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The Summer Between High School and College

“We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” – Albert Camus.

graduate-rearview-mirror-645x400Your high school student has just completed those last (excruciatingly long) weeks of senior year. It has definitely been a grueling year, despite the many milestone celebrations, and both you and your teenager are pretty wiped out. Before your high school senior has even graduated, however, questions are already beginning to arise about how to best spend this last summer at home before going off to college. Below are a few tips that I often share with my clients.

Group of graduates toss their hats into the sky with jubilation. There is a small hint of blur in the motion of the toss.

1. Give your graduate a break from “resume-building” activities. The college process has become so competitive in recent years. Your high school graduate has been doing intense “resume-building” extracurricular activities for many summers, and will probably be pursuing demanding internships for many college and graduate school summers to come. These kids have just finished a stressful run-for-the-roses; in my opinion, the last thing they need is an over scheduled summer. This summer is the only one where your graduate has the luxury of stepping off the conveyor belt for a bit of rest and renewal. Yale professor William Derseiwicz warns in his bestseller, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, that many applicants who gain acceptance to elite colleges have made resume-building such a way of life that they don’t have the band-width to ask themselves what they want out of life.

yogaRemember that we all need a little ebb and flow, with a balance between up time and down time. Personal trainers advise skipping a day between resistance strength training to allow muscle recovery. Prolonged sleep deprivation so damages physiological functions that it is used in interrogation and is considered torture. Crop rotation or fallowing a field prevents soil fertility decline that can occur from growing the same crop in the same place for consecutive years, disproportionately depleting the soil of the same nutrients. Mental silence associated with meditation has been linked to robust mental and physical health benefits in numerous research studies. Deepak Chopra makes the point in his classic, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams, that spending time daily in silence, communing with nature, or tapping into stillness through meditation, gives one access to the field of “pure potentiality,” where one can discover infinite creativity, freedom, and bliss.

sleepinclass2. Give your graduate’s fried brain a rest. Every high school senior’s experience is different, but most students bound for competitive colleges have not spent their senior year staring out the window. Many have been busting their humps taking demanding Advanced Placement courses or doing ambitious senior projects. My clients often report that they are utterly mentally drained at the end of senior year. They need some time to recharge before plunging into rigorous freshman year academics!

The above notwithstanding…..

Boys playing video games

3. Despite how burnt out your graduate is, don’t cave in and allow him or her to “do nothing.” Out of sympathy for how hard your senior has been working, you may be tempted to just him or her stay up late with video games and social media, or go out with friends (a recipe for underage drinking and driving tragedies), then sleep until noon every day. Don’t give in to this temptation. Lack of structure during the pre-college summer could set your teenager up for failure in college, where it is so easy to party late, even during the week, and then sleep through morning classes.

This pattern also sets up an unhealthy dynamic at home, in which parents get up every day and engage in adult responsibilities, while the adolescent is curiously exempt. Two shifts are operating in the household, the night shift for the teenager and day shift for everybody else. This structureless pattern may continue every time your college student returns home, for holiday breaks, summers, and perhaps even after college graduation. Unfortunately, this pattern often encourages an assumption that the young person has no obligations at home, such as cleaning one’s room, doing one’s laundry, or washing one’s dishes. I recall the old Billy Joel line, “You’re twenty-one, and still your mother makes your bed…”

Beautiful girl looks out of the window. On its lips an easy smile, and behind a window a rain.

The old saw, “an idle mind is the devil’s playground,” does not only apply to juvenile delinquents who fill a “structure vacuum” with mischief. Intelligent, creative, perfectionistic, analytical, conscientious young people may be especially prone to mental health conditions such as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). A non-structured waiting period before a new, challenging life chapter such as college could actually become a recipe for heightened anxiety and mental anguish for such individuals. Your son or daughter will probably benefit from some non-pressuring intellectual, social, or artistic stimulation to fill that vacuum in a healthy way.

Spending time outdoors and engaging in exercise will fight off anxiety and raise endorphins, but may also proactively prepare the mind for learning in the fall. John Ratey’s bestseller,  Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, offers fresh insights to parental conventional wisdom that says, “Go outside and play!” or at least walk the dog.

Senior woman struggles to walk with the help of a walker and her young granddaughter.

4. Transformative, give-back experiences are ideal pursuits for the pre-college summer.  I encourage families to consider experiences not jaded by “resume-building” goals. These experiences should be simple and engaging but not overthought, and done for their own sake, not for earning brownie points on an application someday. For the time being, your graduate is “so done” with that kind of thing. I encourage simplicity, such as volunteering at the YMCA or a local animal shelter. Becoming a counselor-in-training at a beloved camp provides purposeful activity, as well as emotional grounding with one’s “camp family” before going off to college. How about a church youth group service trip to Appalachia, funded by car washes and spaghetti dinners? For inexpensive, simple but meaningful ideas, check out Sheryl Kane’s wonderful book, Volunteer Vacations across America.

waitress5. Paid employment is a great way to add structure and purpose to the pre-college summer.  Your teen can’t sleep till noon if he or she has to get up to work at the grocery store. Many adolescents have never had the experience of working at a minimum wage job, because they have been too busy building their credentials for college. But this summer offers the perfect opportunity to develop the kind of “show up on time and smile–even if you’re bored” responsibility that only a paid job can offer. A job can offer distraction from pre-college anxiety, and a chance to practice the social skills needed to connect with new people. Earning money may help your adolescent appreciate the educational investment you are about to make as well (a quarter of a million dollars for private colleges), or paying off student loans if needed. Realizing (experientially) that college costs money may motivate your teen to get up on time next fall and go to class!

Related posts: College Dorm Checklist: A Sneak Peek!, The College Transition Bible.