January ’tis the Season for Summer Plans

January may seem like a silly time to start thinking about summer, but in fact, now is the perfect time to start looking ahead. By the time the school year ends, you’ll have spent many months working diligently to learn all that academic stuff. It’s important to know that plenty of education research essentially proves two significant points: one is that summer learning loss – the decline of academic knowledge and skills over summer vacation – is real, and the second is that it’s preventable. Want to find out what you can do to protect all that knowledge you worked so hard to acquire? Keep reading!

  1. No, this isn’t an argument to extend the school calendar into the months of July and August, but it is a call to stay engaged this summer and seek opportunities that will stimulate your mind and engage you in authentic learning experiences.
  2. And no, this isn’t just an early strategy about college admissions either. Although it’s true that college admission officers will like to see that you’ve used your time wisely and seized opportunities that are available to you, the real value of summer programs is that they help you discover your authentic passions and strengths. If you think you might like a particular academic subject or have an interest in something that isn’t necessarily academic, don’t just wonder about it. Do something about it. Find opportunities that will let you dive in and find out if your particular interest really is something you want to pursue more formally in college.
  3. Start preparing for summer now. For many summer opportunities, applications are available as early as December and due as early as March, so take the time to research these options early and know what’s involved in the process. If there isn’t an application process per se, you will still need to scout out these opportunities and establish relationships with the people who can connect you with them; that too takes time. So always think ahead!

Fortunately, there are plenty of options. Take a look at these:

University Programs for High School Students

These have gotten very popular over the last couple of decades. Many universities and colleges offer academic programs or coursework to high school students (usually to rising juniors and seniors, but sometimes to rising freshmen and sophomores). Because there are so many schools that do this, students can either live at home and commute to colleges or actually stay on campus and live in residence halls as they participate. Some colleges have programs aimed at specific professions and disciplines (e.g., engineering, pre-medicine, creative writing), and some offer broader options. The duration of courses ranges from a week to the entire summer. Some will be offered for college credit, but many more exist just for enrichment and exploration. You might want to build on courses you’ve already taken (and avoid that dreaded summer learning loss) or you may prefer to check out something entirely new. In addition, you’ll have the benefit of living on a college campus, meeting new people, and making independent decisions. So there is a lot to be gained – and a lot to consider when finding the right program for you.

Remember, colleges will not likely be impressed by the name of the institution where you attend a summer program. The selectivity of summer programs usually does not match the selectivity of undergraduate admission at the university. So your goal shouldn’t be to impress colleges with the name of the school but rather to show colleges that you’ve conducted some deliberate exploration of your true passions, that you’ve honestly reflected on your time there, and that you’ve learned from the experience.

Internships and Paid Work

An internship or a job – especially one in line with your academic interests – will provide a brilliant opportunity for you to put to use what you’ve learned at school while gaining significant work experience, and colleges will notice that. Also, internships and jobs will often require preparing a resume and interviewing – skills that also pay off when applying and other college prep activities.

Finding these opportunities can be a bit more difficult than making a simple Google search. Typically, it’s best to take advantage of your network (i.e., friends, teachers, parents, guidance counselors) to connect you with options that align with your interests. Any job is better than no job even if you’re just looking for extra spending money. So if you see a job you like, you should go for it! But the more relevant your experience is to what you may want to pursue in college, the more benefit you will gain from knowing whether that field is the right fit for you (and the more cohesive your college application package will be when you submit it).

For example, if you’re interested in economics and have snagged a job at a local restaurant, you could ask the manager if you can help with recording transactional histories as a way to learn more about micro-economics. If you think you want to study pre-dentistry, and have secured a position at a local dentist office, analyze how you can put to use what you learned in a science class or in your website design class. Using what you know will help with retention, bring real-world context, and provide opportunities to build on what you’ve already learned. The key is to be deliberate and proactive as you plan and ultimately select the right opportunities.

Volunteering and Service

What have you done for others? That’s a typical question many colleges will want to see answered in your application. Many high schools require or strongly recommend that their students participate in some kind of service. When choosing service commitments, think about ones that will take best advantage of your strengths and what you enjoy doing. If you enjoy the type of volunteer work asked of you, you not only will be happier but you’ll probably provide better service to those you’re expected to help.

Service for the sake of service is a wonderful thing. Ideally though, the type of service work you enjoy will be in line with the kind of work you will ultimately want to do. So again, choose options that relate to your actual interests. If you are interested in politics, volunteer for a political campaign, and let them know that you’ve developed great research techniques and know how to write a strong position paper. If you want to learn more about teaching, spend some time helping out in a classroom and let your supervisor know if you have experience helping friends with their homework. Think of service as yet another opportunity to take advantage of what you already know while exploring your passions and developing your strengths.

If you stay mentally active, you’re less likely to become yet another summer learning loss statistic. In fact, you might be one to raise the curve because you’ll be reinforcing what you’ve learned while applying it in new ways.

The more experience you gain, the better equipped you’ll be not only for returning to school in the fall, but for more rigorous work at college. You’ll also have a better understanding of who you are and what you want. After all, the better you understand your own strengths and passions, the easier it will be for you to clearly communicate that to colleges in your application package. No loss there. Just a win-win scenario!