Some students want to get onto an Ivy League campus in the worst way. And so they do: they sign up for a summer program.
These students spend one to three weeks sleeping in dorms and eating dining hall food, learning to make new friends, get along with roommates, survive independently, and embrace new ideas. But the parents who shell out a couple thousand dollars may not get what they thought they were paying for. Often these minimally selective programs aren’t affiliated with the college at all, they just use their facilities. Will an A in such a program show the impressive college that the student is ready to fit in and succeed on their campus? In a word, no.
How about 16-year-olds who travel to exotic locations and help local turtle or pre-school populations? Surely that would highlight a student’s concern for the world and a desire to make a difference. Parents spending $5000 on a two-week program may assume their child will come back with a ready-made and compelling topic for a college application essay. Won’t participation in such an excursion demonstrate a connection to others that counter-balances their privileged background? No again.
Well, isn’t it impressive that Johnny was nominated for a national leadership award? He gets to spend a week or two in Washington, D.C., with a select group of high school students, mixing with former politicians, learning about the arcane ways of our political system and honing his leadership skills. That’s appealing to colleges, right? Sorry.
The impulse to do something over the summer is admirable. But in the above examples, colleges can see that the student basically bought the chance to participate, and they value these programs accordingly. Summer courses may or may not promote true academic engagement. Commitment to a cause can’t be demonstrated in just a two-week trip. And calling someone a leader for simply attending a program in Washington, D.C., is shaky at best.
In contrast, students who show intellectual curiosity, take initiative, display passion and persist in working toward a goal – summer or winter – are more likely to impress admissions officers. Here are four better ideas for developing and demonstrating qualities that will strengthen both the student’s character and his or her chances of admission:
1. Learn something.
Rather than leaning on an expensive structured program, craft your own plan to delve into an area important to you. Read everything written by Willa Cather, research an historical event, write computer code, make a machine that works, take a MOOC. There’s nothing wrong with getting a jump on the fall by tackling the novels from next year’s English course or working through a preview of Algebra 2 on-line. For the enthusiastic student, the summer can offer a chance to grow intellectually outside the strictures of the high school curriculum.
2. Get better at something.
The summer months can provide weeks of relatively uninterrupted time to make concerted progress in an area of talent. Use the block of time to train in your sport, on your instrument, prepare your art portfolio, hone your debate skills or math contest techniques. Again, having something to show for your efforts will require planning, self-discipline and persistence – qualities any student needs in life.
3. Start or run a business.
Especially for prospective business majors, or others who see business as a path to wealth and respect, the summer is your chance to show true initiative. Start a camp for neighborhood pre-schoolers, make and sell t-shirts with clever logos, bring fresh energy to a charity, develop and market an app, plan and run a food drive or fundraiser. Developing creativity, initiative, and leadership can lead to success in any field.
4. Get a job.
Most adults – especially admissions officers – understand the value of holding down a job. The key is to find a position and get paid for logging hours; an “internship” at your father’s law firm or a two-week stint “shadowing” at your mother’s bank doesn’t count. Instead, work retail or construction, fast-food or lawn maintenance, be a bagger, a cashier, a customer service representative. You’ll gain extra points (along with spending money) if you continue to work part-time during the school year.
At the beginning of June, the summer can seem to stretch ahead endlessly. Be sure to fill it with tasks that require you to actively develop your talents and interests. If you could use some guidance in making the most of your opportunities, click the “Contact Me” button or give me a call at 847-660-8625.