Making the Most of Your Summer

At last, summer is here! After a school year full of hard work, you can finally put away your books, break out your bikinis, and soak up the sunshine. This is not only what you deserve but in fact what you need: If you have been working to your maximum level during the school year, you owe your body about two weeks off during the summer for a real break. Go ahead and pursue your favorite pastime, relax, sleep, and reflect on the past year and the year to come. Do not, however, get too used to your life of leisure! From a college admissions standpoint, it's important to be productive during your summer months. Working is looked upon favorably by the more selective colleges; working on your tan is not.

It is important to understand that when it comes time to apply to schools in the fall, you will be competing for admission against a wealth of other students who made the most of their summers by strengthening their talents and skills and/or making up in some way for their weaknesses. Ideally, you have already found something to do for the summer, but if not, here are some summer suggestions.

For the summer after ninth grade, summer school can be a great idea, particularly if you want to get ahead in your curriculum. For example, rising sophomores in the past have used their summers to skip ahead in their math track, some by taking a class that prepares them for an honors or advanced level course, others by taking an intensive math course that spans at least six weeks of the summer. Other students have chosen to use their summers to take composition or creative writing courses to strengthen their writing skills.

For the summer after tenth grade, you might want to try participating in a program designed to strengthen one of your main talents. For example, if you're interested in engineering, you could try a program that teaches students to design their own autonomous robots, such as Carnegie Mellon West's seven-week RoboCamp. Students who are artistically inclined may want to try Northwestern's National High School Institutes (colloquially known as "Cherubs"), during which students who excel in music, theater, journalism, film, debate and/or forensics hone their talents through intensive workshops in their areas of interest. Another great opportunity for prospective film students is through University of Southern California's Summer Seminars, where students can study either screenwriting, the business and technology of film, or basic animation techniques.

The summer after tenth grade also might be used to go away on a program abroad. Two great resources for finding abroad programs are and, where you can punch in specific countries and interests and find hundreds of excellent programs that are off the beaten track. I recommend committing to a program of at least six weeks: A true cultural immersion will usually take more than a month, and it will take two weeks just to get over your jet lag! Also, try to travel to a country where the residents speak the foreign language you're taking in school. In order to make the most of your experience, try and stay away from programs with too many other Americans, and try to devote yourself to one place for the entire stay. For example, if you're taking Spanish in school, it's best to go to Mexico or a Central or Latin American country rather than Spain, which is often teeming with Americans. Also, in cities such as Barcelona, the language of choice is Catalan as opposed to Spanish.

The summer after eleventh grade is a good time to try and find an internship or other type of employment experience in one of your fields of interest. If you're interested in a sports-related career, let's say, this is an excellent summer to work for a sports agency or a sports channel such as ESPN. To see the sports world from a different angle, you might even want to try working in a law firm that has a history of representing athletes. Not only would you gain valuable experience that would give you a leg up on even the average college student, you might find a new translation of your passion for sports.

Remember, nepotism is not looked upon favorably, so make sure your work experience is aligned with your interests and not with your parents' careers. After all, you are not just spending the summer in Dad's office; this should be made clear to the colleges. Likewise, if you're holding down a job or internship, the ideal amount of time to do this is for about eight weeks. Given that the typical summer is twelve weeks long, you'll still have several weeks for relaxation and, of course, working on college applications. IvyWise students in the past have interned in the office of Senator Hillary Clinton, conducted original cancer research at hospitals alongside professors, reported for major and local newspapers, and interned at a variety of companies ranging from law firms to Goldman Sachs.

If you're a serious athlete with the chance of being recruited for your sport in college, you will likely be spending the majority of your summers on the field or in the gym, where coaches will get a chance to watch you play. Sports camps and workshops are great for serious student athletes; this is the path you must pursue to achieve entry into college- level athletics.

Before you leave for summer break, I also recommend asking your school for next year's reading list for English and history. Beginning your reading early is a great way to get a jump start on next year's homework. Also, starting your reading list during the summer will help you gain a deeper understanding of the assigned material: When you revisit your summer reading during the school year, you will be familiar with the basic story and will therefore be equipped to conduct a better analysis of the text. Also, if you choose to remain in your hometown during the summer, colleges will love to see you continuing your school year community service activities through the summer months.

Summer don'ts:

#1: CAMP. Unless you are a focused athlete and you are attending a sports camp, sleepaway camp and camping trips should end before the summer before ninth grade. The only exception to this rule is if a student has the opportunity to take on a leadership role such as a CIT, and even then, the summer before ninth grade should be the last year at camp. Colleges are not looking for experts in the arts of s'more-making and Spin the Bottle!

#2: TEEN TOURS. It may sound great to travel around the country with a busload of other kids in your age group for a couple of weeks, and while it's true that you would get to sample the cuisine of many different McDonald's locations across the country, this will not help you get into college. On a teen tour, students can never get to know one place well, and it's likely that they will be with students like themselves and will therefore not get the opportunity to stretch. Teen tours are so organized and scheduled that it's nearly impossible for any one student to make an impact in his or her community. Students should make sure that whatever they do over the summer, they are somehow making an impact, whether it be on an organization, a favorite cause, or a foreign or local community.

#3: "IMMERSION" TRIPS. Any so-called cultural immersion trip that lasts three weeks or less, particularly those of the Putney or ASA brand, is not a wise use of summer time. These trips break up a student's summer and take the place of an in-depth program; they are vacations rather than commitments and are not something to add to a college brag sheet. Again, students should choose a program off the beaten track that lasts for a minimum of six weeks so they have the opportunity to grow and to make an impact.

#4: SUMMER SAT PREP. If you're a rising junior, the summer is not the best time to start preparing for your standardized tests. Sure, working on vocabulary a few hours a week can never hurt, but devoting chunks of your day to SAT tutoring or a class will only take the place of an activity that you can put on your brag sheet. Furthermore, you are likely to forget a lot of what you learn during the summer; you will absorb far more during the year, when you are in "school mode."

On a final note, when you are setting aside your personal time, make sure you allow yourself time to have fun! As high school progresses, the courses inevitably get harder and your workload will increases-it's important to use your summer break to unwind and reflect. While there are always weekends during the school year, there's nothing like a sunny Wednesday on the beach, so please, make the most of your freedom while you can! Have a great summer, and we're looking forward to hearing your stories.

Katherine Cohen is a college counselor at IvyWise, LLC,

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