Education Opinion

Making the Most of Summer Learning

By Peter Gow — June 07, 2013 4 min read
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This is panic time for the some parents, the week when they realize they should have signed their kid up months ago for a really glamorous summer program, “something that looks great on a college application.”

Fortunately, there is no shortage of cosmetic “learning experiences” for the feckless and tardy--and of course the affluent. I heard a story the other day of a family spending $8000 for an internship, which surely takes the idea of volunteerism down not just a new path but a whole new highway.

As a college counselor I have feelings about what a good summer experience should be, feelings grounded in a few simple realities that we have shared with families at our school. Like many independent schools and many more public schools in suburbs where the economy still runs strong, we have some families highly susceptible to glossy brochures, neighbors’ kids testimonials, and “insider” advice, offered in lowered voices, that confidentially passes on the True Secrets of College Admission. These secrets apparently often include expensive summer experiences.

What I’ve tried to tell parents is to use their common sense and not be seduced by either slick photography or the neighbor with a drink in one hand and the forefinger of the other knowingly tapping his or her nose.

Education is supposed to be what’s good for kids. How this gets turned into “what looks good for colleges” is hardly a mystery, but it’s a little disconcerting how quickly even solid parent values can begin to wobble when the word “college” is mentioned.

Kids with the ambition to go to college should spend their summers being themselves and not prettifying themselves for an admissions beauty pageant. If they have the luxury of choice, they should do something that really interests them. If it’s an internship or a service program that really floats their boat, great--just do it! If it’s travel that actually involves exploration of new places or new cultures (not just The Other viewed through a bus window) in which they have an interest, wonderful. If it’s going back to the camp they love to do a final year as a C. I. T. or an underpaid kitchen drudge (that’s what we called it when I did it), super. Just do it!

Lots of kids don’t have much choice. Alas, the kinds of minimum-wage summer jobs on road or maintenance crews or assembly lines that abounded forty or fifty years ago aren’t so much available--the New Economy means that they are taken by adults who need them to feed their families year-round. But a job, a real job where mistakes get you yelled at and enough mistakes get you fired, is a great experience, and (truth to tell) one that colleges respect immensely; they like to see that an applicant has taken on some real responsibility, and the job need not be glamorous. Shoveling sand, shelving canned goods, and even scooping ice cream require stamina and the disposition to show up and pitch in--qualities prized in every walk and station of life.

My circular file fills up every spring with pitches from programs on college campuses. Most of these are third-party providers to whom cash-strapped universities rent some space and sell some meal contracts; the programs themselves are often lightweight and no more academic than watching a few hours of the History Channel or Chopped! They often feature “seminars” on applying to college and essay writing--four or six weeks, for thousands of dollars. For a kid who needs to be entertained and a family with cash to burn, maybe these are a good option, but despite the “real living experience” on the campus of a selective university (sometimes abroad, even), these things don’t have much cachet with colleges. Not surprisingly, admission officers actually can tell the difference between a real academic program and a pricey campus camp.

If a kid must have an academic experience, parents need to make sure that it’s really academic, bearing some kind of real credit (check: bankable college credit or just vague “credit”?) and presumably offered by teachers or professors with real credentials.

Internships are the same. “Real” ones actually involve responsibility, and I’d steer kids toward ones where (as with a real job) mistakes or underperformance have consequences--that’s how we know our responsibilities have significance. Catching up on Facebook between coffee runs in Uncle Ted’s office isn’t a real internship, although it might give his real employees something to talk about on their breaks.

There are travel and adventure programs worth doing--if students really wants to do them. Some focus on serious skills development, others on immersive learning about languages, cultures, or the environment. Some are nonprofit--a good sign--and many of the best even offer some financial aid.

But most kids, in a tight job market and with families living close to the bone, will have to make up their own summer programs. If “looking good to colleges” is a concern, then kids can really look good to colleges by following their intellectual curiosity or empathetic passion somewhere. Public libraries are filled with books and museums with interesting exhibits; hospitals and a zillion service organizations can use a free hand or two, even if the hours and the work might be inconvenient or just plain hard. Someone needs to maintain nature preserves and walking and bike trails, right there in the community.

Summer, as long as we have these long summer breaks away from school, is a time for kids to do what matters to them, to do it seriously and with a will, making good on whatever investment of time and often money is being made in them or they are making in themselves. But for Pete’s sake, don’t get sucked into having kids do something fake because it “looks good for college.” Colleges know, but more than that it’s a waste of precious resources--curiosity and passion--and precious opportunity.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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