High school students around the world are scrambling to figure out what to do this summer due to the Pandora’s box of programmatic changes and uncertainty from the COVID-19 pandemic . This article is meant to provide some clarity and guidance amidst the chaos.
What’s different this COVID-19 Summer?
Trends. The pandemic has changed the summer planning landscape in many ways, some less obvious than others. Here are the primary trends:
Offline => Online: Programs are either canceling or shifting to online models. Summer programs are following what schools and universities have done.
Global => Local: Due to travel restrictions, health risks and economic/political instability, most teens will be reluctant to travel or go far away from home even if they are allowed.
Learning => Service: The virus and economic collapse has generated unprecedented need, and we’re seeing students instinctively respond by getting involved and finding ways to help. This summer is a test of a student’s character, and college admissions officers will be looking to see how you respond.
Scenario Planning. The uncertainty of this summer necessitates that you do some extra planning. We recommend that you develop a best case scenario and a worst case scenario and plan for both in parallel. The former is an optimistic, yet adjusted version of your current plan that assumes social distancing will be gone by mid June. The latter is the scenario with social distancing still in effect for the summer.
Summer Planning Best Practices
One common mistake is to jump right into searching for alternative summer plans. “My dream internship was cancelled; I need a new one that’s remote!” or “Our summer program was cancelled so we need to find another great one that’s online.” Although this might be fine in some cases, we encourage you to take this opportunity to first reflect on your goal: how to really make the most of the summer break. Here’s a checklist:
- Is there story-alignment? Do you know what your personal narrative is, which includes what is your primary “purpose” or “passion”? From there, have you set end of high school goals that reinforce your story? Your summer break should be chock-full of things that help you advance those goals!
- Is it challenging? Top colleges look to summer breaks as a way to see which students make the most of their free time to keep learning, exploring and developing themselves – especially in ways that school can’t or does not do. You should be challenging yourself to have transformational experiences and accelerated learning.
- Is it impressive? There are so many programs and courses available to students, even this summer, so think about how to stand out beyond everyone else. The key to this is to pick something uncommon and interesting. Show creativity, initiative and get results that go beyond your own learning but also have real-world impact. Finally have evidence of your impact through different forms of external recognition like press, awards, talks, testimonials, etc.
- Is it revitalizing? High school has turned into a high-anxiety, exhausting marathon dampening the creativity and joie de vivre (joy of life) from so many teens. Your summer should be a ‘break’ from that; it still needs to be a time to revitalize. So find ways to have fun, get more rest, spend more time with family and friends, and reconnect with nature. Also make as many of your summer activities energizing to you. In other words, find academic projects/courses, internships etc. that you’re pumped to do.
The rest of this article will go category by category, summarizing the wide range of things you can do in this worst case COVID-19 summer scenario.
Independent Projects and Research
Start a business or service venture. Invent something and patent it. Do unique academic or scientific research. Publish a new book. Code a new app. As you might imagine, this is the category we recommend the most to students because we believe a Spike is the smartest way to spend your summer. Spikes are ambitious projects uncommon among teens, based on genuine passion and a sense of deep purpose. Building a Spike is usually the best way to spend the summer because (a) it’s very flexible and so the uncertainty of these times is not an issue, (b) by definition, it will check all of the above boxes. Here you can watch some videos of example student Spikes. Here you can find more information about the Spike process, and here is an article about the value of a Spike.
Remember, anyone can do a Spike and you can do it on your own or with a mentor, parent or other advisor. It doesn’t have to be coached by us. If you don’t want to do something so ambitious, then there are many different types of shorter term, independent projects and research that you can do. For example, you can join virtual maker spaces to go about building cool products or you can find professors and help them write academic papers in an area you’re passionate about. These are just two examples; talk to an educator or set up a free consultation with us if you need some help thinking of ideas that fit your interests or hobbies.
Online Summer programs
At the time of the writing this article, most for-credit and non-credit pre-college programs have moved their residential programs to be online-only. These online courses are still likely to be very challenging and academically educational, but it’s not yet clear how much they will cost (usually very expensive) and whether it’s worth the money without the inter-student social engagement and the campus experience. Click here to download our spreadsheet of selective summer programs. It might be easier to get into some of these courses now, and given that online programs are less expensive and more modular, you can now, for example, take one course at Stanford pre-college online in AI, while doing other things like a Spike to develop an AI app to help people get auto-diagnosed for COVID-19 (this is a real world high school Spike called DocBot!).
As summer programs shift online, they’ll start to meld into this self-guided learning category that we’re so fond of at The Spike Lab. This summer, more than ever before, everything you need to learn can be found online and most are free if you know what to look for and where. So build your own online summer school based on your learning goals! Again the advantage to this is that it’s very flexible so it can adjust quickly to what your reality becomes this summer.
First, determine your learning goals, which can include academic fields (i.e. math, science, coding, etc), life skills (i.e. public speaking, time management, etc) or hobby/interest talents (i.e. musical instrument, dance, art, debate, etc). Then, develop a learning plan (a.k.a. curriculum) with the help of feedback from as many educators and experts in these fields. You can find online courses (long form or short micro-courses), online certifications, YouTube how-to videos, articles, academic papers, free online lessons and DIY maker projects on sites like Instructables. Consider hiring someone to help you create your learning plan and to check in with you regularly to hold you accountable and to help you navigate this whole process. Our Spike coaches also do this with our students so feel free to schedule a free consultation to get some extra support if you’re doing this on your own.
As mentioned above, in this time of crisis, there is so much need out there and so many ways to help others. Think a little more strategically about the types of issues and affinity groups that are the most meaningful to you and find ways to get involved. Right now it’s common for teens to be doing virtual volunteering so look for those opportunities. You can assist at your local place of worship, volunteer with local (or national) nonprofits (i.e. aiding the homeless, supporting healthcare workers), offer to get groceries for senior citizens or look for how you can play a bigger role as a caretaker within your family. In short, find ways to get involved that are truly impactful to others and meaningful to you. If you need more virtual volunteering ideas, you can go to Catchafire, Idealist.org, DoSomething.org, and VolunteerMatch.
- Research colleges. There are a number of ways you can make the most of this summer to prep for college. If you’re a rising senior in high school, then you’ll need to spend some of your time this summer researching colleges so you can select your college list — the best fit colleges that you’ll be applying to in the Fall. See this article on creating your college list. Since it’ll be hard or impossible to visit colleges (no campus tours are being done now), you should plan on other methods to determine your favorite colleges. We recommend researching them online and speaking to as many current students and alumni from your prospective colleges to get a better sense of what’s the right fit for you. Click here to download our College Research Guide for best practices for researching colleges remotely. Take advantage of the fact that right now colleges have gone out of their way to offer virtual campus tours and help you connect more easily with their students and staff to learn more about their school.
- College Essays. If you’re a rising senior, then you should also start writing your personal statement.
- Test Prep. If you’re a rising 10th or 11th grader, then you should make time to prepare for standardized tests like the SAT/ACT and SAT IIs. Even though many colleges are now going test optional, it’s still advisable for most to take the test and putting in test prep time always makes a big difference. “Excelling on the SAT or ACT is like preparing for a marathon: sustained, dedicated practice makes the whole thing a lot more approachable, and it helps to have a coach,” says one of our New York-based test prep partners, Dory Schultz from A-List Education. There are now so many many good, free test prep resources online that you can access from home, so take full advantage. For example, Kaplan is currently offering free online ACT test prep that you can access on ACT’s website, and Khan Academy offers free SAT test prep and tests online. Click here to download a list of our test prep partners all of whom we have reviewed to ensure high quality and ethics.
- Internships. Although it might sound strange; there are a lot of remote internships available. If you go this path, our recommendation is to get an internship that’s local so you have the option to go into the office if social distancing restrictions are lifted. Chegg has a good internships portal as does Idealist.org, but also don’t be afraid to reach out to companies that excite you, even if they don’t have any internship listed. This is how most of our students find their internships!
- Career Exploration. Another useful activity is to explore different career possibilities. Did you know that there are 23 different types of medical doctors, 40 different types of engineers and 50 different types of scientists? And in each of these fields there are countless specialties. Even if you already have a career direction, there is so much more to learn. We recommend a combination of the following: (1) researching professional fields online first, including articles, videos with professionals and books, (2) doing video calls with people in these fields to learn more, and (3) organizing a professional study trip. This is a DIY tour that you create to meet with lots of people in a field of your preference, so it’s like option (2) but grouped together and usually paired with a trip to some city (i.e. NYC, San Francisco, etc). This summer it’s not advised to do a trip, but you can do it in your own city for the end or middle of your summer when the social distancing restrictions are more likely to be lifted, and if they aren’t, you can shift them all to video calls.
- Outdoor adventures. Summer is a great time for camping and other outdoor activities. Today President Trump announced that they will start opening US National Parks soon, and it’s likely that they’ll be open this summer even if social distancing restrictions haven’t yet been lifted. Also there are many great outdoor activities and sports (camping, backpacking, rafting, sailing, mountain climbing, etc) that don’t require being with anyone or many people. This is a great time to organize one of these adventures, especially after being cooped up in your home for so long!
- Digital Footprint. firstname.lastname@example.org; I can’t tell you how many fabulous teens have infantile email addresses like this one (note: this one isn’t real) and questionable content posted online that’s accessible with a quick google search. Take some time to clean that all up. It’s generally a smart idea as you become an adult and as you start applying for internships and interacting with the ‘real world’. Also some colleges will google you, and you want to be thoughtful about what you want them to see. Ideally you will guide them and others to your digital profile to learn more about who you are, what’s important to you and what you’re proud of. This could be done in the form of a personal website, a blog, curated social media profiles or all of the above. Here’s another article I wrote that’s dedicated to taking ownership of your digital footprint.
- Family obligations. Lastly don’t forget that in a crisis your family and close friends come first. Whether it’s a grandparent with COVID-19 who needs care and love, or an unemployed parent who needs an escape into nature with his son or daughter or needs you to get a job to help pay the bills. It is a totally worthwhile and good use of your time to prioritize loved ones in need. Colleges put a lot of weight on this and actually count family caretaking and work as part of extracurriculars!
Summer Planning Roadmap
In summary, here are the primary steps that our Spike coaches are following to help our students plan their summers this year:
- Define Your Story. Start inwards defining your identity, personal narrative and high school goals.
- Determine Your Availability, Schedule & Budget. Determine your current summer commitments, timeline and budget.
- Research Your Options (for best and worst case scenarios). Choose the types of activities that you’re most jazzed about and that reinforce your story. This might be as simple as reviewing the list in this article and then going deeper to research your favorites.
- Brainstorm Options (for best and worst case scenarios). The best activities are the least obvious ones so get creative. Put on your brainstorming hat and try to come up with as many options that get you excited. Then select your favorite ones and test them. Do they pass the criteria described at the top of this article? Are they feasible?
- Lock it in. Do whatever necessary to confirm your summer activities. For example, apply to a selective online program/class, validate your Spike idea & implementation plan, or get a written confirmation of an internship offer.
Have a great summer and don’t forget to sign up for a free consultation with me or Larry (co-founder of The Spike Lab) to discuss your summer plans or to learn more about Spike coaching.