Colleges aren’t looking for well-rounded students; they are looking to cultivate a well-rounded class of individually and uniquely talented students. Institutions of secondary education, on the other hand, are largely structured to “output” well-rounded students – a little math and science, some humanities and social sciences, a dash of the arts (if you’re lucky), and a smattering of extracurriculars and electives.
Being well-rounded and average at a lot of different things is a perfectly useful trait in life, but it is not an advantage in college admissions. It is far better to be exceptional, or at least above average, at one thing than it is to be pretty good at several things. This is why how you choose to spend your time outside of school is so hugely important in college admissions. Summer is the perfect time to explore your passion in a way that time won’t allow during the school year.
Colleges want to see focus and commitment in a specific area. What exactly that area is matters, but it doesn’t matter nearly as much as how your “expertise” in that area speaks to your personality, values, and goals and how you would fit in as a member of a college community.
Five Dos and Don’ts For Strengthening Your College Admissions Resume This Summer
Below are some dos and don’ts on how to best utilize your time during the summer. Again, there is no “right” way to spend your summers. Dispel any notion that you should have X amount of community service hours, and Y amount of college-level coursework, and that a professional internship is critical to any Ivy-League application. There is no formula to follow. Here’s the most important thing to remember: Do something you want to do, not something you think colleges want you to do.
Do explore your professional interests
Don’t work for free doing menial tasks in an unpaid internship. First off, it is a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal labor law. For an unpaid internship to be legal, the internship should be similar to training which would be given in an educational environment; for the benefit of the intern; and the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern. Finding a meaningful internship that clears these hurdles and offers genuine professional development is truly rare. So why not just take a paid summer job instead? If you can find a job in a field that interests you (doing administrative work in a hospital if you’re interested in medicine, for instance), great, but scooping ice cream, working as a lifeguard, or reliving days of yore as a camp counselor are equally valuable. Work experience, in general, is one thing that falls outside of the basic rule that you should focus your time and commitment in a specific area for college admissions purposes. Work experience demonstrates professional ambition, maturity, and responsibility, and that experience will be largely transferrable to future professional endeavors. Plus, if you’re interested in a career in business, you can learn more about management working for a small, locally run business than you can filing and doing data entry in an internship at some name brand corporation.
Do explore your academic interests
Don’t expect that attending a prestigious pre-college program will carry any weight in the admissions office of that university or others. The Dean of Admissions at Brown University (which has a huge pre-college program) says that there is “Zero” consideration given to students that attend their program or other “elite” pre-college programs in the admissions process. There are still many benefits to living on a college campus: getting a feel for what it would be like to spend four years at the school, or type of school; independence; meeting new people; and, of course, academic enrichment. However, if you’re solely interested in taking college level classes, you can also do so at your local community college for considerably less expense.
Do volunteer locally
Don’t volunteer abroad. First, service learning trips won’t help you in the college admissions process, and may even hurt you. More importantly, volunteering abroad rarely adds value to a community, and in many cases creates deleterious effects, such as disruption to local labor markets and creating divisiveness within communities. The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has been an outspoken advocate of a Volunteer Local, Give Global approach to altruism. Finally, if you really want to make a difference abroad, think about how much good the equivalent cost of a volunteer trip would do as a donation to a reputable charity conducting development work overseas. A consistent record of community service related to your personal passion or interest, on the other hand, will help tell your story.
Do travel if you have the financial resources to do so
Don’t expect your travel experience to impress college admissions officers, in most cases. Touring Europe or painting a community center in rural Guatemala won’t add much to your college application, unless you can make a convincing case that you are truly passionate about European history or international development work. As a rule, travel should be purposeful. If you are passionate about languages, doing a homestay and studying a foreign language intensively is a great experience that will underscore that in your college application. If you are a committed environmentalist, and you are traveling to the Amazon rainforest to study deforestation and resource extraction, that experience will support the other aspects of your college application that showcase your continued passion for environmental causes. Travel is highly rewarding, but expensive. You will have future opportunities to study abroad in college, so don’t get too hung up on doing so in high school if the financial resources aren’t there.
Do explore your creative interests
Don’t consider playing guitar alone in your bedroom to be an expression of creativity that will translate well in a college application. Take formal instruction. Or get involved with a local musical group or artist collective. Join a theater troupe. Apprentice at a wood working shop. Find others that share your passion and learn from and collaborate with them. You’ll improve your craft faster this way and have something demonstrable to put on your college application.
This list of college resume building dos and don’ts for your summer is just scratching the surface. Remember, the most important thing to keep in perspective is to follow your passions. Do something you want to do, not something you think colleges want you to do.