I often argue that summer is roughly 3 months long. So, a student who leverages her 4 high school summers has a full year of learning, growth, and development over one who doesn’t. However, not all summer activities are created equal. Every day, high school students (and their parents) are inundated with mail from seemingly fancy (and expensive) summer programs and advice from well-meaning relatives who tell them what their kids should be doing to make the most out of summer break.

As you consider formal, structured programs, it is important to know how to evaluate the many offerings on the market.  Here’s how I would suggest you think about them (in order of priority):

Selective Programs

Rigorous Programs

  • After the highly selective programs, colleges will look at those that require a high level of academic rigor. These are usually 6-8 weeks in length and offer college credit.  These are usually limited to upperclassmen, due to the nature of the work involved.  Most highly selective schools offer summer credit courses, such as Cornell, Brown, Georgetown, and UPenn.

“Pay to Play” Programs … And Their Counterparts at Schools that Consider Demonstrated Interest

  • Beyond the first two categories are those “pay to play” type of programs. While these are certainly not as compelling as the ones outlined above, they are not without merit.  These “camps” can be a way to explore an interest in a non-pressure environment, however, I would think about what additional advantages various programs offer when compared to each other.
  • Some colleges consider “demonstrated interest” in the application process.  That means they will look to see how invested you are in the school (and how likely you will be to attend if offered a spot).  So, do you open their emails?  Do you follow them on social media?  Did you meet with the admissions officer when she visited your school? Have you visited campus or taken a tour.
  • Doing a program on a college campus that considers demonstrated interest is one way to check a lot of these boxes and get first-hand experience to help you determine if this is the kind of school that may be a good fit.  Wake Forest’s Summer Immersion Program is one such opportunity.  Students can explore short, non-credit sessions in topics like Entrepreneurship, Business, Sports Management, Neuroscience, Debate & Public Advocacy, and Leadership.  Students can also demonstrate interest through Davidson’s July Experience, exploring Biomedical Engineering at Tulane, delving into Environmental Science at Sewanee’s Field Studies Experience, or studying Marine Science at Eckerd College. While you are on campus, you can take the tour, attend an information session, meet your admissions officer and, in some cases, have a formal interview.  Should you eventually decide to apply to the college in question, attending the summer program will favorably impact your candidacy.

In addition to these formal academic programs, there are many other ways to spend a productive summer.  Here are a few ideas:

Independent Project Work

  • Just because you are not attending a formal program doesn’t mean you can’t have a meaningful learning experience. Talk to your teachers and counselor to ask them for ideas for independent project work. Reach out to a university professor to see if you might offer assistance. There are also formal organizations, like Pioneer, Horizon Education, and Lumiere that will pair you with a professor to conduct original research. These are selective programs that require an application.

Internships and Summer Jobs

  • There is no better way to demonstrate your responsibility and maturity than getting a summer job.
  • Internships are a great way to gain professional skills while also learning more about an industry that may interest you.

Volunteer Work

  • When considering volunteer opportunities, either during the summer or during the school year, it’s important to think strategically about them. Does this community service actually align with your interests?  How can you share your talents and/or interests for the benefit of others? How much of a commitment are you making (for instance, are you volunteering 2 hours/week or 30?)

Summer is most definitely a time to relax, recharge, and reconnect with friends and family. But, it’s also an amazing opportunity to delve into your interests without the usual responsibilities of schoolwork and studies. So, take advantage of the time to explore. Who knows what you will find?


Mauler Pattern Thin
Mauler Pattern Thin