Summer — and college applications — may seem far off, but now’s the time to think about both. What’s the connection? Your child’s activities this summer (and in high school summers to follow) are a factor that colleges consider when they review applications.

Good grades and test scores are important, but colleges also want to know about your child’s interests and responsibilities outside of school. On college applications, your child will be asked to list all the activities they participated in during high school because such activities demonstrate qualities that colleges are looking for — qualities like initiative, persistence, conscientiousness, and leadership. Over the summer, a teen can grow a lot through new and challenging summer activities. And that’s a story your teen may be able to tell in their college essay.

Parents, particularly those who didn’t go to college themselves, may wonder: To stand out on their college applications, do students have to do something incredible, like intern at a high-powered biotech company, work at a clinic in Haiti, or take expensive summer classes at an Ivy League school? Luckily, no.

“Whether it is a job, an academic program, volunteering, helping out at home — anything that is not sitting around the house watching TV or playing video games,” explains Joshua Weintraub, College and Career Advisor at Lighthouse Charter School in Oakland, CA.

Weintraub encourages his students to spend the summer after ninth grade engaged in activities that will add to their experiences and skills. “Do something that helps you make strides to improve yourself and improve the community around you, and it will also be valuable for your college resume,” he advises.

College sources — from private counselors to the College Board — reiterate that colleges want to see your child for who he/she/they is, whether that’s showing initiative, taking calculated risks, practicing special talents, showing a sense of social responsibility, or being a productive member of a family.

Key tips for the summer after ninth grade

  • Ninth graders should start making summer plans now because summer jobs and other programs are competitive. Many opportunities require students to apply well in advance, particularly those that offer scholarships for students from low-income families.
  • The high school counseling office should have information about summer jobs, internships, and academic programs that are open to ninth graders. Local government, college, hospital, and nonprofit websites are also good sources of local ideas.
  • Whatever your teen does this summer, emphasize the importance of being responsible and doing more than the minimum. If your daughter has a summer job, for example, encourage her to always show up on time, be willing to learn new tasks, and earn additional responsibilities. If your son is taking care of younger siblings, ask him to initiate daily craft projects and outings rather than letting his siblings veg in front of the TV.
  • No matter what your teen does this summer, encourage them to keep a journal to record their summer activities. When writing, teens should include details like the dates worked, job responsibilities (especially when responsibilities grow), and any anecdotes and reflections about their experiences. This information will come in handy when it’s time to fill out college applications.

College planning resources