Not so long ago, summer vacation meant hanging out at the local pool, working at a part-time job, and maybe taking a family trip where you spent half your time having fun and the other half wishing you had a different family. But today’s teens all too often see summer not as a well-earned break, but as yet another thing they have to “maximize” to create college applications that will stand out from the competition. They stress about what they should do, if it’s “unique” enough, and whether it will impress admissions officers. They feel pressure to do international service trips or find professors who will take them on as research assistants. These things can be awesome, of course. But the best approach to summer is often simple, and involves just three things: Recharging, learning, and having fun.
Recharging. A teen’s life can be stressful and non-stop. The school year is packed with classes, homework, extracurriculars, and family responsibilities These days, adults and kids alike have to make a conscious effort to stop and rest. Adults and teens often have different ideas about what “resting” means. For kids, it could involve sleeping for long, hibernation-like stretches, relaxing in nature, pursuing creative projects, binge-watching Netflix, hanging out with friends, or (sigh) playing video games. Whatever they do to rest, it should result in an energy-gain, not an energy drain, and as long as it’s part of a well-rounded summer plan, parents should do their best not to judge.
Learning. Learning can mean many things. Maybe it’s reading those books you haven’t had time to enjoy all year. It could be studying for the SAT or ACT, taking an academic class in a subject you’d like to explore or one that will help you feel prepared for the coming school year. You could get a job at a local cafe, start that podcast you’ve been thinking about, launch a small business doing something you’re good at. Take a cooking class, be a lifeguard, make an app, learn to silkscreen t-shirts, visit all the regional parks in your area. Learning doesn’t have to happen in a classroom or a research lab: valuable opportunities to grow intellectually and personally are all around you. And here’s a secret: Colleges are interested in hearing about whatever you do, even if it’s not an “organized” activity. It gives them great insight into who you are and what kinds of talents and interests you’ll bring to their campus.
Word to the wise: Avoid the temptation to overload. Summer is only ten weeks long (and in many school districts, it’s shrinking every year). You can’t do everything. Pick two learning activities and make the most of them.
One more thing: If you’re planning to apply to a competitive major that you’re passionate about, use part of your summer to deeply explore that subject so you can show colleges that your interest is genuine (and so you can confirm that interest for yourself). This is especially true for majors like engineering, business and the arts. Invent, launch, create, collaborate! At competitive colleges, you’ll need to demonstrate your “strong interest and aptitude” if you want to have the best possible shot.
Having Fun. Ideally, whatever you do to recharge and learn will bring fun along with it. But it never hurts to make room for even more fun, either planned or spontaneous. Enjoy the long, warm days of summer, and don’t feel guilty about it. Sure, you could spend all day everyday doing “productive” things to add to your resume, but in the long run, you’re likely to accomplish more and be inspired to give your best effort to your activities if your life is balanced and you invest in creating your own happiness.
However you choose to spend your summer, it should reflect what’s right for you. If you think taking on an intense, competitive internship will help you recharge, learn and have fun, go for it. If you want to study for the ACT while road tripping with your family and then learn how to use editing software to make a video documenting your travels, that’s great, too. Keep in mind that the best summer opportunities don’t have to be complicated, and they are often just a bike ride from home.
Don’t worry about what colleges want to see on your applications; focus instead on what will bring you the greatest personal reward. Colleges welcome students who are curious, self-aware, and willing to take risks in order to learn and grow. What that looks like is up to you.