When college admission officers want to know how you spend your school days, they just look at your academic transcript. But to paint a complete portrait of you as an applicant, they need to know how you use your time outside of class—after school, on the weekends, and during your biggest chunk of free time every year: summer vacation.
That doesn’t mean you need to spend the dog days of summer melting away in the classroom—with the range of pre-college summer opportunities available these days, it’s easier than ever to follow your passion and still show colleges a summer of productive and engaging activities.
Here’s a rundown on a few pre-college summer options, including what each one says about you.
Specialized academic programs
Colleges treasure “angled” applicants who develop a passion and pursue courses and activities related to their interests. Specialized summer programs preview careers in almost any field you can imagine, from popular majors like business, government, or engineering to lesser-known fields like forensic science. Programs often combine advanced course work with visits to job sites and lectures from guest speakers. Colleges and universities that are leaders in various disciplines often operate specialized pre-college programs in those fields.
What it says about you: You’re so psyched about your prospective major or career path that you just couldn’t wait until college to learn more.
Advanced and college-level courses
You always hear that colleges prefer students who take the most challenging classes they can—but what if your school doesn’t offer a selection of Advanced Placement (AP) courses? High school students can enroll in summer session courses at private schools, community colleges, and even Ivy League universities. Most offer residential accommodations on campus, so you can preview campus life while sampling one or more courses from a variety of disciplines. Look for courses that award college credit and address topics not covered by your school.
What it says about you: You’re intellectually curious and willing to challenge yourself academically, and you can handle higher-level course work.
Travel and study abroad
You don’t need to wait until college to see the world. Summer programs abroad for high school students range from typical sightseeing tours to intensive language immersion courses. Itineraries may focus on one country, hop around an entire continent, and participants may stay in hotels or dormitories or with local host families.
What it says about you: You’re mature, fearless, and open to new experiences and cultures.
Intensive arts and sports programs
Summer programs offer the chance to see how you stack up against the best of the best from around the country, maybe even the world—the same people you’ll be competing with for scholarships or spots at selective colleges. One-on-one instruction from experts can help you hone your skills or develop your repertoire/portfolio too.
What it says about you: You’re going the extra mile to develop a special talent. Even if you’re not a future varsity athlete or star artist, you’re going to contribute to a vibrant student body.
Community service and volunteer work
Summer is a great time to volunteer because you can devote extended time to a project, instead of just a couple hours after school or on weekends. A number of nationwide service organizations connect students with projects in various U.S. cities or around the globe, often arranging for housing accommodations. Or you can look for volunteer opportunities in your area, with the benefit that you can continue to contribute during the school year. A sustained commitment to one organization also demonstrates your loyalty and dedication—valuable qualities admission counselors notice.
What it says about you: You care about the world around you, and you’re willing to put in the work to make it a better place.
No one ever wrote a game-changing college application essay about lounging on the beach or in front of the TV all summer, so get out there and take initiative. However you spend your summer, remember that the most important thing is to show colleges how you’ve learned and grown from the experience, both as a student and as a person. Push your boundaries by taking a college-level course or traveling to another country, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself and what you want out of college and your career.