Using Your Summer Wisely

There is so much to love about summer: the long days, the last-minute social gatherings, the delicious produce, and last but certainly not least, the respite from strict routines and schedules. But as a college consultant, I would not be doing my job if I didn’t encourage high school students to do some college preparation over the summer. For rising seniors planning to apply to colleges by or before November 1st, this is critical.

Read on for specific tips rising freshmen through rising seniors should do this summer in between beach outings and summer jobs.

Freshmen:

Even though it is a bit too early for rising freshmen to research colleges (as students’ priorities will certainly change over the next several years), it is never too early to set goals. Spending a little bit of time over the summer thinking about long-term goals and how to get there is a wise use of your time. Colleges will be looking at what students did with their free time starting with the summer before their freshmen year in high school.

Think about what you are doing this summer, and ask yourself if there is anything you are doing that you would want to share with colleges? If not, consider volunteering, taking an online class, working on a unique hobby, or learning a new skill. Review the clubs and organizations your high school offers and plan out things you will try your freshmen year. Additionally, review the courses offered at your high school. Create a tentative four-year curriculum plan. Is there anything you can do now (like take a summer class or brush up your foreign language or math skills) to set you up to take a higher-level course your junior and senior year?

Oh, and yes, freshmen year grades matter! Even though a few colleges (like the University of California system) does not consider freshmen year grades in their admissions, most colleges do! And it is much easier to build upon or maintain a strong GPA than it it is to move your cumulative GPA up after a rocky freshmen year. Plan to start the year strong.

Sophomores:

Summer before sophomore year is a great time to learn more about yourself and your interests, talents, and values. Colleges like to see students that take advantage of their high school’s resources (including career-related learning experiences), and who step up their involvement in clubs and activities. Take time this summer to job shadow a few of your parents’ friends in areas of interest or simply in different career areas to gain exposure to various career fields. You will likely have to answer a “Why this Major?” essay down the road, and discovering your interests now allows you time to explore these areas more deeply.

Reflect on your freshmen year grades and courses. What are you proud of, and where do you think you could have done better? Set up resources now to help you improve your grades, study habits, and/or ability to juggle challenging coursework. Resources could include a tutor, a better calendar/time-management system, or learning how to advocate for yourself and asking for help.

Juniors:

Additionally, review your list of activities from freshmen year. If you are not very involved or interested in one of your activities, consider giving that up and think about how you can make a bigger impact in one or more of your other extracurriculars.

This is when college planning kicks into high gear. You will be juggling your coursework and extracurriculars with the addition of standard tests and college research. My advice: do not wait until January of your junior to get serious about college planning. Instead, take time over the summer to map out a standardized test plan and maybe start prepping over the summer. Use last year’s PSAT results as a starting point to help determine where you need to focus and how much of an improvement you will likely need to meet your college goals. Test prep experts often recommend a minimum of 10-12 weeks-worth of prep, so map out test dates that allow you time to prepare 2-3 months in advance.

One of the biggest things that stress both students and parents is developing a college list. Once you know what you are looking for in a college, this process becomes much clearer. Instead of procrastinating and allowing your fear about this task grow, use your junior summer to write down your interests (academic and social) along with your needs (financial, academic, location), and your wants (social, academic, financial, location). Then look for schools that meet those needs for you.

Seniors:

Students that work on essays and applications over the summer tend to produce much stronger applications, and certainly feel more confident and less stressed about the process when school starts. Rising seniors have roughly eight weeks of summer left to work on applications that will be due in four months (if they will be applying to colleges by November 1st). Four months seems like a long time, but some “experts” say that students should spend 60-200 hours in total on the college search and application process.

The amount of time you should spend will vary depending on many factors. If your list is not final, you should be spending more time finalizing your list this summer. The longer your list, the more time you should spend researching your schools, writing school-specific essays, and understanding each college’s application requirements. The more selective the schools are on your list, the more time you should be spending on communicating with them in a meaningful way to show your sincere interest and fit. If you are applying to schools that require a portfolio or audition, you should be dedicating more time to college preparation this summer. 

To be safe (and based on my years of experience and other expert opinions) plan that it will take you an average of 12-22 hours per college application. With approximately 17 weeks until the popular early college application deadline of November 1st, you should be able to calculate how many hours each week you need to budget for yourself between now and the end of October. You can see how 17 weeks will go by quickly!! 

Regardless of your year in high school, spending time some time on your long-term goals over the summer will set you up for a more successful year and, eventually, a more successful college application process.