Note: Scroll down to the numbered items if you want to just get to the ways in which you can spend your summer.
I was thirteen years old and the end of Form 2 (Grade 7) was quicklyapproaching. My seventeen-year-old sister came home bursting with excitement. She and her friends were going to start a summer camp to make some extra money and please, please, could she do it at our house? Always on the lookout for a sibling bonding moment, my mom agreed, with the non-negotiable stipulation that I would be made an equal partner and a full-fledged camp counselor. The quintessential second child, I saw nothing unfair or unusual about this. I was immediately on board. When the dust settled, my sister was left with the difficult task of founding a summer camp with a person who had no inkling of business fundamentals, and who was only three years older than the oldest camper. Somehow, past the inevitable disagreements and repeated vows that we would never, ever do something this crazy again, we hosted that summer camp for two years together and I continued for two more years when she left for college. In the summer after Lower Six, I got a more conventional job, where I learned an entirely different, but equally useful, skill set.
So, when college application essays asked what I had done for my summer and what my most rewarding summer experiences had been, I had an excess of stories. I eventually focused on the challenge of managing thirty campers with varied interests, from the initial phases of marketing and registration, to organizing transport and permission slips for outings, to the grand finale: a dance show for the parents and take-home CDs with pictures of the children’s exploits (both my sister’s brilliant ideas).
At the time, I had no idea how lucky I was: that my sister had been entrepreneurial, that my mother had demanded my involvement, that she had also allowed us to use our house as a base, and that I had continued down the path they paved for me.
Universities looked at my application and thought: entrepreneurial, self-starter, passionate, creative, leader, management skills. My primary thought, on the other hand: super tough for three weeks, but more money than I could make in six.
Now, as an admissions consultant, I speak to Form 6 students, who want to know how to craft fantastic applications. And, without freaking them out, how can I explain that one of the keys to my success was accidentally handed to me at age thirteen?
Snapshot of the activities section of the Common App
First of all, how important is the non-academic part of your application? Speak to colleges, listen to webinars, google “factors affecting undergraduate admission” and, for the more selective schools, you will come up with similar results:
Extra-curricular activities (and summers) 25%
Letters of Recommendation 15%
What this quick breakdown fails to point out (shout out to a College Vine webinar that explicitly focused on this) is that your essays often focus on one of your extra-curricular activities, so extra-curricular may affect as much as fifty percent of your application.
Snapshot of a supplemental short essay topic required by Amherst University
What does this mean for current Form 6 students? Is it too late to supplement your application? Of course not. My sister founded the camp when she was in Form 6; she subsequently attended the University of Pennsylvania, at the time ranked fifth in the U.S. alongside MIT and Stanford. Does it mean that you should start a summer camp? Also no. Many people do not have the resources to do this. More importantly, you are trying to create an application that shows your personality and how that personality will contribute to college and beyond. I was applying to a major in Economics, so starting a business made complete sense. However, there are many summer activities that may supplement your specific application in a more cohesive manner. Finally, I am writing this primarily for internationals and, this year in particular, applicants from Trinidad and Tobago. Although universities see thousands of applications, those from Trinidad and Tobago tend to be few and therefore unique, and it might look a little strange if this year’s applicants all founded some version of a summer camp.
So let’s focus on how you can make your application as strong as possible this summer. (I will address school term extra-curricular in a different post.)
Selective colleges are searching for students who enhance the school community. They are also looking to find students who will be successful well after graduation.
Below, I have broken down four ways in which you might signal to colleges that you are one of those students.
One of the key indicators of community participation and future success is passion. And passion is observed in activities that go above and beyond the normal.
Examples include an aspiring writer successfully creating and marketing a blog, a musician teaching music to younger children in his free time, a future lawyer spending time at court listening to court cases, a student-athlete attending a specialized, technical summer camp, or a potential doctor doing work at a research lab or in a pediatric ward.
In these examples, students aren’t just happy doing what interests them. Instead, they feel the need to share, teach, expand upon, or practice these interests.
Since students have so much more free time during summer vacation, this is where admissions officers can identify students with passion according to how they spend their time.
Another key indicator of future success is talent and strong performance of that talent. Examples include regional or national team tournaments, dance performances, music recitals or competitive academic pursuits.
Think about cataloguing your performance, from MVP in a specific game, to bronze medalist of the league. Keep videos or pictures of your performances and document events that might be significant to universities.
A third indicator in identifying strong applicants is looking at instances in which they have tried something unique. Athletes are a dime a dozen, but an athlete who has also learned to play the violin well is much more difficult to find. Again, summer is when students have more free time, so while a deep focus on one extra-curricular may be understandable during the term, candidates who use their summers to explore other interests are considered more desirable. Other examples include traveling alone for the first time, taking a coding class, or learning a new language.
When admissions officers see international students trying new activities, they identify these students as more likely to easily adapt to a new country, unfamiliar classes and a different culture.
Not everyone has the luxury of exploring an interest, or the depth of ability to perform at a competitive level. Good news – the final indicator of unique, desirable candidates is how they contribute to the community, from strong service records, to getting jobs that helps support their families, to taking care of ailing relatives, to participating in political youth groups. These candidates show that their communities – which can be defined in many ways, including family, neighborhood, race, gender, religion, country and more – are of paramount importance, sometimes more important than their own pursuits. This signals to universities that the candidate will both value and enhance his/her college community.
In the application, your summers will feature prominently in your essays and in the extra-curricular section. Universities are not looking for students who pad their resumes with a million summer activities. They are looking for genuine students, and this will be apparent in the way you write and the emotions evoked by your summer activities.
Summer should complement your existing resume, either by deepening and exploring current passions and talents, broadening your existing pool of interests, or contributing in a meaningful way to your community.
I had one student who spent his entire summer reading philosophy and getting his life back on track. I had another student who spent her summer struggling with remedial classes to cope with a recently-discovered learning disability. There is no “right way” to spend your summer. Simply make sure that what you do makes sense in the narrative of who you are and what type of college student you want to become.
Looking forward to comments and questions below!