Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Ten Ways for Teens to Spend the Summer

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” – Henry James.

My college admissions consulting clients often ask how their high school students could best spend the upcoming summer, especially as rising juniors and rising seniors. Like most worthwhile activities, some advance planning is usually necessary. Here are ten alternatives to consider:

duskgirl1.  “Do nothing.”  This approach goes back to educator Thomas Mann, who fought the 48-week school year in the 1840’s  because “overstimulating young minds could lead to instability or insanity.” Should parents discourage kids from doing anything in summer? Are they so fragile they will break under pressure?  We have all heard parents decrying the demands of today’s culture: “Our parents opened the back door, had us go out and play, and we never came home until supper.”  Nostalgic: but helpful? Like most Boomers, I fondly recall running barefoot in fragrant, freshly mowed grass on summer evenings, catching fireflies and listening for the Mister Softie truck. Great memory! But it doesn’t need to be every summer, all summer. And let’s face it, in today’s world, a vacuum is less likely to be filled with running barefoot in the grass, and more likely to be filled with time-wasting social media, TV or video game binging, not exactly good for a young person’s brain development.

capitolbldg2.  Exploration of alternatives. How about trying something new? Self-discovery is a teenager’s Number One developmental task. Summer programs (academic, wilderness, arts, sports, travel, service) give adolescents a chance to experiment in an untapped interest, talent, or career idea, and the opportunity to meet “kindred spirit” young people who enjoy similar pursuits. Pick up a copy of The Best Summer Programs for Teens: America’s Top Classes, Camps, and Courses for College-Bound Students by Sandra Berger. Search the comprehensive Enrichment Alley website. Great programs include: Summer@BrownJulian Krinsky (at U Penn), Cornell Summer, Summer at Georgetown, and the National High School Leadership Conference. Is it necessary for a college applicant to have such experiences? Absolutely not! Admissions committees know many students cannot afford exotic summer programs. They do not want college applications to simply be transparent measures of a family’s wealth. However, if affordable, programs can be a true gift of self-discovery for your son or daughter.

tutorwithboy3. Remedial academic catch-up or special needs support. Consider one-on-one tutoring, a local class or online course if your student could benefit. It may not be a popular alternative, but it can circumvent an academic slide. Summer content reinforcement or study skills and executive function training can be especially helpful for students with learning disabilities or attentional disorders. Some colleges even have programs for high school students with special needs; for example, explore summer offerings at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. Local test prep organizations often have summer programs to help students hone their study skills as well.

africanamericancomputer4. Advance preparation for next year. Get ahead if fall holds tough courses or standardized tests. Vehicles include local preview classes, online courses, books or one-on-one tutoring with someone who comes well recommended from family friends, who has great rapport with your child, and who (ideally) comes to the house. Kahn Academy offers free subject learning and test prep. At minimum, your student should be reading any assigned or recommended summer books.

5. Enrichment and creative renewal. Your son or daughter can find inspiration through an arts workshop, wilderness camp, leadership program, academic course on a college campus, travel experience, online enrichment course or an engaging summer reading list. Programs include: Broadreach, OverlandThere Be Dragons, Interlochen Arts Camp, Idyllwild Arts Camp, and Iowa Young Writers Studio, to name a few. Your student’s annual lake camp can also provide that renewal and personal growth away from the pressures and peers of high school.

roboticsI stress that enrichment and renewal does not have to be an expensive residential program created to “entertain” uncreative teenagers. Families who homeschool using a structured curriculum (with wise, sensitive flexibility), can effectively nurture their children’s learning and initiative; why not take a homeschooling approach with activities like summer reading? In his bestseller, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out), Cal Newport advises giving a student creative space and encouragement to pursue one innovative, interesting activity instead of over-scheduling a student to “get all the boxes checked.” If your student is a mature, inner-directed thinker, this approach could be a winner; you know your son or daughter best.

6. Family and friendship time. Traveling or at home, summer is an ideal time for solidifying relationships with immediate and extended family, as well as hometown friends. This window is open for only a short time, and closes so quickly. No education is better than Grandpa’s stories, or adventures with cousins at the family lake or beach house. Parents can influence these experiences by encouraging outdoor activities, family sports, interactive board games, or visiting local points of interest together.

ballerina7. Extracurricular mastery. If a student has a passionate interest, it is likely a year-round one. Most parents know that a serious athlete needs involvement in that sport all year to be competitive, so training camps, sports clubs, and regional or national competitions are a fact of life for these individuals. Performers advance skills via summer intensives and performance experiences, and visual artists create portfolios. However, parents can help a child strike a balance between becoming a “technician” and developing as a human being. Parents can support a student’s aspirations while adding a gentle reality check, keeping their own egos and dreams in perspective.

Children with lemonade stand

8. Earning money. Paid employment is as acceptable to admissions as summer enrichment programs. Your family’s needs and teen’s preferences should dictate. Number of hours worked, percentage of tuition earned, and promotions to positions of responsibilty will demonstrate on the application the student’s motivation, leadership and time management skills. It is an important part of growing up, to learn to be prompt, follow directions, deal politely with customers, keeping up a good attitude despite one’s mood, learning every task is not “all about me,” taking responsibility to bring excellence to a task, and learning the value of a dollar. Not to mention entrepreneurship, one of the best ways for adolescents to develop meaning, according to Stanford psychologist William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life .

Senior woman struggles to walk with the help of a walker and her young granddaughter.9. Giving back. Young people who serve give and receive intrinsic benefits, whether they help others through church, school, scouts, or programs like Habitat for Humanity.  Admissions and scholarship committees are impressed by service that is measured and recognized by a prestigious national award (Congressional Medal of Honor for Youth), membership in an organization that recognizes character (National Honor Society), or a senior scout rank accomplishment (BSA Eagle Scout or  GSA Gold Award). But it is critical that service, as expressed in a student’s essays, be “from the heart” — not just something to round out the resume. Service opportunities can be identified in the wonderful book, Volunteer Vacations across America, by Sheryl Kane. But students do not have to travel to give back. Explore websites that match volunteer age, interests, and zip code to find local needs, such as  or VolunteerMatch.orgProfessor Damon advises parents to serve as Socratic guides, to help teens identify societal needs they’d like to address, and how best to address them.

10. Responsibility and leadership. These essential qualities can be developed in summer camps, athletics and arts activities, family responsibilities, paid employment, and community service. So–do anything over the summer, anything but nothing!