Mar 30

3 Top Tips to Maximize Your Summer Break

3 Top Tips to Maximize Your Summer Break

3 Top Tips to Maximize Your Summer Break

Make the Most of Your Summer Break

As a high school student, summer is an excellent time to focus on self-improvement, skill-building, and exploring new opportunities. Since most summer breaks are around the same length as a regular school term, it also is a very useful way for college admissions officers to evaluate how you will operate when you have a bunch of independent, free time to pursue your own interests and priorities. Based on some simple napkin math:

An average 15-week semester of 5×7 hour school days = 425 hours of academics

15 hours a week of homework = 75 hours of academic study

15 hours a week of extracurriculars, clubs, and service (more if you’re an athlete) = 75 hours of extracurricular pursuits

That’s a total of 575 hours of dedicated and focused academic, extracurricular, and community pursuits. How does your summer match up? 

Colleges want industrious, productive, curious students who recognize the importance of always learning and growing and challenging themselves. Spending most of your summer re-binge-watching 3 seasons of The Office is not going to cut it. If you don’t have a plan for your June, July, and August, you are wasting an excellent opportunity to show colleges what you will do when left to your own devices to build your own schedule, which is exactly what a university environment is like. So, do you have a plan for the summer? If you don’t, definitely keep reading. Even if you do, there may be some suggestions below that can help you refine your summer agenda.  Utilizing your summer break can be a strategic move to strengthen your application and increase your chances of admission to your dream school. In this blog post, I will discuss several ways high school students can spend their summers in order to improve their college applications.

Do you want to improve your chances of getting into a top-tier university? Schedule your consultation with Tokyo Academics today!

1. Pursue academic interests, but do so selectively


One way to improve your college applications is by pursuing academic interests during the summer. You can consider enrolling in a summer course or program that aligns with your academic interests. There are numerous summer programs and courses offered by colleges and universities that allow high school students to explore their interests in greater depth.

Taking a summer course or program can demonstrate to college admission officers that you are committed to your academic pursuits and that you are eager to learn. It can also help you to stand out from other applicants who may not have taken the initiative to pursue academic interests during the summer. 

There is one major caveat to this: Many of these programs are pay-to-play. Their application process doesn’t require anything more than a couple of minutes spent filling out information and a credit card. Take your time to research the program, and evaluate it for some key factors:

Is it competitive? Evaluating a program’s application requirements can be a quick way to determine if a program has a certain standard of student capability it is looking for. Does it require essays and teacher recommendations? Or does it just require a transcript? Pre-college programs like Stanford’s Precollege Program or UPenn’s Summer Engineering Academy require several essays, teacher recommendations, and sometimes even a writing sample where applicable. MIT’s affiliated RSI Program has minimum standardized test score requirements, and strongly recommends a letter from a professor who has supervised your previous independent research. These application requirements are a barrier to entry, but also can serve as a guarantee for the type of learning community you are going to be a part of. Trust me also when I say that admissions officers are aware of the most competitive programs. There is a reason why students who successfully gain admission to the RSI program are pretty much guaranteed to end up at a top school. 

What is the output? When researching summer programs, always ask yourself “By the time I finish this program, what will go out into the world with my name on it?” Many programs offer college credit, which is one straightforward way of determining if a program has value. But other outputs can be equally valuable. Participants in Inspirit’s AI Scholars Program will complete an AI project. Those who join EXPLO’s Career Concentrations Program will not only gain hands-on experience in a career field of their interest, but may gain additional opportunities through building relationships with their teachers, many of whom are industry leaders or top professors in any given field. 

Does it make sense? This seems like a simple question, but a lot of families I work with choose to apply to schools simply for the name value of the university that it is part of. This type of prestige-hunting can often lead to students choosing from classes that have nothing to do with their high school profile and narrative, or are wildly underqualified to participate in. A clearly humanities-oriented student who just completed Algebra I taking a Harvard Collegiate Computer Science Course that awards a completion certificate is not going to strike any admissions officer as impressive, it will strike them as discordant and as evidence of a parent-led summer, not a student-initiated one.  

2. Volunteer, but do so locally and meaningfully


The caveat that I mentioned above regarding pay-to-play is even more important here. There was a time when colleges were very keen to take on students who has traveled somewhere to do good. Students who managed to go on a Habitat for Humanity trip and were able to write a meaningful personal essay about that experience were a lock for acceptance into a good university. That sentiment has changed. Voluntourism – as it is now often called – is viewed with far more derision and dismissiveness now, because you are essentially telling colleges that you paid a lot of money to go to an exotic location to make not much of a difference and feel really good about yourself.

The focus has since shifted to an emphasis on local impact. Colleges are ultimately small, local communities. Even large, well-known universities like Princeton or the big publics like UC Berkeley are ultimately pillars in a town or city, and they want to know that the students they accept are going to come on to campus and make an immediate difference in and around it. The service work that you spend your school year and summer on will be evidence of whether or not you will likely make that type of meaningful impact. 

So instead of planning a grand, expensive, two-week trip to somewhere to ultimately do very little, start with what’s around you. Take a walk around your neighborhood or school district. Read/watch the local news. Stop into a nearby welfare center and talk to the organizers there. What are the needs? What communities need support? What skills or resources do you have to help? Spending part of your summer identifying where and how you can serve locally not only demonstrates that you will likely do so in university, but it trains you to identify your own skill set, to view the community around you through a lens of service and empathy, and to take on the risks and responsibilities of confronting the uncomfortable realities of life immediately around you. Unlike a trip, the work you do locally during the summer can carry over into the school year, and build the long-term service engagement that actually makes a difference, for both your community and yourself. 

Do you want to improve your chances of getting into a top-tier university? Schedule your consultation with Tokyo Academics today!

3. Pursue work or an internship, but do so independently

Working or interning during the summer can be an excellent way to gain valuable experience in a particular field. This experience can demonstrate to college admission officers that you are committed to your goals and that you have taken initiative to gain valuable experience. But take care to at least initially attempt to identify and secure these opportunities on your own. Colleges want to see your initiative. Serving coffee at your parent’s company doesn’t really show the initiative or build the skills that colleges would like to see. Pursuing an internship is an excellent opportunity early on in your high school career to build your resume and practice writing cover letters, as well as building up the resilience and confidence that can only come through receiving multiple rejections. 

When a student mentions that they have a particular career or academic interest, one of our activities when planning out the summer is to build a list of contacts. If you are interested in sustainable architecture, who are all the local architects who specialize in this area? If you are interested in the ethics of artificial intelligence, who are the professors in this field? Make a list of contacts. From there, build a resume. There are plenty of templates available for basic resumes online. Build your resume, get feedback from your teachers and parents (who have likely seen many resumes, both good and terrible, in their lifetimes), and polish it. Then start reaching out to those names on your list. Ask for an opportunity to meet, for a chance to shadow their work or research, for an internship to contribute meaningfully to the company. Send out 75 cold emails. Send out 150. You will receive lots of “no”s and silent treatment, but you will also receive a few curious yesses. The fact that you are so uncomfortable and nervous about doing this as a high school student means that most likely all your classmates feel the same way. The difference is you are doing something about it or in spite of it. That already puts you in a smaller pool of high school students, which gives you a competitive edge when it comes to college applications 

It also gives you an opportunity to take inventory of your own high school career so far. A resume is a snapshot of your accomplishments to this point. Building your resume gives you an opportunity to pause, reflect on what you’ve done, decide on what you want to pursue further, and identify gaps that you can try to fill. Building your resume now helps you imagine what you’d like your resume to be when you graduate, which can give you clarity in terms of how you should be spending your time for the rest of your high school career. 

There are many other ways to use your summer. If you are intent on taking the SAT® or ACT, summer is the best time to prepare because there is nothing else to distract you from your practice. Aim for an end-of-summer/early fall test date, build a study plan, sign up for a group class, and study. The sooner you can remove standardized tests from your list of college prep to-dos, the sooner you will have more time to engage in the activities that really matter. If you are intent on pursuing independent research, use this time to read, write, identify a mentor, and find a place to have your work published. If you are an athlete, train, compete, and then train and compete more. If you are an artist, start building that portfolio and give yourself the time and space, and environment you need for inspiration. Many students view summer “break” as a time to relax, and you should definitely find time to do so, but it is also important to view it for all the opportunities it presents, to freely pursue learning and growth and community in a way that aligns fully with you. Don’t waste it.  

Do you want to improve your chances of getting into boarding or international schools?
Schedule your consultation with Tokyo Academics today!

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