Are you trying to figure out what you should do over the summer? At a high level, the answer is actually quite simple. Do something:
- That you love. Follow your passion.
- That challenges you and develops you in ways that school never could.
- That demonstrates to colleges how you will be a major asset to their community.
This is actually the three-part test that The Spike Lab coaches and students apply to ensure that they are choosing the right summer activities.
Top US colleges don’t offer admission to students who aren’t motivated or curious. For admissions officers, summer vacation isn’t really a break. It’s an opportunity for talented and intellectually curious students to continue to pursue their academic and non-academic interests, however, without the rigid requirements of school getting in the way. They want to see what you choose to do with a substantial amount of free time because it’s a great indicator of how you would contribute to their college community.
If you don’t know what you are passionate about, then that’s a problem that you should immediately address. You can read our article, titled What’s your passion?, for a useful process that might help you identify your passions. Assuming you have that figured out already, your job now is to figure out the best activities to do this summer. Whether you want to pursue an academic interest, a non-academic interest or both, below is a list of some of the best summer activities:
1. Attend an academic summer program
There are thousands of academic programs to choose from so we usually encourage our students to pick the programs that (a) are really good and will challenge them the most at whatever they’re passionate about and (b) are the most prestigious and reputable and therefore usually the hardest to get into. Pre-college programs at top US colleges are often considered the best. There are also summer academic programs offered at the top US boarding schools like Exeter and Andover. However, remember not to pick a top academic program unless it enables you to take courses that are aligned with your interests. This still doesn’t always narrow down the field enough so, when in doubt, research the precollege programs that are offered at the colleges on your short list. It’s a great way to get to know one of the colleges that you are considering applying to early decision. Click here to download some of the top academic summer programs.
2. Take classes
You don’t have to go to a prestigious or expensive program to challenge yourself and impress colleges. Consider taking classes at community colleges in the US or even classes offered at your high school or other schools.
If you want to shape your own unique learning journey, consider challenging yourself to devising your own curriculum based on advice from experts, subject-matter advisors and online research. If you want to self-learn but prefer to leave curriculum development to the experts, then we recommend taking college classes online. Many of the most popular classes from the top colleges are now accessible online via MOOCs; Coursera, Udacity and EdX are the most popular. Regardless of your self-learning approach, be sure to have somebody to check in with periodically to support you and hold you accountable.
4. Do a research project
Some students choose to research a topic that they are already familiar with but want to go deeper. Usually these are not original research projects but in some occasions students manage to do original research that has the potential to advance their field of study. This type of research sometimes even leads to the authorship of an academic paper.
5. Intern or work in a lab
Universities and research institutes are made up of research labs. These labs will often offer internships where you can get exposure to cutting edge academic research. Some of the most ambitious students find ways to work as research assistants in a lab, supporting the lab’s research, while also using the equipment and mentoring to do some of their own research in parallel.
6. Start a business or social (a.k.a. charitable) venture
A lot of students are intimidated by the prospects of starting a new venture, but with the right support it’s very feasible. Remember that it’s okay to start very small and it’s also ok to start as a project within an existing organization or business. In other words, to avoid a lot of the administrative and legal overhead of starting a new legal entity, you can ask another organization or business to incubate your program. Also don’t forget that if you’re already running a project or program of your own during the school year, the summer is a great time to expand upon it.
7. Work at a business or charity as a summer intern or volunteer
Interning and volunteering is a very popular way to spend your summer and can be a fabulous way to both get exposure to professional work environments and learn more about a subject area you are interested in. We encourage you to find a position that (a) is consistent with your primary interests, (b) that develops the types of skills you want to develop, and (c) that enables you to contribute in a meaningful way. At the end of the internship, will you be able to tell colleges concrete ways that you contributed to the organization? It’s very difficult to contribute to an organization over just a few weeks or months, but the most impressive students find ways to do so. Lastly try to a position where you’re likely to have a sponsor: somebody who thinks you’re amazing and can write a glowing recommendation letter for you.
8. Develop your unique hobbies or special talents
There are many specialized programs designed to develop students with specific talents and hobbies. These programs are a fabulous way to spend the summer but make sure (a) that you are developing an interest that is central to your ‘college candidacy story’: how you will pitch yourself to colleges in your application, and (b) that your hobby will be impressive enough to stand out to top colleges. If there are programs developed for it then it’s probably not the most unique interest so you might consider combining a program with a special project that you develop on the side. The other option is to not attend any program and exclusively develop your unique hobby, talent or project on your own.
9. Prep for College
Remember to make time in your summer to prep for college. This isn’t something that you’ll add to your activity list on your college applications, but it’s something you’re advised to make time for. If you’re a rising 10th or 11th grader, then you should make time for standardized test prep. You should also consider college campus visits, especially if you live outside the US and don’t travel there often. If you’re a rising senior, then we recommend that you do whatever necessary to decide on your college short list; this usually involves visiting college campuses, meeting students, alumni and professors, or reading/researching the colleges. You should also start writing your college essay and develop your online presence. Colleges will google you and you want to be thoughtful about what you want them to see. Ideally you will encourage them to review all your many achievements that you’ve creatively documented online. Finally you should prep for any remaining standardized tests that await you in your Fall semester of senior year.