From academic programs to overseas adventures, the opportunities for high school students to build their college résumés in the summer are plentiful. While such experiences can boost a student’s chance to get accepted at some schools, volunteering at a hospital or scooping ice cream for the minimum wage can as well.
“I often see families shell out money for a program that they believe is a fast track to selective schools, when the student might be just as well off flipping burgers at Mickey D’s,” said Sally Rubenstone, a senior adviser for College Confidential, a website about college admissions, and a co-author of Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions. Taking summer classes on a college campus is never going to hurt, she added, but a traditional summer job can also speak volumes on an application.
What many admissions officers say they are looking for is how the students’ activities—including those in the summer—helped them discover a passion. For instance, students, rather than their parents, should be the ones driving the decisions about how they spend their time during those months.
Whether it’s studying abroad or being a lifeguard, said John Birney, the senior associate director of admissions for selection and constituent relations at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, “the students will get the most out of it if they themselves want to do it.”
The College Board has suggested summer activities—for freshmen through seniors—on its website. They include joining or starting a book club, launching a business, getting an internship, visiting colleges, or taking a class.
“Anything students do can be positive additions to their college-application portfolio,” said Roy Ben-Yoseph, the executive director of digital products for the New York City-based nonprofit. What matters is how students reflect on their experience and communicate it to the college, he said, adding that taking a few weeks off in the summer is fine.
‘It’s for the Kids’
Colleges understand that not all families have thousands of dollars to pay for summer programs, said Michael Carter, the director of college counseling at Saint Stephen’s and Saint Agnes School in Alexandria, Va. Yet colleges expect students to make “productive” use of their time in the summer, he said.
That time can be devoted to doing a community-service project, enrolling in a college program linked to what they’re likely to major in, or even working at a gas station.
Whatever students do, Mr. Carter tells them the activity should be a natural extension of their interests. If it’s completely disjoined from their résumés or is high-priced and luxurious, it tends to “smack of privilege,” he said.
Never embark on a summer activity for which the main reason is to impress a college, added Ms. Rubenstone. “Keep in mind, it’s for the kids. It’s not for the college.”
Two activities that experts encourage are reading and writing.
Students should keep a journal and take pictures of their activities so they can relay the details of the summer experience in a college application. Reading classic books or the newspaper can be eye-opening—and free.
Test Driving a Career
Summer experiences might influence what students want to study in college or aspire to as a career. “Use it as a test market for feeling out what you want to do,” Mr. Birney said.
Dalton Burke of Sheboygan, Wis., has always loved cooking. He dreams of a culinary career and someday owning several restaurants. Now finishing his junior year at South High School, Mr. Burke will work as an apprentice this summer in area resorts through a program at nearby Lakeland College.
“I hope that I figure out how to work in the kitchen. You have to be fast enough, and I want to tackle that,” said the 17-year-old, who will work 40 hours a week, earning $7.50 an hour. “I want to see how hard it is going to be to get into this.”
On the payout side, rising juniors and seniors who are good at math and science but wonder how that translates into a career can pay about $2,000 for a three week science and engineering program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worchester, Mass. In its 29th year, the Frontiers program has doubled its enrollment in the past decade, with nearly 225 students this summer, according to Julie Chapman, a consultant for the program and the senior associate director of admissions.
“These students are interested in technology and want to see where they can take that. They are looking for something they can’t find in high school,” she said.
The residential program gives students exposure to various fields, college life in general, and the institute, in particular. Participants do not get college credit, but they are offered admissions interviews and access to a college fair to get them ready for the application process, said Ms. Chapman.
Jump Start on College
Students can rack up some college credits on a growing number of campuses eager to generate revenue in the slow summer months and recruit applicants.
Enrollment in Columbia University’s summer program for high school students has expanded from 90 when it started about 25 years ago to nearly 2,100 this summer for its programs in New York City, Spain, and Jordan. Students can earn college credit in the intensive three-week academic program. Price tag: $4,000 for tuition plus $3,000 for room and board in New York and higher at the overseas locations.
Darleen Giraitis, the executive director of secondary school programs at Columbia, says it’s a good investment. “The experience is life-changing,” she said. “Students have a taste of college, they are in New York City, and the program is so diverse that they meet students from all over the world.”
Attending the program doesn’t hurt students’ chances of acceptance to Columbia, Ms. Giraitis said, “but there are no guarantees.”
Last summer, 16 high school students took part in the first summer program offered at Beloit College, a 1,250-student liberal arts college in Beloit, Wis. This year, 30 to 35 students will enroll in a three-week course for credit, in which total costs run about $3,000, said Alisa Pykett, the director of summer programs. The smaller classes allow students to work in a field, take excursions, and get to know professors.
“For some, it helps them make a more informed decision about the type of experience they want in college—a bigger university or a smaller college,” Ms. Pykett said.
Families who understand the “craziness” of the college-search process know there is an opportunity to be gained spending time on a campus in the summer, said Tom Delahunt, the vice president for admission and student financial planning at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. In admissions lingo, it’s a positive “check plus” on an application.
At the same time, colleges are looking for diversity. “We don’t want a community of people who are all the same,” Mr. Delahunt said. Summer studies can run the risk of leading to academic burnout, and when making their selections, colleges often like to see students who have “a little bit of everything” in their summers, he said.
Volunteerism and Work
Dan O’Brien spent 3½ weeks last summer helping paint and refurbish classrooms in a school in Africa with a group from his Nashua, N.H., high school. The experience had such an impact that he wrote about it for a college essay.
“When I came back, I was in the high volunteer mode,” said the senior, who will go to Salve Regina University in Rhode Island this fall. He followed up with a trip in February to help residents still dealing with the impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
To pay for the $6,000 trip to Africa, Mr. O’Brien worked, had help from his family, and raised money by speaking about the project at Roman Catholic masses. He encourages high school students to stretch themselves: “Take every opportunity to help people and experience the world,” he said. “It was totally worth it.”
Much the same can be accomplished for students’ résumés close to home. Saige Williams is going to the University of Arizona this fall on a full ROTC nursing scholarship. Last summer, she volunteered in an emergency room, restocking supplies, cleaning rooms, and running labs.
“I got to help the nurses with whatever they needed me to do,” said the 17-year-old from Carefree, Ariz. “One girl cut her head open, and while the doctor was getting her sutures, I held her hand and gave her a Beanie Baby.”
While the hospital experience reinforced her career choice, Ms. Williams says her part-time job working at a local barbecue restaurant in the summer and during the school year was instructive as well. That taught her discipline, she said.
“You need to do a job and get it done quickly,” Ms. Williams said. “There’s no time to dillydally.” Managing her work schedule forced her to become responsible.
Her advice to high school students is to have fun, but be active: “Do something that is going to benefit you in some way.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2012 edition of Education Week as Summer Activities Build Students’ Résumés for College