How to Make Your Summers Meaningful
How to Make Your Summers Meaningful

It’s important to relax and take a break from the chaos and stress of school, but colleges like to see that you’ve used your summers for more than tanning and texting friends by the pool. Build your résumé and gain hands-on experience by taking on a job, volunteer project, or summer class.

Get a job or internship.

There are plenty of summer employment options that are fun (think lifeguard or camp counselor) and will pay you for your time. It’s a great way to start saving for college and working will show admissions counselors that you know how to use your time wisely. If you can find a job or an internship in a field in which you want to continue your studies, even better. For instance, if you are interested in hospitality, try working at a restaurant. If you’re interested in the environment, contact local government offices and green companies to learn about possible internship opportunities. Not only will you be learning on-the-job skills that could be applicable to other jobs in the future, but you will begin to build a network of people who would be willing to provide a reference for you later on.

Acquire service hours.

Summer is a great time to volunteer, especially for students who are swamped with extracurricular activities and homework during the school year. If possible, try to stay committed to one activity all summer as college admissions counselors prefer to see quality (long-term commitment to a passionate cause) over quantity (short-term projects at many different locations) on your résumé. There are all sorts of volunteer opportunities, and at least one is bound to align with your interests. You could volunteer at an animal shelter or in a hospital, clean up the environment, or create a school supply drive for underprivileged students who live in your town. Choose a volunteering experience that will show colleges what you care about instead of what you think they want to see.

Hone your craft.

If you are a visual artist, musician, performer, or writer, the long days of summer are a perfect time to sharpen your technique with hours of practice. Begin to assemble a portfolio or gather pieces for auditions. Most BFA programs are competitive and expect applicants to demonstrate artistic proficiency. Increase your chances of acceptance by practicing and preparing before your senior year. Find a coach or a mentor who can give you feedback on your work and can suggest projects or community classes that can help you develop and refine your skills. If there are local art shows to which you can submit your work, community theater projects in which you can participate, or locations where you can perform, go for it! Having actual experience listed on your résumé will be sure to turn heads.

Enroll in a summer learning program.

There are all kinds of summer learning programs of various lengths that may interest you. Start researching your opportunities well before summer rolls around. You may have to prepare an application for certain programs. You also want to give yourself plenty of time to make a financial plan. If money is deterring you from applying or researching your options, know that some summer programs for high school students offer financial aid and scholarships. Talk with your guidance counselor about your summer options for any of the following:

  • Exploring a particular subject that may not be available at your high school
  • Meeting new people who share your passions
  • Sampling college courses and experiencing campus life
  • Furthering your artistic, athletic, or academic skills
  • Earning college credit
  • Keeping your mind stimulated throughout the summer
  • Participating in one of the two federally funded summer residency programs available to high school students: Upward Bound and the Governor’s Schools

Work on your résumé.

If you’ve never written a résumé before, now is the time to do so. A résumé is a simple document that includes your name, contact information, education history, work history, and any other relevant experience. You may choose to include volunteer experience, a list of awards you’ve won and juried contests in which you’ve participated, extracurricular activities, or presentations that you’ve given. As you gain more experience, your résumé will naturally expand, so don’t worry about filling it up artificially in the meantime. Keeping your résumé up-to-date by editing and expanding it each year will ensure that you have an accurate list of your past achievements. You can then submit this document to prospective jobs, internships, or colleges and use it as inspiration when you’re trying to pick a topic for a personal essay.

  • View a sample high school résumé here.

Prepare for the SAT and/or ACT.

It will be difficult to find motivation to study for either standardized test when you have homework and after-school commitments bogging you down during the year. Use your summer to complete an SAT or ACT practice workbook, take a prep class, or find a tutor to help you navigate your way through each test. It’s worth remembering that down the line, some colleges may require that you also submit scores for SAT Subject Tests. If you’ve already compiled a college list, check each school’s admissions requirements to see what standardized tests you’ll need to take. The following blog posts offer great advice on how to prepare for your upcoming exams:


Most avid travelers are interested in learning from people who come from different cultures and speak different languages. Do your travel experiences showcase your passion for geography, politics, language, or culture? If you can provide respectful and humble insights about travel in your application essay or interview, you will stand out as a student of the world, not just a student of the classroom. There are summer study abroad options for high school students as well, if you’d rather travel as part of a program as opposed to on your own or with your parents. This website showcases summer programs that provide experiences with languages, leadership, and global discovery.

Apply for scholarships.

Unless you’re a graduating senior, you’re probably not eligible to apply for scholarships for a specific program or school, but there are plenty of private scholarships that are open to students throughout high school, and some that are open even earlier. Doing a quick internet search for “scholarships for high school juniors” yields thousands of results. Obviously, not each outbound link is going to be relevant to you, but you’re bound to find at least one scholarship that fits your talents or interests if you get creative enough with your searches. While many institutional scholarships are need-based or dependent on your academic prowess, private scholarships reward more than just your GPA. You may find scholarships that are open only to students of a certain ethnicity, location, family situation, or prospective degree program, or you may find those that will reward creativity (what would you do in a zombie apocalypse?) or artistic talent. The Student Caffé blog is full of articles about private scholarships and is frequently updated, or you can learn more here. Any scholarship you win, whether it’s for $500 or $5,000, cuts back on what you’ll have to pay in tuition and fees later.


Define who you are by picking up a book for pleasure every now and then. It’s the best way to expand your vocabulary and strengthen your writing skills for college essays. Not only that, but many colleges will ask about your reading habits outside of school when it comes time to submit applications. If you are asked about your favorite book in a college interview or application essay, you will easily be able to answer the question if you’ve been reading outside of the classroom. Reading also improves your focus and concentration, opens your imagination, and encourages self-reflection. Need more reasons? It’s a great way to relax. It can help you sleep when college applications start stressing you out. For help finding your next page-turner, use the following resources:

Explore your future options.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a senior or a freshman, figuring out what you want to do after graduation is important. While attending a four-year institution is the “traditional” route, you could choose to apply to a community college, attend a vocational school, pursue an online degreejoin the military, or take a year off to find your passions, pursue a job, or volunteer.

For students who know what career they want to pursue, choosing a future path is simple. A student who wants to be a doctor knows that medical school is in their future. A student who wants to be a phlebotomist knows that he or she can earn credentials at a community college or vocational school. It’s the students who are undecided who need to spend more time learning about their options. What are your passions? What do you see yourself doing in the future? What do you see yourself not doing in the future? Knowing what you dislike can be just as informative in mapping out your future as knowing what interests you. Students who know that they don’t want to continue their education right away may consider enlisting in the military; one who doesn’t want to be tied to a particular subject could look at liberal arts colleges. Starting your search early will help you find the best future options:

  • It’s never too early to make an appointment with your guidance counselors to get their advice and learn about what options are available to you. As a bonus, they know how the college application process works and will be able to help you out when you get to that point too. Building a relationship early can ensure a decent letter of recommendation in the future.
  • While college fairs are typically offered when school is in session (and you should plan on going to them), you could start visiting prospective institutions during the summers. Though campus is likely to be devoid of many students, you can still get a feel for the campus itself, take a tour, and arrange meetings with professors or admissions officers. Call admissions offices in advance of your arrival to ensure that you’ll be able to have any meetings you’ve requested, and once you arrive, ask lots of questions, and take notes.
  • Broach the uncomfortable topic of budget with your parent(s) or guardian(s). Knowing what you will be able to afford and how much money you’re going to have to come up with on your own will help you choose institutions that are financially attainable.
  • Take a hard look at your academic record. Are there places you can improve, and do you have time? Depending on the types of schools to which you’re planning on applying, there may be strict academic requirements. Know where you stand in terms of GPA, test scores, and the classes that you’ve taken.

Your future may seem far off, but high school graduation will be here before you know it. Having a plan before you finish school will make accepting your diploma that much sweeter.

Get a head start on your admissions essays.

If you’ve already made a list of colleges to which you’ll be applying, take a look at each of their application processes. Many schools accept applications submitted from one or more application platforms, which means that you can go ahead and create a profile to take a look at what you will be required to submit for each school. While the platform itself may only require one personal essay, particular schools may ask that you write supplemental essays or respond to short answer questions specific to their institution. Keep a list of what essays are required for which schools and begin to brainstorm ideas for how you want to formulate your answers. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, start writing drafts.

Page last updated: 05/2019