How high schoolers can use summer to boost their college application appeal

How high schoolers can use summer to boost their college application appeal

High school students have kicked off their summer break, but for those looking at higher education, it is not always a time to kick their feet up and relax.

Experts say college-bound students should create a summer experience tailored toward their goals. This could mean picking up extra classes, learning new skills or a language, or taking part in educational camps during the three-month lull from school.

It could pay off in the college application process.

“When the admissions officer looks at an application, it’s gonna go through a two-step review process. The first step is going to be a review of the numbers, which will consist of an applicant’s high school transcript,” said Greg Kaplan, a college admissions strategist and author of “The Journey: How to Prepare Kids for a Competitive and Changing World.”

The second step for the admissions officer is going to be to “read the essays and the activity descriptions and within those activity descriptions and essays, they’re looking for three key traits: grit, leadership and passion,” Kaplan said. “So, for what kids do in the summer, we encourage students to focus on either one, making sure that their numbers are as strong as possible, or two, they’re building out their activities.”

How are students spending their summer?

Pew Research found in 2021 more than 6 million teens had a paying job for part of the summer, another good college application booster. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics found that last summer, 55 percent of young people ages 16-24 were employed.

“The only way you can demonstrate grit, it’s not if you’re athletic, it’s if you can deal with life’s day-to-day challenges, and the way you show that, especially that you can deal with people, is a part-time job. So the summer is a great time to get a part-time job,” Kaplan said.

Other students will focus more on volunteering, with experts contending that any type of giving back to the community can help display qualities college admission officers are looking for in applications.

Some students decide to further their education by participating in programs or classes that advance their knowledge in a particular topic, said Vinay Bhaskara, co-founder and head of strategy at College Vine.

Think Impact found 97 percent of top universities offer classes or programs to high school and middle school students.

Although classes and jobs are not the only ways to get further education or experience on an application as experts point to summer camps they’ve seen students participate in such as camps for math or other educational or physical activities.

Over 16 percent of students ages 4 to 18 participate in day or overnight camps over the summer, according to data released by Go Camp in 2022.

Bhaskara acknowledged some teens may want to participate in summer programs but have family responsibilities they cannot ignore.

“Students who have family responsibilities that they have to take on over the summer, then, frankly, in many cases, they’re also doing a little bit more part-time during the school year as well,” she said.

Where should high schoolers focus their attention?

Options for teens are varied and broad, with options in academic enrichment or community-based experiences.

Experts stress that there is no one right answer, and every teenager will have a different experience over the summer.

“The key is to find ways that one can grow and that makes sense for your circumstances. And so no one should ever feel less than or ill-prepared because they don’t have the ability to pursue everything,” Kaplan said.

Victoria Dimock, a premier college admission counselor for Ivy Wise, said students should focus on experiences that would be difficult to complete during the school year because of time restraints.

“For example, if you had an interest in economics, not everybody tries to take a course like that in high school, so you might enroll in a program at a college or university,” Dimock said.

“Similarly, if you have a deep interest in something academically, it would be a great time to pursue research, either with a professor or a faculty member at a university or a college,” she added.

In 2022, the Department of Education found 34 percent of high school students take college classes. Dual enrollment has become increasingly popular, allowing students to receive credit in college courses before they graduate.

Should the summer look different for students applying to selective or Ivy League schools?

How a student spends the summer can also depend on ambitions.

“If you’re applying to a less selective school that maybe doesn’t have such a low acceptance rate, you can maybe have fewer of those experiences,” said Dimock. “It’s still good to use your summer for the things that you’re interested in, but the depth that you need” is not as great as a person aiming for an Ivy League school.

When a student is looking to go to a less selective school, they could spend time volunteering and that be the extent of it. High schoolers wanting to go to an Ivy League school may need to start out volunteering, then move up in the organization and take on higher levels of responsibility to stand out.

“A Harvard or Stanford applicant, when you’re writing about the impact you’re making in your community, and the applicant pool is very competitive, the bigger the impact, the higher the test score,” Kaplan said, emphasizing that two people can have the same experiences but those looking for more selective schools need to meet “higher expectations.”

Students aiming for selective schools may have to start thinking at the start of high school about what they would like to see their summers look like and what activities would stand out to their dream school.

“If you’re trying to get into an Ivy League school or the University of Chicago or Stanford or MIT, or one of those schools that’s hyper-competitive in the admissions process, the unfortunate answer is you’ve probably got to start thinking about that as early as that, like freshman to sophomore summer,” Bhaskara said.

How competitive are those schools? Harvard has an admission rate of 3.2 percent, Yale at 4.6 percent and Dartmouth at 6.4 percent. Outside the Ivies, Duke’s rate in 2024 was 5.1 percent, and the University of Chicago’s acceptance rate is around 5 percent.

But experts stress it is most important for a student to take the time to figure out what they like and not feel strapped to any one plan.

“Everyone should feel inspired and empowered to make this process work for them and to do the activities that just create as many options, and being thoughtful about how you spend your summer can only help lead you to admission,” Kaplan said.

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