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The Truth Behind How Students Should Spend Their Summer Vacations

Here is what it is important for students and families to remember when considering summer jobs or programs.

Kelly Herrington, Director of College Counseling

“Call middle America and sell, sell, sell” barked my boss. During my last two years of high school, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings I put on a tie and pretended to be an adult. Along with forty other employees, I worked the graveyard shift for Telecall Incorporated, a telemarketing company that sold credit cards. Most evenings as I chatted with people in America’s heartland, the only place I really wanted to be was in the middle of my bed. Nevertheless, I learned discipline and communication skills. Furthermore, my fellow employees were a wonderfully diverse group of people. I worked alongside single mothers, college students, and middle-aged men. During our breaks, we binged on twenty-five cent candy bars from the company’s vending machine while commiserating about the vitriol spewed in our direction when people learned why we were calling.

Not everyone we dialed, however, was annoyed. In fact, many were lonely and eager to talk. I remember the grandmother who wanted to chat about all twelve of her grandchildren; I remember the man who thought I was his A.A. sponsor and, despite polite reminders to the contrary, kept talking about his battles with addiction; I remember the man who had just lost his manufacturing job, asked me my age, and then gave me a lesson about NAFTA. What I soon learned from my job was that I was – in real time ­– receiving an education about the lives of Americans that few classrooms could provide.

I was reminded of my first official job this past summer as I sat on a rock in a remote mountain range in Iceland. I was the lucky recipient of one of UPrep’s faculty and staff recharge grants, a program that provides the opportunity to find renewal through discovery. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and a couple whom I had watched fighting with their teenage son earlier in the day on the trail had learned I was a college counselor. They wanted to ask me the same question that many families and students at UPrep also ask: What should a high school student do over the summer to look good to college admissions counselors? This couple’s fight with their son earlier in the day was about this subject. They wanted him to attend a summer program on a college campus, but he wanted to work at the local ACE Hardware store.

Here’s what I reminded this family, and what I feel is important to remind our UPrep students and families, too.

  • Students need their summer to recharge without the pressure of being over-programmed.  
  • It is particularly important for students whose lives are so structured during the school year to have downtime over the summer, especially early in high school.
  • The only summer that colleges are really looking at is the summer prior to the senior year. Students do need to plan something specific to do from June-August after eleventh grade. Our College Counseling Office has created a list of summer opportunities to help families understand their options.
  • There is no hierarchy of importance for college admission committees in terms of what students do over the summer. They are more concerned with the “why” behind how students spend their time. Internships, for example, do not trump summer camps, and volunteering is not more important than taking care of younger siblings.
  • At some point in high school, most of America’s high school students have a job.
  • Many parents erroneously believe that if a student attends a summer program on a college campus, this helps the student gain admission to that college. This is categorically false. Most of these programs are money makers for the college and many are run through separate organizations who use the college’s space. Where special summer programs on a college campus can help a student is in providing the student with exposure to a new scholastic content area not available in their high school; they are never a “back door” into that institution.
  • Colleges often wonder why students travel all over the globe to do service projects when so much need exists in these students own proverbial backyards. Never ignore what is available in your own community.

So my advice to the family in Iceland was exactly what I tell families and students at UPrep. If they really wanted their son to do something programmed over the summer, then they should let him choose. Taking the time over the summer to recharge, regroup, and reconnect is vitally important to student well-being. Students who have the best summers do precisely this, and colleges do, indeed, value these three R’s. And for those students who are rising seniors, if they have yet to decide what to do, I highly recommended getting a job, especially ones that expose them to a cross-section of society. I also highly recommend the candy bars in the vending machines at their places of employment and the conversations that unfold around them. From bite to bite, and from topic to topic, they will find both a middle ground with those around them and a robust education.

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