In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com admissions expert Phillip shares tips on how to plan your summer activities and extracurriculars for college applications. For more guidance on building a college list and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.
If you’re currently in 8th, 9th, or 10th grade, you might be wondering what you should be doing during the summer. Summers are a great opportunity to explore your interests outside of school at a greater depth.
When planning your summer, try to come up with a list of goals. Some goals can include:
- Fuel your curiosity and learn something new.
- Show initiative: make something or start a project or organization.
- Go on adventures and experience new things.
- Last and most importantly: relax and have fun!
To achieve your goals, here are some ideas to consider as you plan out your summer.
- Summer Academic Programs
- Internships, Research, Part-Time Job
- Service Project
- Independent Project or Learning
- Spend Time with Family
Summer Academic Programs
There are many academically focused summer programs designed to enrich your education. These programs are not designed to help you improve in everyday school like Kumon or test prep classes. Instead, these programs should introduce you to new concepts and offer hands-on opportunities to push your curiosity.
While most of these programs are virtual in 2021 due to the pandemic, many of them will eventually return to in-person or offer both virtual and in-person options.
However, not all programs are created equal. When you evaluate a program, consider its selectivity and price. Still, don’t just think about these programs in terms of prestige; instead, your highest priority should be to pursue something you love.
Competitive Summer Programs
Many prestigious academic programs like RSI, RISE, MITES, or TASP are only open to juniors. However, if you’re not a junior, there are still several programs worthy of consideration.
These programs are very selective, and some require an application, entrance test, essay, and/or teacher letter of recommendation. Many of these will be a great addition to your profile because they demonstrate your commitment to learning as well as your potential to succeed in a top school.
Here is a list of academic summer programs that some of my college classmates at MIT have done:
- Summer Science Program (SSP) | Open to sophomore and juniors | SSP offers two subjects — astrophysics and biochemistry. The 5 ½ week program is an intense, immersive program that allows participants to push themselves in the sciences.
- AwesomeMath | Open to students ages 12 - 18; Can attend multiple years | 3-week program designed to help students improve in competitive math and problem-solving, such as AMC and AIME.
- Mathcamp | Open to students ages 13 - 18; Can attend multiple years | 5-week program designed to expose these students to the beauty of advanced mathematical ideas and to new ways of thinking.
- Honors Summer Math Camp | High School Program | 5-week program on advanced, college-level math subjects, such as Number Theory. In your second year, you will work on a math research project with other students and potentially even submit it for competitions, such as the Intel Science Fair. Full disclosure, I went to this camp two years in a row and loved it, even though I wanted to major in architecture.
- Iowa Young Writer’s Studio | Open to rising juniors and seniors, though some extraordinarily talented rising sophomores have been accepted | 2-week intensive program focused on creative writing and even playwriting. You’ll work with mentors who come from the renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
- Concordia Language Villages | Open to students ages 2-18; Can attend multiple years | 2-week or 1-month language immersion sleepaway camp with languages including Spanish, English, French, German, Swedish, Chinese, Korean.
Many universities offer summer programs for high schoolers to give them a preview of the college experience. While these programs offer a great additional source of revenue for these schools, they still offer a lot of value to students! While attending one of these programs does not improve your chances of admission at that particular school, you can still learn a lot, meet new friends, and deepen your academic interests.
I recommend attending a pre-college program for a subject that you cannot study in school. For example, one of my students went to Harvard’s pre-college program to learn Philosophy and Morality. The experience was so impactful as a spark that he based his application essay on what he learned and how he applied it to his life; he eventually attended Harvard! I went to a pre-college program at Stanford focused on business. I also wished I attended the RISD pre-college program where I could’ve improved my drawing skills and explored architecture.
While many of these programs do have an application, they admit most students who meet their baseline requirements. This is different from the competitive programs mentioned earlier, which can have admission rates of 20% or lower.
You don’t have to go far and spend lots of money to explore your interests. You can also explore dual-enrollment programs and summer classes at a nearby community college. Again, try to take courses in advanced subjects that you love and that your school doesn’t offer.
Internships, Research, Part-Time Jobs
You can also consider finding an internship or part-time job.
For research internships, try cold-emailing university professors you would be interested in shadowing or working with. Prepare a strong cover letter that demonstrates how your skillset, past experiences, and interests align with their research.
You can also explore an internship in a career you’re interested in. Some larger companies, non-profits, and congressional offices offer special internship programs for high schoolers. For smaller organizations, such as a local architecture firm or non-profit, you can cold-email them to see if they would be interested in hosting a high school intern. These internships will likely be unpaid, but they offer invaluable experiences to help you clarify why you want to pursue a certain career. For example, one of my students interned at a hospital thinking she wanted to become a doctor, but afterward, she realized she was more interested in hospital management!
Part-time jobs are also a great idea, whether it’s working as a camp counselor or bagging groceries at a supermarket. Earning money from part-time jobs can help with college costs later. While 14 is the legal age to work, it sometimes can be hard to find companies open to hiring workers under 16. Though they might not look as glamorous on paper, you can learn many important skills through a real-life job. And if you’re an ambitious employee, you can probably find ways to use your talents in the workplace. For example, if you’re tech-savvy, you might help them upgrade their register system. Or if you love graphic design, you might help them with their marketing strategy.
Consider using your summer to give back to your community. Even when doing service, you should still pursue causes that you care about or are related to your other interests.
If you love animals, be a consistent volunteer at an animal shelter and be willing to do the hard work, such as cleaning. If you’re interested in architecture, join Habitat for Humanity and learn more about construction. Or if you’re interested in pre-med, you can volunteer at a hospital or shadow a doctor. You can even consider training to be a volunteer junior EMT (though you usually must be 16). When you show commitment to a volunteer-based organization, you can gain more responsibilities, which is a key part of demonstrating leadership.
Avoid service trips to other countries. Often, these are seen as resume-padders by admissions officers, particularly if they are not relevant to your passions or interests. But, for example, if you’re interested in international development and medicine, a service trip focused on medical care can be an incredible experience. But do consider ways you can give back closer to home! You don’t have to pay an enormous program fee to give back to the world.
Independent Project or Learning
If you’re a self-starter, consider starting an independent project or your own course of study. For an independent project, you could create an app, publish a book, or push your artistic abilities in painting. You could start a business or non-profit with a friend. Or you could prepare for your classes or extracurriculars for the following year; maybe improve your programming abilities for Robotics or self-study for the USA Biology Olympiad.
Spend Time with Family
For some summers as a kid, I went with my parents to visit family in Taiwan. While I was in Taiwan, I experienced a very different country and culture from my regular suburban life, which greatly shaped my ideas on architecture and urban planning. I eventually used my observations as a jumping-off point in my essays.
Other students have many family responsibilities, such as taking care of younger siblings or working at a family business. These experiences are similarly important, so if you are worried that you are missing out because of family, consider what you value from spending time with family. This can greatly shape your personal narrative.
Besides visiting family, I also had the privilege of traveling with my parents to places such as France, Italy, and Japan. Similar to my experience in Taiwan, I was exposed to so many new perspectives. But you don’t have to travel far to have a meaningful experience. Perhaps your family loves road trips, has a favorite vacation spot, or enjoys camping in National Parks. Whatever you do, travel is a great way to change your setting and have time to reflect. And while you’re on a train, plane, or automobile, it’s also a great time to catch up on movies, podcasts, or reading!
Instead of traveling with family, you could also explore a Study Abroad or Foreign Exchange program. While many of these will not occur in 2021, studying abroad or staying with a host family is a great way to break out of your routine. Immersion in a different country will shift your perspective and potentially lead to great personal growth. You can also improve your language skills.
Start Thinking About Testing
Generally, students take the SAT or ACT in their Junior spring or Senior fall. You will probably take the PSAT 10 in your sophomore year and PSAT in your junior year.
Although junior summer will be the time to truly buckle down, you can always start thinking about standardized testing early. If you want, take a practice test or two, and start to get a feel for the type of questions asked on standardized tests.
That being said, the admissions world is quickly evolving, especially due to the many test-optional college applications in 2020 influenced by the pandemic. Keep an eye out for changes, as schools may begin to eliminate the testing requirement in future years.
Last Note: Have Fun and Relax!
You might feel like you’ve wasted your summers if all you did was have fun. But that’s the point! You should relax and do things you love. If you love baking, great! Reading? That’s awesome. E-sports? That’s cool too. Trying to go viral with a silly Tik-Tok channel dedicated to sink reviews? Go for it!
I think the only thing that would truly be a waste of time is being distracted by social media, doom-scrolling, or mindlessly watching TV. But if you love movies or K-Dramas, be deliberate with how you watch them. And maybe consider starting a blog or journal about it.
Hanging out with friends is also a meaningful use of time. Many of my students have gone on incredible adventures with their friends. One of them went down a creek on an inflatable mattress. Another student reenacted fantasy battle scenes in their local woods. Whatever you do, just do it with all your energy. If you fail, that’s okay! That means you’re pushing yourself and hopefully having fun along the way.
And lastly, make time to relax and decompress from school. Find stress-relieving activities like enjoying nature through hikes or lounging at the pool. That’ll make sure you’re refreshed and ready for a great academic year!
This informational essay was written by Phillip Hu, MIT ‘15. If you want to get help with your college applications from Phillip or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.