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What Do Colleges Want You to do This Summer?

by Story2, on Jul 16, 2018 9:19:00 AM


“Tell us what you did the past two summers” is showing up on more and more college application supplements. “I hung out with my friends and thought about the meaning of life,” does not seem to be what colleges are looking for. Unfortunately.

Usually, asking yourself “what are colleges looking for?” will lead you astray—but in this case, it’s exactly where to start.

When we surveyed and spoke with 50 private college admissions officers, there were a few dominant themes about summer vacation. First, here are three things that you probably don’t want to do this summer:

More of the same

Even if you are a varsity athlete or semi-professional dancer or musician, and your summer is filled with training, use your recovery time to do something completely different: visit museums, walk in the park, do an oral history of your neighbor who served in World War II (there aren’t a lot of them left, BTW).

Fancy trips

Your parents don’t have to invest in an expensive service-themed vacation! College admissions officers are a bit suspicious of the student whose parents set them up with “fancy service trips to exotic destinations” that the student does mindlessly, almost like a connoisseur. Much better to visit your family or work on a farm, or something where you sit down with local people and speak to them in their vernacular.

Test prep

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do test prep—I want you to have those extra 200 points on the SAT as much as you do—but don’t waste your summer chasing them down as a full-time activity. Read great books and learn the words you don’t know. Do a few math puzzles each day. And make sure to write something longer than 140 characters to keep track of what you do and learn over vacation.

Summers are your chance to explore things that get lost in the shuffle of schoolwork and activities during the rest of the year. Here are some places to start exploring:

Study what you love

You don’t get a lot of chances to choose your courses in high school, so try something new over the summer. Register for college-level courses close to home or a pre-college program at a college you may be interested in attending. Just remember that the summer program at College X exposes you to College X professors and lets you live in the College X dorm, but doesn’t give you an automatic advantage in admissions there. 


Go someplace you haven’t been before, and learn to live and speak like the locals. If you are able to live with a family, no matter what happens, you will learn all sorts of things you never imagined—about yourself as well as the place you’re exploring. The less packaged the trip, the better. Visit relatives; work on a cooperative farm; be creative!


Either a paying job or an internship or a volunteer opportunity that allows you to deepen your knowledge of a possible career or community service commitment is another great way to spend those hot summer days. If your parents find it for you, it doesn’t count! Figuring out what you want to do, and then making it happen for yourself is part of the learning.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the answer to “what are colleges looking for?” is simply proof that you’ve pushed yourself to be the best, most thoughtful version of yourself that you can be. The great thing is that’s the best for you, too!

If you are looking for summer programs, a great place to get started is this free, up-to-the-minute list compiled by Shelley Krause, from Rutgers Preparatory School, and college counselors all around the US.

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Topics:college admission