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A high school student's guide to summer planning

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Just when it’s spring and the world is “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful” as the poet e.e. cummings would say, it’s time for high school students to start planning their summer activities.

Gone are the days when a kid could spend all July and August under a shady tree, with a thermos of lemonade and stacks of books. Technically, it could still happen, of course. But somehow it rarely does.

Maybe too many parents are determined to prevent “laziness.” Maybe too many teachers and guidance counselors are warning about resumes and college applications.

Or maybe there are just too many iPads, smartphones and apps—too many mental distractions and virtual pitfalls that beckon.

“Idleness warps the mind,” said Henry Ford, that captain of American industry. Sometimes it seems that everyone over the age of 21—or almost everyone—agrees with Ford. Isn’t it safer and wiser to make plans—and lots of them? Busy yourself; that is the general consensus.

What’s summer without a daydream?

Artists, however, have long-argued against an over-structured and unimaginative approach to life. “Nothing happens unless first in a dream,” said poet Carl Sandburg.

His use of “first” flips Henry Ford’s maxim on its hard, pragmatic head. Sandburg makes an argument for those idle moments when watching the slowly morphing shapes of clouds in the sky may trigger lines of poetry, religious wisdom or new takes on the theory of relativity.

So … when it comes to college readiness and summer plans, what is a high school student to do? Should you go for the action-packed, busy schedule? Or opt for cloud-gazing? In my capacity as the College Strategist, I’m often asked my position on this.

In truth, I’m divided. Ford and Sandburg are each right in their own ways. But when it comes to preparing for college, it would seem—at first glance—that Ford is more right than Sandburg.

What colleges want to see

There’s no question that colleges want proof that applicants have spent their free time during high school on productive and mind-expanding activities. They want to know about your after-school hours, your weekends and your summers too. On the Common Application you must list your extracurricular activities and the number of hours you spent on them. If written correctly, your letters of recommendation and essays will back up these claims.

Because there are more students than ever pulling high grades and impressive SAT or ACT scores, those extracurricular activities—and compelling essays—are often the decisive factor that can push one application into the “yes” pile, while others get left behind. So how you choose to spend your high school summers will affect your applicant profile for college.

Find the sweet spot

Yet there are far too many high school students dashing from one resume-boosting activity to another all year long. Their schedules look more like triathlon training programs than the lives of smart, creative and engaged teenagers.

Will admissions counselors be impressed by all this unfocused, high-energy effort? Most will be skeptical. Colleges aren’t looking for comic book super-heroes. They’re looking for interesting and appealing kids with well-developed personalities. They want students who can handle the intellectual challenge of college and contribute to the community in one way or another.

That’s why the inner needs of teenagers and the needs of colleges often align better than you might imagine. And it’s why Henry Ford and Carl Sandburg are both—in their opposing ways—right.

Colleges do want evidence that a student is leading a productive life. But they are especially looking for kids who have a developed sense of who they are and where they are going. The best schools are less interested in students who have dutifully checked off all the boxes on the expected extracurricular activities list than in the ones pursuing their unique visions, wherever those may take them.

It’s time to pursue your passions

If there is something you love, there are good reasons to spend at least part your summer doing it. First, because it will make you feel happy and satisfied. Second, because colleges are looking for kids who are pursuing their passions—even if they involve quiet, unflashy activities that some people wouldn’t think to put on a resume.

If you happen to be somebody who adores literature, it might actually make sense for you to spend July curled up under a tree with a pile of novels or stacks of poetry books—or burrowed into the corner of an air-conditioned library—as outdated as that picture might seem. (That’s assuming you actually read those books and don’t get distracted by hundreds of text messages.) Keep a list of the books you’ve read. You can include independent reading as an extracurricular activity.

If you’re a science kid, spending July building a robot or getting a summer job or an internship at a science museum, a laboratory or another kind of scientific organization might be the ticket. If you’re a talented dancer, you’ll want to be sweating the summer away in a dance studio. And, if you’re fascinated by social issues and politics, volunteering to work for your local representative or a community group might be the right thing to do.

The point is to do something that you love and feel passionately about. That’s how the most successful people usually figure out their career paths. Along the way, it’s also how many kids end up at colleges that are perfect for them.

Summer jobs

Of course, in the real world we can’t always spend all of our time doing the things we love. There are annoying, mundane matters to consider—like money, test scores and the dreaded college application process. I am not going to lie—you are going to have to balance these things.

If your family needs you to work this summer—and you are lucky enough to find a paying job—you can make this into a plus when you apply to college. Schools understand financial realities, and they’re very impressed by teenagers who work, especially if they are helping their families to pay the bills or saving money for college.

Does a summer job at a restaurant or a supermarket count as an extracurricular activity? Absolutely! On your college application you can write about your job with pride.

Tests and test prep

Although many of us wish it didn’t have to be this way, tests and test prep are an important part of the college application process. Rising sophomores, juniors and seniors need to think about scheduling these things.

Will you be taking the PSAT, the SAT, SAT 2s or the ACT test? Do you need to prepare by studying or taking a test prep course? If so, consider scheduling the test prep—and possibly the test itself—for summer, when you’ll have fewer distractions.

But don’t let test prep take over your life. That would be a big mistake. Colleges are looking for students with good test scores; they’re not looking for dull people. If you spend your entire summer on test prep, you will become very bored, not to mention boring. Life is short. Even perfect 800s aren’t worth it.

Instead, devote some time this summer to reading books, newspapers and magazines. Test prep may help improve your scores on one test. Reading will improve your mind for a lifetime.

Thinking about the college essay

Whether you’re a rising freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, summer is the best time to hone your writing skills. You’ll need to be a good writer to get into college, and—more importantly—to survive once you’re there.

There are many ways you can improve your writing. The important thing is to write every week. You might keep a journal or write a blog. You could sign up for a writing workshop or a private tutorial. However you choose to do it, the secret is to write, rewrite and get feedback.

Rising seniors, you should take advantage of summer to write your college essay because you’ll be very busy in the fall. Anyone can dash something off at the last minute. But that won’t to get you into a selective school.

If you want college admissions officers to remember you, you’ll need to develop a strong essay. That’s going to take lots of time and thought, before you even put pen to paper … or fingers to keyboard. Allow plenty of time for the process to run its course. Start brainstorming your ideas in June. Plan to have your essay completed by the end of July so you’ll have time for fun in August.

A college road trip, too?

Summer is also the perfect time to visit some of the colleges you’ve been hearing about. For some, it’s a great pretext for a family road trip.

But before you get too far into travel planning, make sure you research the schools. The United States has hundreds of wonderful colleges. But summer travel time is shorter than you might think. Target the schools that make the most sense for you. When you get to senior year, you’ll be glad you did.

Make it a happy and productive summer

Whatever you do this summer, make room in your plans for fun. Follow your passion, take care of business, but also unwind. The school year is full of homework, papers and tests. You deserve some time to encounter the unexpected. And you can fit it all in.

Two-plus months is a long stretch. As I’ve suggested, you should be able to schedule both what you want to do and what you need to do. That happy mix will allow you to have a great summer, and it may make you just the kind of student your first-choice college is looking for.

For more information about planning for college admissions, visit the website of the College Strategist.

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