College-Admissions Experts Differ on Value of Summer Employment

By Laura Greifner — August 08, 2006 2 min read

When it comes to getting into college, admissions experts differ on the value of summer jobs compared with that of academic programs, unpaid internships, foreign travel, or other activities designed to look good on a college application.

Bari Meltzer Norman, the director of, tells the story of a high school student she once helped apply to college. The girl’s parents paid for an expensive program in London, where she was placed in an unpaid marketing internship.

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Help for the Summer

“She gets there, and there’s no work for her,” said Ms. Norman, a former admissions counselor at Barnard College in New York City. According to Ms. Norman, the girl spent the summer in an office with so little work that she spent most of her time surfing the Internet. “She would have been so much better off working at her favorite store and getting real-work experience,” Ms. Norman said.

Another admissions expert, though, stresses academic options.

“I advise my students to do programs that have an academic value, whether it’s in Mongolia or New Jersey,” said Steven R. Goodman, an educational consultant in Washington who runs his own college-entrance-counseling business, Top Colleges.

The test of a student’s summer activity, Mr. Goodman said, is the educational worth of the experience. He believes that while traditional summer jobs, such as lifeguarding, do teach life skills, admissions officers will wonder what other skills the student could have learned in that same period.

“College admissions has changed,” he said, with a trend toward more selectivity.

“Colleges can choose the students who have achieved more academically,” Mr. Goodman said. “I’m not necessarily saying this is a good thing. It’s just the way of the world.”

Summer Jobs

Most teenagers who land summer jobs work in restaurants, hotels, retail, or in the recreation industry.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Summer Jobs

SOURCE: Occupational Outlook Quarterly

Terry Cowdrey, a vice president and the dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., is more favorable toward traditional summer jobs.

“I am always pleased when I see that a student has pursued employment during the summer, especially if the student is working at least 35 hours per week, and especially if they work full time for more than one summer,” Ms. Cowdrey wrote in an e-mail.

“It does not matter what the job is: working as a cashier at a grocery store, in construction, as a lifeguard, as a server in a restaurant, etc.,” she continued. “What does matter is that students in these positions learn and practice responsibility, punctuality, dealing with (sometimes difficult) people, taking direction from adults other than parents or teachers, self-sacrifice, delayed gratification, teamwork, commitment, etc.”

Ms. Cowdrey also noted that some high school students don’t have the privilege or opportunity to choose how to spend their summers. Parents sometimes make those decisions, or the students might have responsibilities at home.

“We believe,” she wrote, “though we have not formally tested this, that students who have held jobs during high school navigate more successfully and independently the responsibilities of college.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week as College-Admissions Experts Differ on Value of Summer Employment