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They Know What You Did Last Summer

Summer Activity - Girl Reading Book in Hammock

Admissions officers have a difficult job. In order to sift through the tsunami of applications that inundates their inboxes every year, they need to know as much about the people submitting those applications as possible.

That being the case, everything about the applicant matters, even how they chose to spend those precious summer months between high school years–months that used to be a time for sleeping in, lazing in the sunshine, and recuperating from the rigors of school.

Those days are gone. Beyond the grades and the extracurricular activities that fill the school year, students are increasingly conscious of how their summer activities will reflect on them as college applicants. With all this pressure, it is understandable that students seek to pack their summer months with an impressive array of worthy, high-minded pursuits.

However, there is a limit to the usefulness of this approach. While it’s true that your summer activities will show up on your application, that doesn’t mean you should spend your summer doing things you don’t want to do.

To understand why this is the case, you need only understand the following:

Admissions officers view summer activities as a way for them to get to know you better.

They’re not interested in a long list of checked-off activities; they’re interested in gaining further insight into who you are as a person, and who you might be as a student at their school.

So instead of planning a summer packed with activities that are designed to look good on an application, plan a summer spent doing something that is meaningful to you. Not only will you avoid a summer that leaves you unhappy and unfulfilled, you are much more likely to get something out of it (perhaps even something you can write your college essay about).

I once worked with a student whose parents compelled her to do an internship at a local business. Her parents meant well, as all parents do. They wanted her to build her college résumé, and they reasoned that real business experience would set her apart from her peers. In reality, however, she spent her precious free time opening mail, filing papers in the back room, and doing other forms of busywork for five hours a day, five days a week, with nobody around her who might have contributed to her personal growth.

Later, when she sat down to write a college essay about her foray into the workforce, she had nothing meaningful to write about. Six weeks of busywork resulted in nothing more than a single line on her résumé.

Imagine if she had instead spent that time writing music—a particular passion of hers—or had brought her guitar into a classroom full of kids, or a nursing home, and shared her collection of original songs with eager listeners. Think of the college essay she could have written based on those experiences, and of the fond memories she would have carried with her into the school year and beyond.

In other words, it's not hard to do what you love and bolster your college admissions chances at the same time.

If you're an artist, find a way to immerse yourself in art and share your talent with your community. If you want to be a doctor, shadow your local pediatrician on her daily rounds or volunteer at the local hospital. If you want to be an engineer, challenge yourself to build something over the summer. And if you want to participate in an activity outside your hometown, there are numerous summer programs throughout the country and abroad. Just make sure the program or activity is meaningful to you.

Another important note: if you're planning on finding a job to earn extra income, do not worry that this will hurt your college admissions chances. In many cases, it will help, especially if you can find a way to have meaningful experiences on the job. Some of the best college essays I’ve read have been about summer jobs—interactions with customers while busing tables at a restaurant, for example. The same goes for those of you who are in charge of taking care of your younger siblings, or cooking dinner each night before your parents come home from work. These are not viewed as inconsequential activities.

A student I worked with recently had to watch her younger sister during the summer, since both of her parents worked full-time jobs. She challenged herself to read ten thousand pages for a local summer reading contest. She later wrote a beautiful essay about how reading aloud to her sister all summer long had helped instill a love of reading in the both of them and had strengthened their sisterly bonds. She had turned what appeared to be an inopportune situation into an opportunity for growth, and a demonstration of her resourcefulness and love of learning.

While the summer months do matter from a college admissions standpoint, that doesn’t mean they don’t belong to you. Try to view summer as a time of freedom. For the other nine months of the year, your schedule is pretty much determined for you. You show up for your classes, complete an extracurricular activity or two, and then head home to study and, hopefully, sleep.

Summer, on the other hand, is a time when you can embrace independence. It is a time of freedom, but that freedom should never be wasted. Find a way to enjoy your summer and to make it meaningful.