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The Best Way for your High Schooler to Spend the Summer

There are many dimensions to a college admissions decision. Most American universities implement a Holistic Review, which considers both objective, standardized measures such as the SAT, ACT, GPA, and the like alongside more personal, subjective deliberations based on submissions like essays about extracurricular activities, awards received, and recommendations from teachers and mentors. On that note, I would like to dive deep into a particularly interesting topic: summer vacation.

For the past few years, parents have shown the tendency to pigeonhole their college hopefuls to a curated list that consists of a limited number of the usual suspects: a college-sponsored program, academic research, internship, overseas volunteer work, and so on. This may be due to a couple of reasons. Perhaps they heard of a few success stories and wanted to emulate them, or they heard a rumor at the local after-school center, or a friend’s son or daughter is involved in some impressive-sounding program and they don’t want their child to fall behind. However, because the interests of students vary widely and their circumstances and environments even more so, it’s difficult to differentiate themselves through these hackneyed, rubber stamp summer activities. Many Korean American students are spending their summers with similar types of programs and volunteer work, and parents firmly believe that padding these with a random internship or research assistant position will help their child’s application. Nothing is further from the truth. We need to put more thought into our choices.

Preparation for summer activities begins during winter vacation and the beginning to any plan-building is organization. The overarching image I want to convey is of calibrating the upcoming year at the end this year. The student should begin by listing all her activities in order of their importance and meaning to her. Then she just needs to ask herself: what do I want to focus on and what are my long-term goals? This is when the magic happens. She may decide to do something completely different and challenge herself with something new, or she may uncover her true interests and come up with a relevant research question that she can pursue. This may seem overly elementary advice, but it’s worth repeating. Your child should do something that is meaningful to her.

As I mentioned in the introduction, the majority of American college admissions offices use a Holistic Review approach. This means there needs to be a balance between the quantitative and qualitative aspects of an application. For example, let’s assume a student lands an internship or research position through a blind recommendation from her parent’s personal network or through a consulting firm right after her freshman year in high school. Will this help her application three years down the line? Probably not. You can ask yourself: what can a teenager who just finished trigonometry and an introduction to world history do at a Fortune 500 company, or even an SMB? Not much. She might make copies or input some data, maybe blankly watch a professional do his job. Those few weeks or months will fly by with little to show for it. I believe the rising-sophomore would be better off experiencing a variety of original and exciting things during her summer. Only by experiencing a lot can she truly decide what is fun and interesting to her. These activities don’t have to be academic in nature. What’s more important is how unique and befitting the experience is. This could mean learning how to use a sewing machine in a sewing and tailoring class or getting a CPR certification to become a lifeguard because she loves to swim. She may love the smell of books and get a part-time job at the local library. She may love the stars and journey to different observatories in the area and more. But just as a reminder, we should not neglect her academics. When she has a minute, she can begin looking at the SAT or the Subject Tests. If there was a class she had trouble in or she’s taking an AP course next year, she can study for that in advance. My advice as a consultant will never be to force a student into a prearranged special program, internship or research position, because every student’s ambition and situation is so different. College admissions preparation is not one-size-fits-all. Differentiation is the answer, and this is impossible without authenticity.

The upcoming summer for students finishing up their sophomore or junior year is even more important. I recommend that the student find something that he enjoys and is substantive in his tenth-grade summer and do it again the year after. Of course, this is not an iron-clad rule. However, my recommendation stems from my desire to see students deepen their love for their passions and perform at even higher levels by continuing an activity in consecutive years. When this is the case, it is easy to see how meaningful repetition of activities can be.

I pondered a lot while mulling over this topic of spending an effective summer vacation. Why do some students just follow what their parents tell them to do? As a consultant, it’s much simpler to tell people what they want to hear: all you have to do is go to this special program, mix in this shoo-in internship, and here’s a summer overseas volunteer program that’s basically a glorified field trip. However, I firmly believe that creative and original students who aren’t tied down by those around them—who takes sewing classes and becomes a lifeguard, who learns the Dewey Decimal Classification out of love, who dreams of walking the halls of NASA as an astrophysicist—are the ones who are autonomous, thoughtful and happy. They are the perfect college students.

It is never too late to make the most of your summer. Now is the time to prioritize your aspirations and desires, and work towards them step-by-step. With authenticity and perseverance as your foothold, you will soon arrive at a choice. If you act decisively, then your decision will be infinitely more recognized and meaningful than following a random checklist of “best summer activities”. Act now—senior year is right around the corner.

2018 Mom & I 6/10 Vol. 8

Written By Jason Lee


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