What Exactly Is A “Meaningful” Summer Experience for Your High School Student?

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

On both the Common Application, the University of California application and many unique college applications there is a section to list and/or describe your accomplishments, including summer activities. If it is on the application, it is safe to assume that it is important in the admissions process. Admission departments do not create unnecessary work for themselves and most do review each part of the application.

Students should focus on depth rather than breadth and aim to immerse themselves in three or four substantive activities both in and outside the school environment. Students should find opportunities to pursue that they find both exciting and challenging. These can be projects, activities, employment or college-level coursework or other academic enrichment not readily available during the regular high school year.

Younger students are still forming their interests and I advise parents to grant wide breadth to wholesome activities for their children to experience. For example, a student may want to volunteer for an animal rescue foundation over the summer, but may show little or no interest in becoming a veterinarian. And that is to be encouraged. Everything a student does should not be judged as good or bad depending on whether it fits an adult’s idea of meaningful or career-focused or something that will ‘look good’ on a college application.  In my experience those are surefire ways to kill passion in a child before it has a chance to even take root.

On the other hand, an older student who believes she wants to go pre-med should demonstrate an active interest in clinical medicine by volunteering in a healthcare environment or finding an internship at a hospital, medical clinic or public health department. Shadowing health professionals and documenting your experiences is also a worthwhile enterprise. If you are really passionate about the healthcare field you could formalize your experiences and share with others, for example, create PowerPoint presentation to show to younger students at your high school through the college and career office.

It is important to understand that you do not have to travel or spend a ton of money for your summer to have an impact. Here is a list of possibilities:

  • On-line courses: I had one student last year who was on a tight budget. She enrolled in an inexpensive on-line design course and was guided through the creation of a 3-dimensional model of a bedroom (complete with furnishings, complementary fabrics, window treatments, rugs, the works!). Her summer project became part of her college portfolio and she was successfully offered admission to several excellent architectural programs.
  • Employment: This is an often underrated experience that is highly valued by admission offices. Students usually get a job in the summer and learn many vital life lessons when they work and sometimes gain valuable leadership experience—if they can continue the job into the high school year on a part-time basis, all the better. I had one student who held down a part-time hostess in the summer and then received a promotion to lead hostess for upcoming school months. Her new position required that she train new employees, often individuals older than herself. This is impressive to colleges and she was offered admission at several strong schools of business.
  • Internships: Internships are tremendous opportunities for students to build specific skill sets and gain valuable experience in a field they want to explore more fully. There are many summer math, science, computer science and engineering programs to choose from and costs vary greatly. It is best to get an early start researching these opportunities as many more selective programs have early spring deadlines. Another bonus of applying to more selective internships is that the application is similar to the college application (many selective intern programs require two teacher letters of recommendation, school transcript, test scores and a personal essay) A 10th or 11th grader who completes this type of application process often enjoys an head start on the college application cycle.       High school students who get a later start on summer plans should not despair; each week I hear about another great opportunity a student finds by exercising due diligence with a deadline still in the future.
  • Community Service: Time is more plentiful during the summer and students who are drawn to volunteerism can expand this interest over the break. I have had students initiate and complete truly inspiring volunteer projects over the summer months. It is best if the project is planned well in advance and executed over the summer. It is also best if something lasting can be achieved for the non-profit organization where the student volunteers.
  • Teen Tours and Travel: Frankly, most of these programs are exorbitantly expensive. They can be a terrific investment if you keep in mind that the experience needs to be transforming in some way (like language and cultural immersion) or otherwise special feature (like a strong community service component).
  • College Research and Visits: Summer is a perfect time to develop a balanced list of good fit colleges and explore each college fully. You can research colleges carefully at home and, if possible, plan to visit a few in order to develop an appreciation of the differences among institutions (e.g. large research university versus smaller liberal arts colleges). Read more about getting the most out of college visit here.

Good luck and have a “meaningful” summer break!