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Unless your summer activities result in the discovery of extraterrestrial life or the authorship of the next Great American Novel, there’s pretty much nothing you can do in two months that will cause an admissions officer to stop reading your application and name you a clear admit. Summer is an important part of your high school years, but it’s certainly not the only part - and colleges know that.

If your family has the means to send you to shear sheep in Tibet this summer, knock yourself out. But please don’t do it because you think you need a splashy or expensive summer experience to get into college. There’s no need to break the bank in order to have a productive summer, and you won’t impress Harvard just by paying thousands of dollars to attend their summer school.

There are plenty of things you can do with your summer that don’t cost a thing—or that pay you, like a summer job—that are just as valuable in the admission review process. What’s important is that you choose what you want to do (not what mom or dad choose for you) and that you do it well. Students don’t just come up with their summer plans on the spot. It takes a lot of introspection and conversation to determine exactly how you want to spend the summer months, so don’t expect any shortcuts.

Here are some questions to start asking yourself: What do you hope to gain from your summer experience? Do you have any goals you’d like to accomplish or projects you want to complete before the start of the school year? Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn more about? What about a skill you already have that you’d like to improve? Is there anything you need to do to prepare for the upcoming school year? Would an extra math or language course help you get a leg up next year?

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You might ask local businesses if they have internships available or see if there's a need in your community that you'd like to address (anything from volunteering at an elementary school to picking up trash at a local park or beach). Be sure to ask your school counselor and teachers if they know of any opportunities available as well. It may be worth looking into programs that offer scholarships, or those that offer full or substantial financial assistance (Bank of America Student Leaders, Inspiring Girls, Summer Search, Gettysburg College Civil War Institute, and JCamp—to name a few).

It can be difficult to figure out where to start, so if you need some inspiration on what’s available, here are some examples of interesting things that successful Collegewise students have done in the past that were free or inexpensive: memorize 1,000 digits of pi, record an album with your garage band, read as many books in the local library as possible, fastidiously document and blog about every single World Cup game, set up an informal job shadowing experience with a local pediatrician, do maintenance on the Appalachian Trail, run for charity, volunteer to teach art classes at a summer camp for kids with special needs, and organize a hackathon.

Attending a summer program is not essential to your success as a college applicant. There are plenty of other ways to demonstrate your enthusiasm for dark matter or your obsession with Henry VIII and all of his wives. But the cost of a summer program doesn’t necessarily mean you have to forgo the opportunity to have a productive and fun summer. 

By Noor Haddad, Collegewise Counselor

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