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What I Did On My Summer Vacation...and Why It Matters to Colleges

Kristina Dooley June 01, 2023

Summer VacationSummer is coming! Summer is coming!

Every year we hear from parents seeking our input on what their children should do during summer vacation to "make their applications look better" or to make them a "stronger applicant." While it's true that the summer months are a great time to do SOMETHING, the question is whether what that something is really matters on your college applications.

Is a student who participated in a one-month robotics camp at a highly selective university more impressive to admission folks than the one who worked 40 hours a week scooping ice cream during their break? Or how about the student who joins their family on a month long backpacking trip through Europe versus one who volunteers at a local assisted living center reading to the residents each day? In a head-to-head battle for that coveted last spot in the freshman class, which of these summer choices could be the one to seal the deal on getting the fat envelope?

The answer? It depends.

As with everything on a student's application, it's not simply the "what" that matters, but the "why." Is the student attending the robotics camp an aspiring engineer? Or are they only participating in the camp because it's being held at Ivy U and they believe this will give them a leg up on their application to said university?

How about the student who'll soon be on a first name basis with every little league parent in town? Are they working because they want to save money for college or because they think their job will show that they are "a responsible young person"?

Oh, and that family trip? What exactly does "backpacking through Europe" entail? Hostels or posh hotels? Journaling or just great selfies for your Instagram account?

Finally, is the student volunteering with the elderly because they have a desire to work in geriatric care someday? Or do they just know "volunteer hours look really good on college apps"?

It's important for students (and parents!) to remember that colleges are looking for information on the application that provides a true reflection into who the student REALLY is and what they are TRULY passionate about in life. Contrary to popular belief there is no "magic" number of community service hours that colleges are hoping to see on applications - it's what the student has gained and learned from their hours that matters most...whether that's 10 hours or 100. 

While we're on the topic of myth-busting, participation in a college's summer program doesn't necessarily give you an advantage if applying to that institution. In fact, Jim Miller, Dean of Admission at Brown, stressed in an interview that "zero" weight is given to applicants who've participated in the university's summer program. He went on to say that the admission office does not know who has attended their program nor how they did. In addition, he made it clear that they are intentional about not giving preference to those students who have had the financial resources to participate in summer programs with sticker prices upwards of $9,000, such as Brown's.

Many admission officers agree the most important thing is that a student has spent their time off of school doing something constructive, particularly if it is something that provides some insight into who the student is and where their passions lie. We love this quote from former Tulane University Director of Admission, Jeff Schiffman:

"Colleges expect you to engage in activities outside the classroom, and that hopefully, you enjoy doing those activities, but what we don't want is you feeling like you need to be doing specific things to impress us. I know that it's really easy as a high school student to dwell on the past and worry about the future. What we want here is for you to experience high school and the future as it comes. Take advantage of these experiences and opportunities for growth that happen when you are 17 and stop constantly worrying what colleges think of you."

The moral of the story is that what you do during your summer vacation is noted by those reading applications. However, it's not just the fact that you did something that will matter, but rather why you did it. Before registering for a summer program at your dream school, or volunteering for an organization you know little about, take a moment to think about how your participation will impact you. Think about how, if asked, you could articulate to an admission officer the importance that particular program, job, or trip had on your life and how it impacted who you are at that moment. If your answer seems superficial to you, it will more than likely leave the same insignificant impression on an admission counselor.

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Tagged: college admission, summer break, extracurricular activities, volunteerism, volunteer, community service

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