Think of the summer after 10th grade as a golden opportunity for teens to explore interests and gain new skills — and build their college resume. Summer jobs, internships, volunteering, and learning activities give teens the chance to demonstrate qualities that colleges like to see, such as leadership, responsibility, conscientiousness, and taking initiative. And college applications almost always include questions about a teen’s summer activities.

As a U.S. News and World Report writer put it, “The choices students make as they embrace the summer months can impact their personal growth while providing important clues to college admissions officers about the character and convictions of the candidates they are considering.”

This kind of advice may be intimidating, particularly to parents who didn’t go to college themselves. What, exactly, does it mean to “embrace the summer months”? Are college admission officers expecting applicants to spend their summers volunteering overseas?

The answer is no. While some students take exotic summer trips or start nonprofit organizations to boost their college resumes, according to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who wrote Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, many college admissions officers are skeptical of such efforts.

Joshua Weintraub, College and Career Advisor at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, CA, agrees with Bruni that students don’t need to engage in exotic or high-powered summer activities to have the kind of meaningful summer that makes for a compelling essay. “One of my students wrote an essay about working at McDonald’s for two years. He wrote about how the job cemented his drive to become college educated. That’s the kind of thing colleges want to hear.”

The key, says Weintraub, is to do something. “Colleges are looking for people who are going to enrich their campuses, who are going to get involved beyond the classroom, and who show responsibility and the ability to manage multiple commitments.”

Excellent summer options for sophomores

Go to work

A summer job is an excellent opportunity for your teen to learn essential job skills and work habits that will help her thrive in college and beyond. Depending on the labor laws in your state, your child may be too young to get a job at a commercial business, or may be limited in the number of hours he works. But if state laws permit, a job at a grocery store, restaurant, or summer camp will give your child valuable work skills and a sense of responsibility — as well as a paycheck.

If your child is too young to work or if commercial jobs in your area are scarce, she may be able to find work as a babysitter or dog walker. Or she can offer her services for yard work, home organizing, or computer assistance. Encourage her to be proactive by creating flyers and distributing them to neighbors and posting them at local businesses and the neighborhood library.

Many teens have family responsibilities, and Weintraub emphasizes that these are valuable experiences that shouldn’t be overlooked when your student does her college applications. “I find that many kids won’t put these kind of responsibilities on their applications unless prompted,” he says. “Family responsibilities are the same as having a job. If a student is taking care of younger sisters after school and in the summer, it’s going to prohibit the student from participating in other activities, and you need to let colleges know your story: ‘I couldn’t do activities because I was watching my sisters, cooking dinner, and starting the laundry while my parents were at work.’”

No matter what the job, emphasize the importance of being punctual, working hard, and doing more than the minimum. For example, if your son is babysitting for younger siblings, ask him to initiate crafts projects and outdoors activities, instead of flipping on the TV set or video game monitor. If your daughter is doing yard work for a neighbor, encourage her to always put tools away, clean up work areas, and communicate clearly with the homeowners.

Take a class

If your child is interested in a particular topic, like astronomy, for example, or coding, summer school is a good way to help him explore the subject and develop new skills. Encourage your child to talk to his high school counselor about classes and check your local community college website. If your child takes a college class for credit, it will also provide a GPA boost. If your child is an athlete or artist, look around for summer classes or clinics that will help her build her skills.

If your child struggled through algebra all year or got poor grades in Spanish, talk to his teacher about summer school options. The right summer class could provide just the support your child needs to get on track and stay there as courses become increasingly challenging in the years to come.

Apply to a selective summer program

Many colleges, city governments, hospitals, and other organizations offer summer programs for teens. Some of these programs are free or low-cost, others offer scholarships or stipends. The Student Conservation Association, for example, provides students the chance to work on conservation projects around the country. The Telluride Summer Program for Juniors is an intensive six-week education program that covers participating students’ costs. Hospitals around the country, like Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, for example, offer summer programs for high school students interested in a career in medicine. Many summer programs that carry a high price tag, like UC Berkeley’s embARC Summer Design Academy, an intensive architecture, urban design, and sustainable city planning program for high school students, offer scholarships and encourage students from diverse backgrounds to apply. Your child should ask the high school counselor about summer programs and opportunities.

Ligia Alberto, who was a high school counselor for many years and is now Director of Assessment for the Bergenfield Public School District in New Jersey, says that many of her students have participated in the BOSS (Business Opportunities Summer Session) Program at Penn State. BOSS is a two-week summer program for high school students who are interested in majoring in business. “The students got a lot out of the program — and get a taste of college,” she says.

Give back

A volunteer job is an excellent option. Even if your teen has a job or is taking classes, spending a few hours a week volunteering is a good way to gain skills, explore interests, and show conscientiousness. If your child loves to read, check out opportunities at your local library. Animal shelters, food banks, hospitals, and senior centers almost always welcome volunteers.

Whatever they do, make it memorable

Whatever your teen plans to do this summer, make sure learning is part of the process. Encourage your child to start a journal to keep track of activities and reflect on experiences. It’s great writing practice, it may inspire a future college essay, and it’s a great record to call upon when answering questions on applications.

“College applications always include a list of activities, and kids often forget the things they’ve done by the time senior year rolls around,” Alberto says. “I always tell kids to start a portfolio of all their activities, beginning in ninth grade.”

Teens should try to include anecdotes and reflections from their summer activities in this journal, along with factual details like dates, job title, duties involved, and the supervisor’s name and contact information.

Summer experiences can be an excellent springboard for a college essay, and it is vivid details and stories that will make the essay come alive. Encourage your teen to write these stories down when they are fresh so she won’t forget them. Your child’s journal or portfolio will be a valuable resource she can refer to when it’s time to fill out college applications — and a way to hold on to memories, too.

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