"What I Did On My Summer Vacation"...and Why It Matters to Colleges

According to Weather.com, the United States has experienced its warmest winter on record. This has us thinking ahead to our student's plans for their approaching respite from academia before diving into college apps: summer vacation.

Every year we hear from parents seeking our input on what their children should do during summer vacation to "make their applications look better" or to make them a "stronger applicant." While it's true that the summer months are a great time to do SOMETHING, the question is whether what that something is really matters on your college applications.

Is a student who's participated in a one-month robotics camp at a hot shot university more impressive to admission folks than the one who worked 40 hours a week scooping ice cream during their break? Or how about the student who joins their family on a month long backpacking trip through Europe versus one who volunteers at a local assisted living center reading to the residents each day? In a head-to-head battle for that coveted last spot in the freshman class, which of these summer choices could be the one to seal the deal on getting the fat envelope?

The answer? It depends.

As with everything on a student's application, it's not simply the "what" that matters, but the "why." Is the student attending the robotics camp an aspiring engineer? Or do their parents think the fact that the camp is being held at Ivy U will give him a leg up on his application to said university? How about the student who'll soon be on a first name basis with every little league parent in town? Are they working because they want to save money for college or because they think their job will show that they are "a responsible young person"? Oh, and that family trip? What exactly does "backpacking through Europe" entail? Hostels or posh hotels? Journaling or just great selfies for your Instagram account? Finally, is the student volunteering with the elderly because they have a desire to work in geriatric care someday? Or do they just know "volunteer hours look really good on college apps"?

It's important for students (and parents!) to remember that colleges are looking for information on the application that provides a true reflection into who the student REALLY is and what they are TRULY passionate about in life. Contrary to popular belief there is no "magic" number of community service hours that colleges are hoping to see on applications - it's what the student has gained and learned from their hours that matters most, whether it's 10 hours or 100. Also, while we're on the topic of myth-busting, participation in a college's summer program doesn't necessarily give you an advantage if applying to that institution. In fact, in a 2015 interview Jim Miller, Dean of Admission at Brown, stressed that "zero" weight is given to applicants who've participated in the university's summer program. He went on to say that the admission office does not know who has attended their program nor how they did, and that they are intentional about not giving preference to those students who have had the financial resources to participate in summer programs with sticker prices upwards of $5,500, such as Brown's.

Sarah Guinn, Assistant Director of Admissions at Transylvania University in Kentucky believes a student's involvement in activities, whether during the summer months or within the academic year, is paramount to how they are viewed in the application review.

"An important element of the application for admission and scholarships at Transylvania is a student's high school involvement in activities, including during the summer," says Guinn. "We look for long-term commitment and dedication to activities...not the amount of activities participated in by the student."

Hollins University (VA) Director of Admission, Ashley Browning, echoes these sentiments.

"We enjoy seeing summer involvement through employment, community camps or service opportunities offered through 4-H or a local religious organization," says Browning. "Identifying students who are a good institutional fit is important for us as a small community at Hollins. Participation in summer camps helps us better understand a student’s interests and passions."

Many admission officers agree the most important thing is that a student has spent their time off of school doing something constructive, particularly if it is something that provides some insight into who the student is and where their passions lie.

"When I’m looking through an application I want to know that students are doing something with their free time," says Molly Horst, an Admissions Counselor at High Point University in North Carolina. "Students excel in different areas of life – whether that is through the arts, athletics, work, chess club, or any other extracurricular – seeing a student is filling their time with something is important."

Horst stresses that, though students may choose any number of summer activities, their dedication is what will stand out on an application for admission.

"A student who spends their time working in the summer is showing dedication and discipline by working that summer job for months, "says Horst. 'However, a student training for their football season has practice every single day, sometimes two-a-days. We want students who show character, dedication, and discipline in whatever activities they choose because these are students who are going to be disciplined in their field of study at High Point University."

The moral of the story is that what you do during your summer vacation is noted by those reading applications. However, it's not just the fact that you did something that will matter, but rather why you did it. Before registering for a summer program at your dream school, or volunteering for an organization you know little about, take a moment to think about how your participation will impact you. Think about how, if asked, you could articulate to an admission officer the importance that particular program, job, or trip had on your life and how it impacted who you are at that moment. If your answer seems superficial to you, it will more than likely leave the same insignificant impression on an admission counselor.