How teens spend their summers has become an increasingly important piece of the college admissions puzzle. Objective measures like GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and transcripts can quickly become lifeless numbers in a sea of sameness. (Yup, another 4.0 GPA, check).
Admissions officers are being forced to look elsewhere to find what differentiates students from each other. They often turn to letters of recommendation, alumni interviews, and, of course, summer experiences.
Let's start with the tactics, then we'll move into strategy.
Here are some options to consider for the summer:
Volunteer Work (FT or PT):
Volunteer work is easy to find, affordable, and can be full-time, part-time, or project-based. Not only does volunteer work show that you care about someone other than yourself, but it also allows a teen to gain real-world experience in a field or industry they enjoy.
Paid Work (FT or PT):
Colleges love to see applicants who have worked at a paying job - of any kind. Sometimes, students pass on work experience to pursue more exotic travel, education, or other enrichment programs. In the end, shift work at local fast-food restaurant or retail store may give your child more to talk about than a fancy, well-chaperoned trip to Guatemala.
Travel (domestic or international):
A trip overseas can be a particularly enlightening experience for a teenager. The different sights, sounds, language, culture, and lifestyle can alter their perspective in a material way. As parents, you will have to decide what style of overseas experience you think would benefit your child the most (highly-organized and scheduled or more free-flowing).
Athletic Camps, Showcases, Invitationals:
If your child aspires to play a sport in college (at any level) and believes that these events will help them get the exposure they need, it might behoove you to spend time exploring these options. Before spending too much time and money, however, please think long and hard about what your goals are (e.g. exposure, scholarship, improvement, fun).
Internships (FT or PT):
Summer Internships (paid or unpaid) are a great way to get exposure to a field or career that your child is interested in. Think you might want to be a lawyer? Try a 4-week internship at a local law firm. Does marine biology sound cool because you like the beach? Spend a few weeks interning for a marine biologist to explore the intersection (if any) between your perception and reality.
Shadow Sessions (PT)
These are super easy, low investment, introductions to the real-world. No need to fill out a cumbersome "application" or find an established program. Simply reach out to friends and family who know someone in a line of work that your child has shown interest in. I have PrepWellers who have scheduled 15, 1-day shadow sessions with people from a wide variety of careers, fields, and jobs.
Education & Enrichment (FT or PT):
If academics is your child's thing, there are plenty of academic programs to explore. However, please don't think that paying for a $1,200 summer program at Princeton will increase your child's chances of getting accepted. If you can afford it and the program will further your child's academic interests and passions, go for it!
Demonstrated Interest (FT or PT)
You may want to use the summer to demonstrate interest in a particular school, program, or activity. This could mean visiting a particular college, meeting an athletic coach, or attending an event that signals great interest in a certain area (e.g. Naval Academy Summer Seminar).
Special Projects (FT or PT)
It might be important to carve out specific time to complete an important project, business, or initiative. A Boy Scout may dedicate 2-3 weeks to complete their Eagle Scout project, an artist may devote 3-4 weeks to complete their portfolio of paintings, or an engineer may want to finish building that drone from scratch. A rising Junior may want to carve out 3-4 weeks to prepare for a standardized test (SAT or ACT).
How to Think Strategically About Each Summer
It's important to note that your child has a maximum of three summers to deal with - after freshman, sophomore, and junior years. Let's call them Summer 1, Summer 2, and Summer 3. If you child is older than a freshman, you have even fewer summers to work with.
I like to draw out the options out on a whiteboard and begin to move certain options into place under the most appropriate summers. For instance, "paid work" would likely be pushed to Summers 2 and 3 given the minimum age requirements for most jobs.
Now is the time to sit down with your child and brainstorm on how you think the summers will play out (see whiteboard video above).
One way to get started is to place all of the "mandatory" activities into their spots and see what's left.
In PrepWell Academy, here are our non-negotiables:
Once you begin to move these "must-haves" into place, you'll see that the summers starts to get pretty full - pretty fast.
Set it And Forget it
Once you map out a tentative plan for Summers 1, 2, and 3, you can breathe a sigh of relief. If you stick to the plan, you won't have to worry about missing anything big.
This is a far better strategy than waking up on June 15th after your junior year and realizing that you've wasted 2/3 of your summer opportunities due to poor (or non-existent) planning. That's not how we roll in PrepWell Academy.
Of course, this plan is fluid, but at least you have the architecture in place. If something changes, you can make an informed adjustment to the overall plan. No problem.
I know it's hard to step off the treadmill to do this type of strategic planning so far in advance - especially when we're often just trying to get through the day. It may be even more frustrating when you broach the topic with your teenager and they roll their eyes and start tapping away on their smartphone. Take a deep breath, and re-engage.
Importantly, this type of "future engineering" is not meant to pander to the college admissions process. Yes, a diverse set of impactful summer experiences will enhance your child's application, but it will also provide them with the perspectives and real-world experience that they will need no matter what they pursue post-high school.
This is the type of organization and forward-thinking that goes into everything we do at PrepWell Academy. If this doesn't intimidate you, but rather empowers you, consider enrolling in one of our programs.
Author: PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneur, Shark Tank
Phil Back developed PrepWell Academy to help high school students (and their parents) navigate the college admission process.