t enjoy about particular careers while also helping you to build your resume.

 

3. Summer activities are excellent opportunities for personal growth

Resumes and college applications aside, summer activities are important because they can help you mature and grow as a person. No matter how you are trying to grow — whether it’s by building organizational, time management, teamwork, or other skills — participating in summer activities can help you take the first step.

What can I do over the summer as a high school student?

1. Is work experience important during high school?

Working is one of the most practical ways to build your resume and save money for college. Even if you are unable to find year-round employment, there are many organizations and establishments, such as summer camps, that look for candidates to fill seasonal roles. While it would be ideal for your college applications if your job relates to a major or career you’re interested in, do not despair if you can “only” find a lifeguard or camp counselor position. You can stand out in college admissions with almost any type of employment, especially if you work at the same place for multiple years and are promoted or given more responsibilities over time. A job that challenges you in some way will not only look great on your resume, but also give you a plethora of learning experiences that you can write about in your Common App or supplemental essays.

2. What internships are best for high school students?

While it’s more common for college students to do internships, it’s possible for high
school students to take part in internship programs with proper planning and preparation. How do you find summer internships? You can start by asking your school’s guidance department, reaching out to companies you are interested in, and searching the internet. Whether you’re looking to intern at NASA or on Capitol Hill, it’s important to plan ahead and ensure that your application materials are polished. If you need support in finding and preparing application materials for these opportunities, Command Education’s mentors can help you through the entire process. Mentors teach students foundational professional skills that they will use for the rest of their lives, from researching opportunities, crafting outstanding resumes and cover letters, perfecting their interview skills, to networking their way into great opportunities.

It may be difficult to find paid internships as a high school student. In some fields, such as law and public policy, unpaid internships are the standard — even for college students — and exist solely to expose interns to the ins and outs of the industry. When deciding whether to take an unpaid internship, you should consider several factors. First, keep in mind that many internships will teach you more about a career field than your classes, and that these internships can be a great way to learn new professional skills. You should also check to see if you can gain academic credit for an unpaid internship, as many high schools count certain internships as classes. You may decide not to partake in an unpaid internship, however, if you are trying to earn money over the summer or if you’re not that excited about the opportunity; in these cases, an unpaid internship may take up time that could be spent pursuing something you’re more passionate about.

3. How can I get a research internship in high school?

Conducting research is the perfect way for STEM students to show their passion for an
academic subject outside of the classroom. To find summer research opportunities, you
can either reach out to professors or STEM departments at local universities, or you can apply to a formal summer research program, such as The Research Science Institute, Simons Summer Research Program, The Research in Science and Engineering (RISE) Program, The Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program, and the UCSB Research Mentorship Program.

4. Should I participate in a summer enrichment program?

Summer enrichment programs are another great way to explore your academic and
professional interests outside of the classroom. There are summer enrichment programs
for nearly every interest, from engineering to filmmaking. If you are interested in humanities-related programs, in addition to investigating programs offered by local youth groups and colleges, you could consider applying to some of the following programs: The Stanford Summer Humanities Institute, The Iowa Young Writers’ Studio Summer Residential Program, The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, The Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s Summer Journalism Workshop, and The California State Summer School for the Arts.

When looking for summer enrichment programs, it’s important to differentiate between merit-based opportunities and pre-college programs. While merit-based programs are competitive and may cost tuition, be tuition-free, or pay students a stipend, almost all pre-college programs charge tuition fees. Pre-college programs are marketed as “prestigious” initial college experiences to add to a high school resume; however, in the eyes of college admissions officers, they often do little more than signal that a student’s family is wealthy. While there are some benefits to attending a pre-college program, we recommend students apply to merit-based opportunities as well.

5. What kinds of classes can I take over the summer?

Summer school is no longer just for students who want to improve their grade in a class
— you can also take summer classes if you want to free up time in your schedule during the school year or take an advanced course at your high school or local college. There are also many summer study abroad programs that will help you get ahead in your language learning. If you cannot or do not want to take an in-person class, there’s also the option of enrolling in massive open online courses (sometimes referred as MOOCs), which are often free or low-cost, on sites such as Coursera and edX. Taking and doing well in advanced courses, even if they’re only introductory community college classes, can help you stand out in college admissions by showing your passion for a subject and showing schools that you can thrive in an academically rigorous environment. You can also potentially earn high school or college credit for courses you take over the summer.

6. How can I volunteer as a high school student?

Community service is a fantastic way to help others while also building your skills and
resume. When deciding which organizations to reach out to to inquire about volunteering
opportunities, you should ask yourself what you enjoy doing and which problems you want to help solve. You can find community service opportunities through your school, your community center, places where you’d like to volunteer, and through internet searches. Some popular places to volunteer include schools, hospitals, nursing homes, animal shelters, food banks, religious institutions, libraries, and museums. Keep in mind that a few hours of volunteering at a local museum over one summer will not impress colleges. In order to make your volunteer work stand out on your college applications, you should try to show leadership and sustained commitment to a volunteering opportunity over a long period of time.

7. Should I work on a passion project?

A passion project is an activity that you choose to take on to pursue an interest or cause
that you care about. Working on a passion project will show colleges that you are intrinsically motivated and excited about a topic, which are qualities that are important to have in college and beyond. Whether you want to write and publish a novel or launch a podcast about a historical era, pursuing a passion project will not only look good on your resume and college applications, but also help you build skills and bring you personal fulfillment.

How do I decide what to do over the summer?

1. Consider your potential college major and career interests

While it’s important to strategize ways to stand out in the college admissions process, we recommend finding a balance between strategy and genuine interest when it comes to deciding on summer plans. Remember that you don’t necessarily have to participate in a formal program — especially if you’re not all that interested in the program — in order to stand out. If you are passionate about a particular academic field or career, for example, then pursuing related summer activities — like taking advanced classes related to your prospective major or starting a podcast in which you professionals in a career that interests you — would be a great way to demonstrate genuine interest. Such activities could help you stand out among your peers with academic or professional interests that are not as well-developed. This holds true for all potential majors and career paths; however, demonstrated interest in a major or career is particularly important for students interested in pre-professional programs such as those in engineering, business, and medicine.

2. Consider your personal interests

Keep in mind that you can pursue a combination of activities during your summer break,
and the free time you have during the summer months offers the perfect opportunity to engage in your hobbies. You may, for example, work as an EMT to explore your career interest in medicine and also devote time to your interest in visual art by creating and selling paintings for a charitable organization. Expanding your personal interests or hobbies into passion projects is one way to stand out among your peers in college admissions. For instance, colleges may not be all that impressed by your interest in baking alone; however, admissions committees will take notice of you if you organize community bake sales and teach baking classes at your local community center, especially if you commit to these activities for an extended period of time.

3. Consider your finances

Even if you won’t be starting college for a couple of years, it’s never too early to start
saving for college expenses. Tuition aside, there are a plethora of other college-related
costs that quickly add up, including textbooks and, for many students, winter clothes, so it’s a good idea to plan ahead and save up when you have extra time to commit to a job. Your high school summer breaks offer the ideal opportunity to do so.

When should I start planning my summer?

While it’s possible to find activities and put together a summer schedule in May, we recommend starting to look for and apply to summer opportunities in the winter, ideally before the start of the second semester, as many program deadlines are in the late winter and early spring. Just as you shouldn’t wait until the week of college application deadlines to research colleges, request letters of recommendation, and write your application essays, you shouldn’t wait until the last minute to try to secure summer opportunities. It’s also a good idea to plan ahead and apply to a variety of opportunities early so you have multiple options lined up in case some of them fall through due to COVID concerns.

What else should I do over the summer to prepare for the college application season?

1. Study for the SAT or ACT

“SAT prep” is not a line you should include on your resume or college applications; nevertheless, it’s an important summer activity, especially for sophomores and juniors who will be taking the SAT or ACT in the summer or early fall. We generally advise students sit for the SAT or ACT two to three times after a few months of focused preparation, but we recommend creating an individualized testing timeline and study plan based on your academic skill set, goals, and schedule. Whether you choose to work with a tutor or not, you should prepare for these exams by taking and analyzing a diagnostic test and then creating — and sticking to — a weekly study schedule that includes content review and practice tests. You can find free official practice tests here (SAT) and here (ACT).

2. Get a head start on college essays

For juniors who will be applying to college in the fall, the summer months leading up to their senior year are the ideal time to work on college applications — particularly the Common App essay and college-specific supplemental essays. Working on these essays when you have more time over the summer will likely result in more thoughtful, polished writing than that produced at the last minute in the fall, and getting as many of these essays done and over with before the fall semester will significantly reduce stress during the school year. If you are looking for extra guidance and support in writing these essays, consider signing up for Command Education’s College Application Booster Camp, which will help you complete high-quality college applications months before your peers under the guidance of our expert mentors.

3. Read for pleasure

In an age of social distancing and travel restrictions, reading for pleasure can be a gateway to exploring new places and imagining alternative futures. Reading can also have concrete benefits that will help you in the college admissions process. Trying to improve your score on those tricky SAT fiction passages? Spend a week in the world of Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude, which will certainly sharpen your critical reading skills. Trying to artfully craft your Common App personal statement? Pick up a copy of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, a collection of personal essays examining human connection that will surely inspire you as you work on articulating your own story.

There is no single way to spend your summers that will guarantee you a spot at a top college. That being said, taking time to figure out what you care about and then pursuing activities related to your passions is a good way to show colleges who you are and stand out among your peers in an increasingly competitive college admissions landscape. We hope this guide has helped you take the first step in planning a meaningful summer break.

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