What Colleges Look for in Your Summer Experiences

By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling

It may not feel like it right now, but summer will be here soon. School will be out, and you’ll have a few short months before it starts up again. Of course, summer is for relaxing and unwinding, but it’s also a time for self-growth, for you to develop your passions and enrich your experiences. Your extracurricular activities make up a crucial part of your college applications. They are opportunities to stand out from the pack, and college admissions offices are always looking for students who spent their summers in productive ways. Yet, the world of summer plans and programs is vast, and there is a lot of variance in how schools value different types of activities. What kinds of things really make an impression? How can students focus and deepen their interests in authentic ways, showing initiative, independence, and leadership? Are established summer programs worth it, or is it better to design a more “homegrown” experience? What about internships, research, jobs, volunteer work, and “service”? Whether you’re interested in developing new skills through workshops and summer classes, want to gain experience through a job or internship, or would like to give back to your community through volunteering, there are many ways to have a wonderful summer while also distinguishing yourself for college admissions. Here are some tips on how to begin thinking about your upcoming summer:


Look for summer opportunities on college campuses

There are an abundance of summer programs that provide an experience of what it’s like to be a college student. Find out whether your state offers a Governor’s School or other similar program. These can be great opportunities for students to spend their summer on a college campus, taking classes and learning from their peers. Students not only bond with others from across their state, but really get a feel for college living–staying on campus in dorms, eating in the dining hall, and getting a real taste of what it’s like to take college courses. Note: Governor’s Schools are often for rising seniors, but they vary by state. In addition to these programs, many colleges offer weeklong specialized programs for students, such as jazz symposiums or science camps. These programs are oftentimes taught by university faculty or other professionals in the field. They can be great for developing skills and deepening interests during the summer. Chances are good that a college near you offers a number of summer workshops, though you might also consider somewhere further away.

An important caveat: such programs can certainly help you when it comes time to apply to college, but they differ in quality and reputation–and they are cash-cows for colleges. So, do your homework. Here are some questions to ask:

  1. Is the program selective?
  2. Is the program free of charge?
  3. Is the course for college credit?
  4. Is the course for a grade?
  5. Is the course taught by a college professor? If so, is that professor affiliated with that specific college?
  6. Is the program sponsored by the host college, or is it just renting space on that college’s campus?

A quality program need not satisfy all of the above criteria, but generally the more yeses the better. Programs taught by faculty at that college and in a specific field in which you’re interested can certainly be beneficial. But, otherwise, location is much less important than quality. (Read: programs at particular colleges generally won’t give you a leg up in admissions there.)

Lastly, be aware that high school students can often take actual college courses at nearby schools without enrolling in a preset program, and this can be the best option of all. Whereas such classes should be at accredited institutions, they need not be at “elite” schools (i.e. your local college is fine.) Taking this route shows a lot of initiative, and colleges care more about the content of the course and what you accomplished than the cache of the school’s name.


Colleges love students who get their hands dirty and work a summer job

There are so many summer programs out there–many of them quite costly–and this can feel overwhelming. Keep in mind that colleges are equally impressed by a sustained summer job. And whereas working in a research lab is definitely impressive, working in a more “ordinary” capacity can speak volumes about your character and determination. Such jobs can show that you are not coddled, that you are responsible and are willing to work hard. Scoop ice cream. Valet cars. Bag groceries. There are countless jobs that have summer employment opportunities for high schoolers. General rule of thumb: the grittier the better! Colleges love to see students who have pulled up their sleeves and done grunt work or physical labor. In other words, it doesn’t have to be glamorous. In fact, less glamorous jobs often show more character. Whether you’re working in the food-service industry or doing yard work, a summer job can help you learn customer service, the art of compromise, and how to get along with coworkers and bosses. Summer jobs give you experience in the hiring process, including job applications, resumes, and interviews. And the extra cash is nice too! Such employment is oftentimes seasonal, so employers will usually be looking to hire someone for only a few months. But plan ahead because these jobs often fill well before the summer months. So, watch out for  “Help Wanted” signs, and don’t hesitate to ask for an application.


Colleges value summer internships as ways for students to gain insights into future careers

Maybe you already have a part-time job bussing tables or ringing up groceries. Or maybe you really want to get some office experience. A summer internship can be a great way to supplement your activities, gain valuable experience, and show ambition, determination, and focus. Businesses and nonprofits in all different sectors offer high school internships, and those that do not have preset programs can be approached about such opportunities. Whereas internships might not be paid (especially if not full-time), they’re a valuable way for you to get a first look into a potential future career. Some major companies and nonprofits also have robust internship or mentoring programs to which you can apply. For these, you’ll want to start especially early, since the application process usually opens months before the programs begin. There are a bevy of opportunities out there. Whether it’s working as a filing clerk at a law practice or reporting for the local hometown newspaper, just make sure your internship is related to a genuine interest of yours. And the more initiative and independence you can show, the better. You should be the one reaching out (not your parents). And, while on the job, be sure to distinguish yourself by asking good questions, going the extra mile, and showing curiosity about the field. You’ll learn a lot this way–and the connections you make could really pay off down the road.


Find your passion, and volunteer

Another great way to use your free time during the summer is to give back to your community. Volunteering is an excellent way to enrich yourself, have new experiences, make new friends, and build character. But, remember: first and foremost, it’s about helping others, not yourself! This is not only an important ethic to keep in mind, but it will make for a more genuine experience–and colleges can tell. Volunteering isn’t just a way to boost your resume. It’s about supporting important causes and helping others in your community.

Volunteer opportunities abound, as long as you’re willing to find and pursue them. And, as with internships and jobs, it is always best when you take the initiative. If you enjoy spending time with children, look into volunteering as a youth mentor. From the Boys and Girls Club to your local YMCA, there are lots of ways to help children in your community. If children aren’t really your thing, then think about volunteering at Habitat for Humanity or a community garden. Through such volunteering opportunities, you can get your hands dirty and learn some new skills such as planting or using a nail gun. If you’re involved in a religious community, seek out opportunities there. Bottom line: seriously consider sacrificing some XBox or Netflix time, and get out into your community and help. You won’t regret it!

A caveat about volunteer opportunities, especially with regards to college admissions: be wary of expensive community-service travel programs! Not only might it defeat the purpose to pay a lot to volunteer, but colleges are suspicious of such programs, potentially seeing them as a sign of excessive privilege and questionable priorities.


A special note to rising seniors: summer is a crucial time to kick your college admissions process into gear!

While it may be tempting to escape from school all summer, do not neglect your college admissions process. Certainly spend most of your time pursuing passions and gaining real-world experiences, but don’t forget to set aside time to prepare for college application season. Getting a head start and taking care of some basic things during summer can be a life saver come fall. Here are six steps for rising seniors to take:

  1. Narrow down your top schools. Draft your lists during the summer so you can be sure of timelines and deadlines well in advance. Do some preliminary research to see if the schools on your list offer early action or early decision deadlines. Those deadlines are often in November, which doesn’t give you a lot of time to plan, so be sure you know those ahead of time.
  2. Start brainstorming and drafting your college essays. Summer is a great time to draft your college essays. Common App questions are published in the spring, and supplemental questions for specific schools are usually announced on August 1. So, do some homework, and start writing out some things you want to say in your college essays. This will take some of the pressure off when deadlines are approaching.
  3. Create your Common App account, and get a head start on some applications. With more and more students applying early action or early decision, you might want to start your college applications as soon as possible. The Common Application, or Common App, functions as a centralized application that can be used for most schools. This will be one of the first services for which you will want to create an account. Begin filling out the application, add your colleges to you account, and view and begin working on their supplements. The “activities” section tends to take a fair amount of time and thoughtfulness. And if there is a college that requires an audition or special application, get a jump-start on preparing for those too!
  4. Clean up your resume. Take some time out of your summer to update information on your resume or fill in gaps. Your resume will be sent to each college on your list, so make sure that it is in tip-top shape for application season. Be concise–keep it to one page–but be thorough, making sure to hit all the highlights of your high school career.
  5. Schedule your college tours. Set aside time in your senior year to tour any colleges that you might really want to attend. Visiting college campuses is a crucial way to evaluate whether a school is right for you. Visiting also lets admissions offices know that you’re serious about attending, so it’s often beneficial to visit the school before applying. If the college you want to attend is too far to visit, see if they offer virtual tours online. Some schools offer a 360° or VR video, which can provide an immersive experience of a campus.
  6. Get advice from current students. Don’t be afraid to ask current college students about their schools. If you’re visiting a campus, your tour guide will most likely be a current student, so look to them as a treasure trove of knowledge. If you have older siblings, relatives, or neighbors that are in college, talk to them as well. While colleges send out a lot of information to potential students, it’s important to get advice from actual students instead of relying solely on admissions flyers and promos.


Make time for yourself–and maybe a family vacation too 😉

Summer is an opportunity to make real headway in your college application process, but it  should be a time for personal growth, reflection, and fun. Don’t forget to take some time for yourself and the things you love, and for visiting with friends or going on vacation with your family. Whereas the above tips will help put you in great shape for college admissions while minimizing some of the stress around that process, it’s also important to maintain perspective and not overwhelm yourself. Don’t sweat it if you can’t do everything on this list! Just try to take it all in stride, set reasonable goals, and accomplish what you can without overdoing it. You’re only human, and you’re only in high school once!