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Summer Opportunities for High Schoolers: How to Choose

Summer Opportunities for High Schoolers: How to Choose

A productive summer will pay dividends in your personal, professional, and academic development. This guide is tailored specifically for you to maximize your summer. After all, keeping your mind engaged is critical to avoid "summer slide." Here's some advice on how to evaluate and choose the best summer opportunity for you...

Lisa Speransky
Lisa Speransky
Summer Vacation

Congratulations on finishing another year of school! Your hard work during the school year is commendable, but summer is upon us, and we don't want you resting on your laurels. A productive summer will pay dividends in your personal, professional, and academic development. This guide is tailored specifically for you to maximize your summer. After all, keeping your mind engaged is critical to avoid "summer slide." Summer slide means that a month of the school year is lost to one month of hanging out over the summer without keeping your mind stimulated. 

Check out the ideas below and see what appeals to you! Make a Google Doc, share your parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and anyone else you would like to consult with your list of fun and substantive opportunities for growth this summer.

What Should High Schoolers Do Over the Summer to Impress Colleges?

Although certain summer opportunities are extremely selective and prestigious, no one activity will impress colleges in and of itself. It’s important to remember that colleges are trying to get a sense of you as a complete person. What we always emphasize to our students is the importance of telling a story with your application, and part of the story is what you choose to do over the summer. Presenting colleges with your unique compelling story will get you much more mileage than just listing your achievements. For example, if you want to study architecture, interning with an architecture firm over the summer demonstrates that interest and becomes a plot point in your overall journey as an aspiring architect. This is more effective than getting the most prestigious cancer research internship, or volunteering for a prominent politician’s campaign, because those things are not necessarily part of the narrative you’re presenting. The question should not be “does this look good on a college application?” Instead ask, “does this contribute to my story?”, because a great story is exactly what does look good on a college application. Context and story are everything, so make sure to consider this when making your choice.

What Type of Summer Opportunities are Available to High Schoolers?

Jobs and Internships

The "summer job" is a classic, and there's a reason for that. Jobs and internships are a great way to gain real world experience in a field of your interest (or even find out that you're not actually interested in something!). Having a summer job can also show colleges that you have drive and work ethic, but more importantly, can show real demonstrable interest in whatever it is you want to pursue or study.

Here are a few ideas for summer jobs and internships.

  • Reach out to local start-ups
  • Work on a political campaign
  • Offer to assist at your family business
  • Reach out to local nonprofits doing great work in your community if they need help (hint: nonprofits always need a helping hand!)

When it comes to the more prestigious summer internships, it's very important to plan ahead for these, as most of the application deadlines ranges from March - May.

Does a summer job look good on college apps?

According to Harvard College, “Colleges always want to see students who are willing to work hard in any context. Finding—and sticking with—a job is an excellent way to demonstrate a commitment to hard work. And it’s always great to earn some spending money.”

But remember to think about how what you’re doing can potentially inform your story as an applicant. You don’t have to just accept the first job presented to you. Working at the neighborhood pizza parlor is great, but unless you want to study pizza making in college, there’s probably a better choice out there for you.

Volunteering and Service

In recent years, community service has diminished in its importance for college applications. While it practically used to be a requirement (and still is for many high schools), it’s now just something that’s nice to have. That being said, volunteer and service work is still a FANTASTIC way to spend your summer, especially if it’s something related to your interests and can contribute to your application story.

What are good community service ideas for college?

Looking for a local way to give back and serve others? New York City Department of Youth & Community Development offers the following opportunities to make a difference here in New York! Also, be sure to check out Volunteer New York.

Looking for a global way to give back? Habitat for Humanity offers some wonderful ways to make a difference this summer.

Would you rather start your own initiative? Is your focus this summer on helping people? Passionate about making the world a better place as a social justice advocate? We teach students how to build a nonprofit project of their own.

Supplemental Education

Taking a course or enrolling in a pre-college program is another great option for summer enrichment. There are several benefits to this approach. It shows colleges that you're intellectually curious, allows you to take more challenging courses that your high school may not otherwise offer and get ahead academically, and can also help you find out what you're passionate about and what direction you want to go in for your studies or career. Most top universities and colleges offer summer courses and pre-colleges, and some can be quite expensive and/or competitive. These are great, but there’s also nothing wrong with enrolling in courses at your local community college or doing one online.

Independent Projects

This is the most “off-book” approach, but designing and executing an independent project is the perfect way to make your college application stand out. Do you want to write a book, curate a photography exhibition, or conduct independent research? The sky’s the limit. If you’re interested in pursuing an independent project and want some support, check out our partner, Spike Lab. Their expert coaches help students develop independent projects and entrepreneurial endeavors in a truly unique way.

How Can I Make the Most of my Summer in High School?

To make the most of your summer, ensure that the opportunity you are choosing can contribute to your story as a person and applicant. The most important guiding principle is to be able to tell a story before, during, and after as to why you are pursuing the opportunity.

Check out some tips for navigating your summer opportunities:

  1. Match an opportunity with the goals for your incoming grade - example: my goal as an incoming freshman is to read a lot and get excited about school. Therefore, I am going to subscribe to the New York Times and learn as much as I can about my upcoming social studies class by volunteering on a political campaign.
  2. Quality over quantity - Make sure to invest in the depth of a project. Dive deep and become an expert!
  3. Not what, but why - Your ‘why’ is your motivation, mission, and passion driving you to pursue your summer opportunity.
  4. Leadership - Very important: think about the leadership and teamwork skills you could build this summer.
  5. Initiative - Take initiative! Important lesson: a proactive mindset will take you places.
  6. Challenge - Step outside your comfort zone! Grow your skills and make some moves!
  7. Intellectual curiosity - Open up your mind to the world of critical thinking in real-world situations.
  8. Exploration of passion - Perhaps most important - and related to your ‘why’ - stick with your passion. For example: passion for helping people, passion for science, or passion for history. Passion gets you through long days and acute challenges.

Last but not least: HAVE FUN! It is summer, after all, so fun should be top of mind. If you're enjoying yourself, you're much more likely to get the most out of the experience.


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