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Countdown to college: How you spend your summer vacation is important

By Lee Shulman Bierer, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Education News

Thankfully, once students reach high school, they are no longer required to write the often painfully boring "what I did over my summer vacation" essay. But that doesn't mean what they do choose to do over summer isn't important.

One of the key components of strong college applications is how students have set themselves apart from their peers. It can be challenging for students to distinguish themselves during the academic year because every student at their high school has the same opportunities to take the same rigorous classes and participate in the same clubs, organizations, sports and activities. So summer jumps out as a great opportunity for students to do something different than what everybody else at their high school is doing.

Think of summer as a blank canvas and then start filling it up with what's important to you, as well as things you want to do and things you need to do. I usually suggest creating a patchwork quilt of different summer experiences.

If possible, it's a good idea for students to pursue their academic interests in a college environment. This demonstrates an intellectual curiosity that colleges value. Don't be misled into believing that taking a course at "Selective U" guarantees an acceptance letter down the road. However, spending a week or two on campus and going into more depth in an area of interest will absolutely be helpful as students try to determine what colleges should remain on their list and which ones should be eliminated.

What else can students do besides academic enrichment?

Help out. Summer is a wonderful time to become more engaged in your community through service projects or internships.

Get a job. Paid work experience is prized by colleges because it requires students to demonstrate maturity, responsibility and dedication. Don't look down your nose at entry-level jobs in supermarkets, restaurants or retail establishments; they are great training grounds.

Train for a leadership role. I always tell families that leadership is the most transferrable skill from high school to college. Colleges are continually seeking students to replenish the roles within clubs and organizations that are left open after students graduate. There are an interesting variety of leadership training programs offered.


Get a taste of the real world with an internship. Internships and job-shadowing experiences can be a great way for a student to test the waters. Seeing what the day-to-day life is like in specific careers will often be a pivotal, life-changing experience.

Be entrepreneurial. Start something new. Create a business with a friend and make some money.

Prepare for next year. Think about a club you might like to create, then do the necessary legwork over the summer so you'll be able to get it up and running in the fall.

Invest in the college process. Prep for standardized tests, finalize your college list, visit campuses and begin writing your college essays.

Oh yeah, and have some fun too!

Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.

Visit The Charlotte Observer at www.charlotteobserver.com

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