What are the Five Best and Worst High School Activities for College Applications?

The Five Best and Worst Activities for Summer

Summer is when high school students can engage in meaningful activities that greatly enhance their college applications. Since college applications contain information about a student's record from 9th through 12th grade, it makes sense to plan advantageous summer activities for the three summers that precede a student's entry into college. The summers after 10th grade and 11th grade are particularly important because many colleges ask students to list these activities.

Conversely, many activities do not help, and may actually weaken, a student’s college admission profile. For example, it is great fun to go to summer camp, but doing so will not enhance a student's college application. It is also wonderful for families to travel together over the summer—to see parts of the country or parts of the world. However, summer vacations that are taken purely for fun actually weaken a student’s application.

In general, it makes sense to research and enroll in summer activities that will strengthen a student's activity list on the common application and individual college applications. More specifically, it is advantageous to pick summer activities that somehow connect with a student's unique selling proposition—his most important attribute or contribution to society. It also makes sense to pick summer activities that strengthen a student's case for admission into a particular school, department, or discipline. For example, if a student is going to list engineering as his first area of interest, it would make sense to have summer activities related to engineering to bolster that student’s engineering profile.

Here's a list of five of the best and worst college-focused activities for summer.

The Five WORST College-Focused Activities for Summer Are:

1. Extended SAT camps. SAT scores are critically important to college admission. However, SAT prep can be done anytime. Wasting an entire summer preparing for the SAT is throwing away an opportunity to build a meaningful summer activity list. You would be far better advised to undertake a meaningful summer activity, and leave a few weeks during the summer to study for the SAT.

2. Hanging out with friends. Everybody loves spending time with their friends, but they would be well advised to not make this a summer-long activity. One or two weeks is fine. Anything more is a lost opportunity.

3. Family vacations. Again, family vacations are very important, but extended summer-long family vacations after 9th, 10th, or 11th grade, only serve to weaken a student's college admission activity list.

4. Preparing for math competitions or science Olympiads. Unless you are in an elite category of students who has a legitimate chance to win math competitions or science Olympiads, preparing for such contests is extremely time-consuming and offers little chance of reward. Coming in 5th will not help you. Therefore, spending a summer studying for these contests is a very poor use of time. Conversely, winning these contests can be extremely rewarding and helpful toward college admission.

5. Visiting colleges. Yes, visiting three, four, or five colleges over the course of a week or two is fine. However, a summer-long road trip to visit 15 colleges is a big waste of time. Think of it this way—you do get a little kick from each college visit, as long as that college considers demonstrated interest in its admission decisions. However, you lose the opportunity to engage in a few activities that would help strengthen your application for all the colleges to which you are applying. College visits are important, but there are other times they can be done. For example, Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, spring break, and long weekends are excellent times to visit colleges.

The Five BEST College-Focused Activities for Summer Are:

1. Internships. Compared to other summer activities, internships can be hard to find. But they offer a great reward to those who can find them. Internships should be related to the student’s interests and should result in a tangible outcome such as a paper (published, if possible), presentation, or poster.

2. Academic enrichment programs. There are thousands of these out there, and many of them are quite good or excellent. Colleges like to see the students care enough to enhance their own knowledge of a subject or improve their skills in a specific area. In particular, there are many excellent science programs, business programs, and writing programs.

3. Community service. This is still one of the big checkboxes for colleges. They appreciate students who dedicate their time to helping others, their community, or the world. There are many good community service options out there. It helps to do your research to differentiate organizations that are truly altruistic from those that are more commercial.

4. Work. Colleges appreciate students who have work experience. Whether you need to earn money to help your family or simply to get experience in the workplace, working during the summer, or during the school year, is regarded as a wholesome and positive activity by colleges.

5. Research. Working with a college professor, for example, is a powerful and meaningful summer activity. Even independent research is highly regarded by colleges, as long as that research can be verified. It is not enough to say you did the research; you must be able to prove it. Further, research is often followed up by a research paper. Submitting that paper to colleges can be extremely helpful.