Start Now to Plan for Summer Activities

A student’s academic record will always be the most important factor in admission to college, but the competition for freshman seats at top schools is so intense that many applicants have records that are above the threshold for admission. Top colleges must use “soft” factors as additional ways to compare qualified applicants. One such factor is extracurricular activities. High school students should seek extracurriculars, especially during summers, that improve their odds of admission.

This coming summer may seem distant in the midst of a harsh winter, but, for motivated high school students, winter is the best time to make plans and arrangements for summer activities. Many of the best internships, research projects, and specialized summer academic programs have limited spots and application deadlines as early as March. Starting early gives a student an edge in securing one of the more advantageous and sought-after summer activities.

Admissions officials at top schools note how applicants spent their summer months because they want to know what they value and how they might contribute to the campus community. Summer is an important time for students to not only improve their odds of admission but also pursue their passions and hone the skills that they will rely on throughout their academic and professional careers.

What Colleges Seek

Admissions officers filter extracurricular activities to identify academically qualified students who:

  • Possess a talent or skill currently sought by a department,
  • Possess qualities considered highly positive by the college, or
  • Closely fit the school’s profile of an ideal student.

The summer activities of applicants have a greater potential to favorably impact admissions than those engaged in during the school year, which are constrained by a high school’s offerings and a student’s time limitations. Summers allow students to pursue a wide range of interests and to participate in them in greater depth. Using summers effectively enables students to demonstrate interests and attributes that colleges often value such as leadership, a strong work ethic, dedication, a desire to learn, curiosity, and civic-mindedness.

Choosing Activities

Not all students know their educational goals as rising seniors, but to the extent that they do know their goals they stand to benefit from this knowledge. It enables them to engage in activities that demonstrate their commitment to a specific field of study. The summer activities of underclassmen can set the stage for the summers of rising seniors by establishing a record of commitment to a specific activity.

What about high school students who have not yet determined their goals for a major or career field? Is it too late for them to use their summer as a rising senior to their advantage? Not at all — colleges understand that the interests of young people often change. Consider the example of a student who recognizes her affinity and aptitude for civil engineering late in her junior year. She may take a summer college introductory course in civil engineering or work a construction job to gain insight into the nature of the work. Admissions officers will note the student’s choice of summer activity and may conclude that they’re serious about civil engineering because she has taken a positive step in that direction. Admissions officers will be impressed by her purposeful pursuit of a goal.

Students Who Must Work in the Summer

Students who must work in the summer to earn money for college or to contribute to household income can still seek to optimize their summers. A job indicates that the student is practical, responsible, and mature. Unlike volunteering, a student must always show up for a job, work hard, and perform well. Students should start early to search for a summer job that challenges their capabilities, has a path to a leadership role, or is close to or in the field in which they plan to major.

Recommended Summer Activities

The summer activities that are generally considered the most beneficial are:

  1. Internships: A student can be an intern for a business, professional firm, hospital, public agency, medical practice, or nonprofit organization. All of these organizations can provide valuable exposure to a future field of study. They enable students to make the case that they’ve already started on their planned careers. Real-world experience as an intern, especially in a mentored program, lifts an applicant above peers without such experience.
  2. Apprenticeships: Working as a summer apprentice in a field such as fine arts or engineering serves the same purpose as an internship because the student will become familiar with the field in which they intend to major. Some hospital volunteers, formerly known as candy-stripers, gain relevant experience by assisting nurses. Students who plan to major in performing arts can assist in local amateur or professional theatrical productions. Some may even become understudies.
  3. Research: If a student plans to pursue a career in science, participation in a summer research project displays a high level of commitment. There are many such programs, including highly selective ones that invite students who have demonstrated relevant academic excellence. Colleges recognize and value the rigor of summer STEM research projects.
  4. Academics: Taking college courses reflects a passion for a particular discipline and demonstrates the ability to do college work, both of which make an applicant more attractive. Taking a summer course at a prestigious college makes an application more impressive. Taking a relevant course at a local community college is also seen as a positive step.
  5. Specialized Programs: Specialized summer programs are held on many college campuses. Students start-up real companies at the MIT Launch program. UCLA’s Mock Trial Summer Institute trains students in public speaking and in preparing a case for trial as an attorney. The National Student Leadership Conference offers programs on the campuses of institutions like Harvard Medical School and Georgia Tech in which students can explore their future careers, develop leadership skills, and learn about life on campus. However, participating students need to understand that success in completing such a program doesn’t assure admission to that college.
  6. Volunteer: Colleges value applicants with a record of volunteer service that is dedicated to helping others. Such activities usually show the kind of enthusiasm, selflessness, and commitment that augurs well for advancing the college’s mission. Volunteering also presents opportunities to show initiative and creativity. Beginning as an underclassman, a student should seek positions of increasing responsibility so that they may attain a leadership position that will add even more value to their application.

If a student goes on a packaged trip as a volunteer to a third-world country as a means of enhancing their application, the nature of the service needs to flow from activities that the student previously engaged in so that it’s clearly genuine. Under these circumstances, such a trip can broaden a student’s experience and improve the chances of admission to top colleges.

  1. Online Presence: Most admissions offices search the web for information on applicants who make it to the final cut. As a summer sideline activity, students should construct a positive presence on the Web. Through it, they can showcase their distinctive qualities, credentials, experiences, and skills. This gives colleges insight into an applicant as an individual.

Students should use social media intelligently. It may be appropriate to set up a LinkedIn profile to highlight honors, awards, sports, clubs, and activities. Since colleges may review other social media to learn more about students, they should scrub their Facebook, X (Twitter), Instagram and other sites of any potentially embarrassing items and take steps necessary to secure their privacy from unknown visitors. If a student develops their own website, he or she should reserve their full name or a variation of it as a domain. On it, students can display an eye-catching logo and other attractive imagery. They should include a blog on their website which they’ll post periodically to reflect their ideas and observations in as favorable a light as possible for review by college admissions personnel.


A student’s admissions consultant or high school guidance counselor should conduct an assessment of a student’s interests and aptitudes at the outset of their relationship. With this information, they can guide the search for summer activities that will enhance the student’s profile and earn the notice of admissions officers. But these activities are more than a way to impress college officials — they’re meaningful experiences on a life-long journey of self-discovery.