Summer Activities: Dispelling Myths about What Matters and What Doesn’t

Parents and students harbor many misconceptions about summer activities.  Avoid the trap of thinking that your child has to do something that looks prestigious or makes him stand out.  Instead, let him pursue whatever interests him, even if it lies around the corner.  A client of mine had reservations about letting her son, an aspiring applicant to selective engineering programs, work at a car mechanic’s shop over the summer instead of in a university laboratory.  She eventually relented and, shortly thereafter, I recounted the story to an admissions colleague at a top five engineering program.  “Our faculty love seeing applicants who work as mechanics!”  She exclaimed.  “It shows that they enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together — the crux of engineering.”

My client’s focus on a university laboratory for her son looks like small potatoes compared with what I have seen other families do.  Another client, against my advice, arranged for her daughter to split her summer:  She spent the first half at SAT camp and the second portion performing community service in Central America, all with college applications in mind.  Highly selective summer programs, like Telluride or a Governor’s School, catch the attention of admissions officers, while those that admit any student who pays tuition generally do not.  As for expensive trips overseas, former Grinnell College Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Jim Sumner differentiated “between those experiences that one has exclusively because of one’s family prosperity versus others.  We try not to reward a student whose family has a lot of resources just because they have them,” he told me when I interviewed him for my book, The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions.

Send your child to summer school or on an international experience if the specific program he has selected will reinforce a personal interest or will visibly make an impact on his intellectual development.  For example, one of my clients fell in love with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in third grade and spent two summers in England as a result.  Eric Kaplan, during his tenure as dean of admissions and financial aid at Lehigh University, recounted a “great” conversation with a young man from rural Ohio who, because of a Harvard summer school experience, “was realizing, maybe for the first time in his life, that he had intellectual peers and that it was okay to be really smart.  He was probably going to see himself differently from that point forward as a result of the program.”  Kaplan noted, however, that he also saw on his visit to Harvard Summer School “students who go to high-powered independent schools who probably work from dawn until dusk and could have used a break.”  If your child falls into the latter category, he should attend a summer academic program only because he wants to, not because he thinks it will impress admissions officers (as it probably won’t).

Figuring out summer plans for your teen?  Contact me for your 20-minute complimentary telephone consultation to put summer activities in the context of college admissions.