• Monica James

Colleges Care about how you spend your summer. Plan well!

January and February is the time that students begin summer planning. Crafting a meaningful summer means showing colleges you went above and beyond, exemplifying your true passion for learning and showing them how YOU will benefit THEIR community rather than the other way around. For example, if you are clearly the artist/journalist then chances are you will bring your writing and painting skills to college and perhaps major in art history. They get a glimpse of how you will contribute as a student on their campus.

Colleges are interested in scholars… colleges ACCEPT scholars.

‘Scholar’ can be defined as a learned person who has profound knowledge of a particular subject. It doesn’t refer to someone who knows a little about a myriad of things but rather expertise in a particular subject. Colleges seek well-rounded classes rather than well-rounded students. They like to see depth in one or two areas of interest. This might be quantum physics and poetry or debate and art history.

So, take some time to review what subject you like in school, get specific. Did you love the Revolutionary War when you were taking AP US History? Are you obsessed with creating computer games? Do you love reading philosophy in your free time? Where do you spend your time outside of school? Are you the arts editor for your school paper, writing reviews and spending hours painting portraits of your friends then reading about 19th century artists? See what we mean? Can you tie together some of your interests to create a theme?

Here are my top tips for leveraging your summer(s). And… of course I want you to weave in some rest and relaxation… preferably reading a classic while spending the weekend on the beach.

RESEARCH: Reach out to a local professor in your area of academic interest and investigate any research opportunities available for a high school student. Or, do your own research. Nothing should stop you if you have an idea. A high school senior cultivated populations of algae under her loft bed and won first place and $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search. Another great option is to explore presenting your written work at an academic conference in your targeted field of interest. You are not too young to attempt this.

For example, colleges sometimes host conferences where you can submit your scholarly paper to present at the conference. The conference is an opportunity for high school and undergraduate students to present research on a variety of topics, including politics, civil rights, political extremism, educational opportunity and economic development, political communication, human geographies and world politics.

TAKE COLLEGE CLASSES: There are amazing classes available at top colleges in their precollege programs. You can study The Physics of Stars: Their Structure and Evolution or learn about Ancient Mummies and New Technologies at U Chicago. Georgetown University holds a Leadership Institute for high school students each summer. This program is designed to encourage future leaders through a series of courses and hands-on experiences. Students spend time exploring ethics and decision-making skills. They also participate in a ropes course, visit nearby government agencies and the Capitol Hill offices and tour area museums. There are dozens of such programs all over the country. But, you don’t have to go away to an expensive college program — you can take a local community college course if it’s in your area of academic interest. The Common Application asks if you have taken a course for college credit; so use summers to do so and to build up your level of academic expertise.

TAKE ONLINE CLASSES: Once again, colleges want to see that you are truly and deeply interested in something. It can be anything from “Black Holes” to “Programming in Python” to “Positive Psychology.” There are many ways to find these classes; one of the best is at Class Central.

COLLEGE APP ESSAY: If you are a junior, our goal is to finish the Common App Essay and your common application (including the Resume section) before fall of senior year. (That frees us up to work on the rest of your supplemental essays in early Fall).

READ: If you are interested in history, create a reading list around a specific time period or event of interest. Are you a novel lover? How about reading the Harvard Classics? They are free online so… no excuses. Love Economics? Read “Freakonomics.” Fascinated by Science? Read anything by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Your colleges will almost definitely ask you about books—either in their essay questions or in your interviews.

WORK: Get a job. Lots of great college essays have been written about jobs working at McDonalds or Starbucks. Steer clear of hedge fund or law firm jobs or fancy internships, as it will be clear to admissions officers that your parents or their pals got you the gig. Holding down a job shows colleges you have discipline and initiative, not just privilege.

AUTHENTIC SERVICE: There are lots of flashy, expensive, international community service programs where you pay to go to some exotic locale, whether it’s India or the Galapagos Islands, and do service work. But again, colleges aren’t in the dark about this. They know that some of these programs cost $6,000 to $10,000 to do community service. So, instead of just trying to think of what would be impressive, think of what would be meaningful. Can you do a community service project in your own community related to your interests and expertise? Can you change something you see needs changing? Can you make a difference?

DON’T GET CONNED: Watch out for the mass mailing marketing efforts that try to con you into plunking down lots of money because you are a “high achiever.” They simply purchase mailing lists from the College Board based on your PSAT scores ( and even more diabolical—based on your zip code.) They will make you think you are being selected and are unique, but check the depth of the programming. The New York Times wrote an article entitled “Congratulations! You are nominated. It’s an Honor! It’s a Sales Pitch!” Be forewarned!

Plan your summer NOW to maximize and deepen your academic interests. Keep it simple yet deep, focused and true to your passions – there is no rest for the scholarly!

Summer for my students takes on a whole different meaning than summer camp and fancy vacations. It’s a time to add depth to your areas of academic interest with laser-like focus. Let me know if you need help formulating ideas.


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