If you’re a high-school student right now, you’ve likely got two things on the brain: passing your finals and summer vacation. Hopefully, in that order. But summer vacation is no longer all fun and games. These days, there’s the expectation to fill June, July, and August with resume-building activities. Family vacations get replaced with company outings; chasing the ice-cream truck gets replaced with pursuing the Ivy League. And, if you’re lucky, your summer plans provide an experience worthy of (cue dramatic music) … the college essay. But a summer spent solely focused on college admissions? Lana Del Rey and I would consider that some serious “Summertime Sadness”.
So is there a way to H.A.G.S (Have a Great Summer!) and still gain the ammunition for a college essay that will bring the heat? Here are three tips for making sure you don’t spend your summer getting burned.
1. Do Your Thing - Not Someone Else’s
When deciding how to spend your summer vacation, it’s easy to compare your plans with those of your classmates or friends. If Shannon is volunteering in Peru, shouldn’t I volunteer in Peru? Maybe. But do you speak Spanish like Shannon does? Do you have a passion for the cause? They say that comparison is the enemy of joy. That’s true. It’s also the enemy of individualism… something that colleges look for in applicants.
If you have the privilege of choices, pick an activity that you’re genuinely excited about. The truth of the matter is that passion is palpable. And lies reek. Pick an activity that you’d be excited to talk about if someone asked you, “So what did you do last summer?”
If you do not have the luxury of pursuing your interests during the summer, whether it be due to financial, educational, or personal reasons, do not be discouraged. In fact, I worked a pizza place answering the phone next to the 600-degree oven, the summer after my junior year of high school. What started as a job to make some money actually became the fodder for not only my college essay but my first play (and an individual-study project that certainly helped get me into my college of choice). The truth is that you never know what experiences are going to shape who you are as a person. So whatever you choose to do with your summer, do it with your full self. Do not apologize for it or compare it to someone else’s choices.
2. Don’t Forget A Pencil
Once you’ve decided what to do with your summer, go out and find yourself a notebook. It may sound silly or juvenile; but creating a summer journal is a sure-fire way to ensure that the details of your summer don’t get washed away in the surf. The entries don’t need to be formal or elaborate. In fact, the more casual and authentic the better.
Okay, but what do I write?
Lists are my favorite. Places you remember. Smells and pets. Times you’ve been in fights. Days you’ll never forget. If you find yourself around a campfire on a summer night, take a few moments to document how it feels, what it looks like, who you’re with. The more specific, the better. That list might end up being the first paragraph in your essay about how your uncle’s ghost story encouraged you to dig through those unmarked boxes in the attic, which led you to discover that a distant relative of yours used to work in public service, and now you know you want to study government. Is that a stretch? Perhaps. But will a list of adjectives describing the campfire help set the scene for a meaningful essay? Certainly.
In addition to lists, keep track of the cast of characters you encounter during your summertime jaunts. Get to know the lifeguards, the restaurant managers, the customers, the kids you babysit. These folks may start out as strangers, but some of them may become the heroes, clowns, friends, and mentors of your summer.
Lastly, every once in a while, look back at your entries and make note of any trends you notice. Do you always stop to write when you see a body of water? Is everyone you describe in your journal an artist of some kind? Once you recognize any trends in your entries, think about what they might mean. Is there a pattern that might speak to who you are as a person or the kinds of people/places/things that intrigue you? Acknowledging trends might lead you to a significant discovery about yourself.
3. Be True to your School
School’s out. We understand that pulling out your notebooks is the last thing that you want to do while you’re next to the pool. But, summer is a great time to fine-tune skills that may need some more love. Did calculus really get you down? Has your violin been collecting dust? Now, you have the luxury of some extra time. The attention doesn’t have to be formal (though tutoring, summer school, and study groups are always solid options); rather, take some time to be honest about where you could improve. Setting summer goals in order to improve on a weakness or rekindle a love for a hobby shows that you are self-motivated.
Think about it this way… by establishing an academic or extra-curricular goal for yourself during the summer, you recognized an area in which you could use improvement. Then, you (hopefully) formulated a plan, overcame obstacles, and learned something new (likely about yourself, how you learn, and what’s important to you). Sounds like a pretty solid college essay to me. Besides, spending some time with your books during the summer will also ensure that going back to school feels like smooth sailing rather than surviving the high seas.
Remember, your college essay illustrates a mere slice of who you are. It does not define your entire personality, so do not let it define your whole summer.
Need help with your college applications? Fret not. We have a full team of Harvard, Columbia, and MIT grads who can help you prepare for college.