You’ll know what to do with your summer if you take a moment to consider what motivations all admissions officers hope to discover within their future students. First, remember that colleges see their mission as developing minds, and stimulating intellectually-grounded lifelong relationships. (Making students workforce-ready is a secondary goal.) So, they most desire students who pursue knowledge, at least in part, for intrinsic reasons. Students who are intellectually active during the summer, in some institutional capacity, demonstrate the sort of intrinsic motivation that colleges desire.
College applicants stand a better chance if they have demonstrable, self-selected, intellectual interests on their resume.
Choosing to engage in summer learning opportunities best demonstrates your commitment to your interests. If you’re history-buff, volunteer at a historical society, or an archeological dig. If you’re a musician, try out for high-level music camps. If you’re into the sciences, assist lab research for five weeks. Maybe you’re an introvert? Be a reader and writer in your area of interest. Create blog where you review books and articles, and comment on reviews written by others. Of course, the most accessible institutional learning opportunity would be pursuing your interests in summer classes at your local college or university. The content of your work, how deep you get into what inspires you, matters most.
I said interests, and not experience, because college admissions is not an HR department. Unlike job applicants, college applicants do not gain an advantage from having big-name institutions on their resume. Admissions officers won’t be swayed by Harvard Summer School, anymore than they would be by Joe Smith Community College. Admissions knows that the entrance criteria for big-name programs is no more difficult than that for community programs. While national summer programs may well cost more, (and generate lots of revenue for private institutions,) they often don’t even have their own professors teaching classes. Harvard Summer School will not get you into Harvard. If a national program is known to be academically selective, like the Yale Ivy Scholars Program, it may matter somewhat. But please remember, the reason you want a summer learning opportunity on your resume is to demonstrate interest, not ability. After all, colleges consider themselves fully capable of developing your abilities in your chosen area of interest.
What holds true for summer learning opportunities, also holds true for summer employment. Positions and internships with big-name companies, firms, and hedge funds will not impress admissions officers. They know that these jobs can only come by way of parental networking. Moreover, many admissions officers did not come from a background that would have given them access to white-collar summer work. Summer positions attained through privilege may actually have a detrimental effect on an applicant’s chances. In fact, the more mundane and blue-collar the summer employment, the better. When admissions officers see that an applicant handled the responsibilities and social aspects of working at a supermarket, a pharmacy, or on a construction site, they’re likely to believe the applicant is mature, college ready.
Make your summers count by knowing what is important. Colleges want students to be inspired individuals, and this is a wonderful thing.