What Are You Doing This Summer?

Production Manager, Porter Sargent Handbooks

Pre-college programs, volunteer excursions, special-interest camps, and more can make any summer more meaningful.

The carefree days of summer: they’re probably what you’ve been waiting for all year. But as college draws closer and closer, chances are it’s time to get a little more serious about how you spend your vacation. Sure, it’s hard to leave behind the days when your biggest decisions were choosing which book to read, videogame to play, or ice cream flavor to buy, but the wide array of programs available to high school students makes the transition to college-bound student a lot easier. Best of all, you can still do something you enjoy while showing college admission officers that you know how to make the most of your summer.

Pre-college programs

Did a great history class or biology lab during the school year make you see the subject in a whole new way? Maybe you’ve taken every computer program that your high school offers and need the next challenge. If you’re ready to explore an academic area more in depth or want to consider it for a college major, a pre-college program is the perfect way to focus on one subject at a time, while also meeting new people who share your enthusiasm for it. Many private secondary schools open their doors to students who don’t attend the regular school-year program, so check to see if you have any local schools that might be offering classes in your area of interest.

Even more common are colleges and universities that offer courses for high school students. Most have a residential option, so you get a taste of dorm living and what the campus is like before you even start your college search. If you’re not quite ready for dorm life, there are plenty of benefits to attending as a day student as well: your classes are likely taught by professors at the college, and you may find yourself in class with some undergrads who can give you more insight into life on campus. And depending on the subject you are taking, you and your classmates may be using some state-of-the-art equipment that might be out of the budgetary range for many high schools.

Another bonus: some pre-college programs are known for offering high school or even college credit, so your work over the summer can translate into money saved in the long run. And life is not all about classes and studying—these schools know you want to have some summer fun, so most days include time for recreational activities, both structured and unstructured.

While there are plenty of general courses to choose from, summer can be the perfect time to tackle a more specialized branch of a subject. For example, Tufts University offers an Adventures in Veterinary Medicine program, which divides the day between lecture-style classes and hands-on activities. And the Hotchkiss School has a Summer Environmental Science program, which emphasizes hands-on field research, data collection, and analysis techniques.

Or if you’re interested in global issues beyond what you see on the news, the Georgetown University International Relations Program for High School Students or Auburn University World Affairs Youth Seminar could be the way to go.

Interested in attending a program on a university campus but concerned about having to travel too far? Fortunately, a number of organizations run their programs at multiple sites. You might look into the Summer Institute for the Gifted for options in a variety of disciplines, while you can find the computer- and media-focused iD Tech Camps at more than 60 university locations in the United States and Canada. And if you do live near a university, chances are it has multiple subject areas from which to choose: Michigan State University offers a variety of programs centered on math, science, and engineering, as does Texas A&M University.

Special-interest programs

If you’re less interested in hitting the books and more about having the extra time to practice and increase skills, that’s great too. College admission officers like to see that you have enthusiasm for pursuing your talents, and a few weeks (or more) at a specialized summer program is an ideal way of showing your level of commitment. If spending time hiking or horseback riding is paramount to your summer, or if you can see yourself in a conservation-related profession one day, these specialty camps can take you from having some general knowledge to being an expert. There are a variety of outdoor- and wilderness-oriented programs geared toward taking advantage of the warmer weather—such as Elk Creek Ranch and Trek Programs—but if you love playing soccer or plan on being a part of the lacrosse team throughout your college years, a specialized sports camp can help you hone your skills and sharpen your competitive edge. These camps can be a great advantage if your sport of choice isn’t the strongest one at your high school but you want to catch the attention of the coaches where you’ll be applying to college. In fact, such programs as Summer Challenge Leadership Academy and Princeton University sports camps bring in college coaches from around the country to provide instruction, so they can help players get on a university’s radar and even lay the foundation for a sports scholarship.

Summer is also traditionally a season that showcases the performing arts, so camps and programs in this area abound. Participants at the French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts can choose from theater, circus, dance, or music as their specialty, while singers and musicians looking for serious training can be a part of the immersion program at the Berklee Summer Performance Program. Admission to some of these programs is competitive and may require an audition, but if you’re just looking for a course or two while you also grab some extra math credits, colleges and private schools that offer a range of pre-college summer courses often have options for the creative and performing arts as well. The Brown University Summer@Brown program, for example, includes such options as a workshop for actors and playwrights as well as a course on screenwriting.

Concerned that your interest in a budding field won’t have a corresponding program? A cool thing about specialized programs is their flexibility to adjust programming to keep up with developing trends and interests. Free of the curricular restrictions of the regular school year, schools and programs frequently assess their offerings and add or remove as needed. For example, once upon a time, if you wanted to study cooking over the summer, it took place around a campfire. But now the culinary arts are front and center at places like Camp Culinary Creations in San Diego and the Culinary Institute of America Career Discovery for High School Students in Hyde Park, New York.


Another avenue to explore for summer opportunities are those that focus on community service and helping others. You may be used to your school providing you with options for volunteering in your city or town, but summer programs can open the door to new opportunities, with options like building houses in a foreign country to learning a new language while contributing to the local community. Or maybe that local organization you help out with during the school year would be happy to fill up your extra hours once school is out. As CollegeXpress summer program blogger Dan McKeever notes, “the demand for service is so great,” you’ll find many choices when you start your summer search. If you want to travel but prefer to skip the touristy attractions and see what life in another country is really like, a program such as The Road Less Traveled allows you to lend a helping hand while also interacting with residents and seeing a perspective beyond that from a tour bus.

The holdout

Still not convinced you should trade in your traditional summer for something a little more involved and a little less sunscreen scented and relaxed? Well, there’s opportunity to distinguish yourself there as well. If spending the summer living in a cabin is second nature to you—especially if you’ve been returning to the same camp each year—maybe it’s time to try out a new role as a counselor-in-training. It will provide the kind of leadership experience that will stand out on your college applications, and your evolution from a kid camper having fun to a responsible young adult keeping the younger children happy and safe is sure to provide a great basis for your college essay. And, not to mention, a camp director who has seen you grow and mature is a perfect person to write you a college recommendation.

Paying for it!

Now that you know how awesome summer programs are, you might be wondering about the cost. It’s true that some of these great opportunities come with a high price tag, but don’t let that stop you from applying. Ask early in the process about the kinds of financial aid a program might offer, and be sure to act quickly if you are applying for merit- or need-based assistance, which may be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Local organizations may offer financial assistance to students attending summer programs, and some programs are even tuition free, usually for families with demonstrated need or from traditionally underrepresented groups in a particular field, such as engineering or journalism. Others are free for in-state residents only, so make sure you’re not overlooking local opportunities.

It’s hard to go wrong when you focus on doing what you enjoy while challenging yourself in new ways and accumulating the kinds of experiences you can’t get during the regular school year. Writing an essay on what you did last summer can be more than your first writing assignment back at school in September—it can be the part of your college application that helps you stand out and show admission officers that you’d be a great match for their school!

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