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Many schools got out late due to COVID-19 but have not pushed back their 2021-2022 school year start-dates. The squeeze will certainly be felt by Zoom-weary students. But it is still important to make the most of the summer by doing something that will eventually influence your future college application. So what is the key to a successful summer project?
A few things:
We meet so many kids who are slogging through summer courses or activities that they really don’t want to do. Their parents think that fancy summer courses at elite colleges (which cost thousands of dollars, by the way) will impress admissions officers. They won’t. And while we don’t discourage kids from participating in summer courses if they really want to, it's much more important that they be doing something that really interests them. If you’re early in your high school tenure, then anything is appropriate to try. If you’re near the college application timeframe, then it’s important to be pursuing something that helps support your academic narrative. But whatever stage you’re at, your summer activity should be fun. It is summer after all!
Pre-made summer programs are not bad, but they are not nearly as impressive to admissions officers as activities that a student pursues on their own. Why? Because following a passion makes you authentic and doing it on your own makes you resourceful. The initiative you take to set up an activity that wasn’t premade will show. We find that kids sometimes worry about this. They think that whatever they come up with won’t seem impressive enough. But actually, impressiveness is not in the prestige of the program, but rather in the doing of the activity, especially if you created that opportunity for yourself. Imagine you’re a budding business major. Is it more impressive to get an internship at a fancy bank (that everyone knows you can only get with an inside connection), or is it more impressive to work with a local business to help them research their customers (something you pitched that you could help with)? Age-appropriate experiences mean a lot more, especially if you are the architect of them. This kind of initiative and closeness to the project comes across in essays, activity lists and in interviews. Anyone can show up to something that was created for them. But not everyone can create their own opportunities.
Elite college admissions officers want to like you, above all else. Sometimes, there is nothing more likable than a kid who has a normal summer job. Getting a job - any job - and showing up to work everyday says something about you. It says you can be taken seriously in the adult world. That you’re not too good to get your hands dirty. And that you’re not trying too hard to impress them. So go ahead and scoop ice cream, work construction or fold clothes at a retail store. As long as you are pursuing your academic interests in other ways over the summer, having a job will only help your application, especially if you are a child of privilege.
The best way to impress a college admissions advisor with what you did over the summer is to get another trusted third party to pat you on the back for the work you did. Third-party validation is valuable because it's a sign that your work was influential and noticeable. It doesn’t have to be a national award, either. Getting a story in the local paper or a public mention from your employer is as good as any formal award. Likewise, the ability to quantify what you’ve done will add context to your work when you eventually write about it on the application.
The college admissions world is generally pretty open to just about anything a student wants to do over the summer. But there are some activities that simply irk them, even if lots of kids do them. So, avoid those activities that make you look like a slacker. What qualifies? Excessive online gaming, for one. Nobody cares that you gained a new high score or fully finished exploring that open world game. Another one is leisure travel with a teen group. Having your parents pay $10K for you to travel around the country or world on a bus and see sights while partying at night does not show well. If you’d be embarrassed to tell a college admissions officer what you did over the summer, then it's probably not worth doing.
Just remember that summertime goes by faster than you think. If you wait too long to get going you won’t have anything to show for those few months of wide-open time. So finish binge-watching that show you started and get out to do a summer project before it’s too late!