When asked what the greatest three minutes of his life were, Alice Cooper replied, “The last three minutes of the last day of school when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning.” He subsequently recorded the rock anthem, “Schools Out”, with the catchy refrain, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks”. The rest is rock ‘n roll history.
Every high school student can relate to Alice Cooper’s escape fantasy. “No more homework! No more tests! Free at last!” Summer is the time for vacations, hanging out with friends, going to parties, and most importantly, sleeping in. Or is it?
The increasing competition for admission to college drives many students to consider alternate options when making summer plans. Family vacations and social events often take a back seat to activities chosen as much for their potential to sharpen an applicant’s “admission edge” as for the intrinsic joy found in the experience.
There’s no formula for how to spend your summer. Choices abound for students these days, and may be as close as the local YMCA or in the farthest regions of the planet. Sally Stone Richmond, Associate Dean of Admission at Occidental College in Los Angeles says, “I used to joke that as long as a student was productive, i.e. not watching TV or playing video games they would be well received in an admission evaluation.” She quickly adds, “Then I met a student whose paying job was testing games for Nintendo!”
Karen Mittelstadt, Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says that what a student pursues during the summer is evaluated in the admissions process in the same manner as activities during the school year, “What’s most important is whether the student has pursued a leadership role or demonstrates a depth of experience in an area of interest.”
The first choice for many students may be summer school. Mittelstadt says that at Wisconsin a summer college course is looked upon at least as favorably, if not more so, than other choices because it demonstrates a commitment to academic challenges beyond requirements. There are several reasons to take a summer school course. You may want to:
Retake a course in which you did poorly
Get a high school requirement out of the way to allow time in your school schedule to take another course
Satisfy a college admission requirement
Get college credit and satisfy a college general ed requirement
Take a course not available at your high school
Take a course over a shorter, more concentrated time
College credit courses are available at local community colleges, four year institutions, and residential programs on distant campuses.
Graduating senior Marissa Gunnarson from Cincinnati, Ohio combined her interest in medicine with a chance to travel by opting for a residential program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Last summer she attended a ten day intensive offered by the National Honors Convocation on Medicine which gives students interested in health care careers the opportunity to learn more about the world of medicine through lectures, labs (she had to dissect a fetal pig), and field trips to hospitals and clinics. Marissa believes, “It helps to find a summer program to experience a career before you get to college and have to declare a major.” The highlight for her was meeting new people from a cross section of America, some of whom have now become close friends.
A summer abroad can be a great way to break out of your comfort zone and expand your horizons while experiencing other cultures. Travel abroad can be expensive and the challenges, while fun, can be frustrating at times. If your passion is to travel abroad first identify what kind of experience you’re looking for; service, adventure, skill training, or academic. Look for a good fit and be sure to ask questions before you commit to a program. Find out:
The time commitment
The purpose of the trip
The degree of difficulty
How much preparation you need (physically & academically)
How previous participants felt about their experience
Los Angeles senior Kelsey Berglund found her calling in Costa Rica while participating in a service abroad program led by Global Works, a company that specializes in language and cultural immersion experiences. She says she felt she needed to “do something”. During her three week stay in the village of San Antonio she lived with a local family and worked with residents to alleviate drainage issues in their pueblo. After rising each day at 6:00 am she and the members of her group dug trenches, hauled buckets of water from the stream, mixed the cement, and poured the new spillway. After dinner she taught English to local children. “My experience abroad inspired me to want to major in international relations. It helped me focus on which college programs were right for me,” says Kelsey.
Students who need or choose to work during their summers are not necessarily at a disadvantage to peers who volunteer or can afford expensive immersion programs in the college admission process. When asked whether summer employment received the same weight as other summer activities Mittelstadt and Richmond both commented that students who work, whether to earn money or to gain career experience, receive equal consideration to students who can donate time. Richmond puts it this way, “holding down a job during the summer or school year reveals duty, skill development, mentorship opportunities and responsibility. Not to mention, it offers great money management lessons!
The summer is a terrific time to commit to longer term projects, activities, internships or jobs that the school year doesn’t allow,” says Richmond. It may also be a time to act on a dream, to challenge yourself in an area of interest or in a part of the world you’ve only fantasized about. Whether your interests are academic, service, travel, adventure, skill training, or employment, there’s a fit for you. All that’s required is a little self reflection, the patience to do some research, and the willingness to take a risk. Remember that you are defined by your life experience. Summer activities offer you the opportunity to become the author of your own narrative. That’s important not only for college admission but throughout your life.
-written for NextStep Magazine