5 Summer Activities That Look Great on a College Application

Wondering how to spend your summer? We spoke with admissions experts and found five summer activities that can help your college application stand out.
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Summer is a time to travel, take a break from schoolwork, and hang with friends. It can also be an opportunity to complete unique activities for your college applications.

Spending part of your summer doing something that demonstrates your character, passion, leadership, and intellectual curiosity could significantly boost your chances of getting accepted into your dream school.

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"The most important thing I advise my students is to spend their summer doing activities they enjoy," says Kate Sonnenberg, a college admissions counselor and former application reader for Princeton University.

Following your interests, hobbies, and passions can lead to an interesting essay topic or interview conversation.

"There is no guarantee that a summer activity will move the needle in terms of impressing an admissions office, so it's really important that the activity has intrinsic value — either with intellectual or personal growth," says Sonnenberg.

But what kinds of things should you do? We've compiled a list of five activities to try this summer.

1. Give Back to Your Community

Spending part of your summer giving back to your community is a great way to improve your college application.

"One or two significant volunteer experiences with demonstrated leadership and personal growth are better than many short-term volunteer experiences," says Carolyn Nelson, director of scholarships at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Volunteering doesn't have to be a boring gig — you can volunteer at places like the aquarium or an animal shelter. Helping out a political or government organization like Habitat for Humanity can look good on your application, too.

Other options include volunteering at a food bank, university lab, or hospital. You could also consider embarking on a mission trip.

2. Work a Summer Job

A summer job can demonstrate hard work, initiative, and responsibility.

"Jobs not only teach students the value of money, but also help them with time management skills and interpersonal skills," says Sonnenberg.

And not every summer job has to be a fast food or retail gig.

Some summer jobs can look stronger on a college application than others if they align with your interests and allow you to hone critical skills. For example, coaching a youth sports team or working at a summer or music camp can demonstrate leadership, expertise, and a commitment to your community.

3. Complete a Reading Challenge

Many colleges value students who are well read. Taking some time in the summer to read can help you grow. Books can also serve as a strong topic of conversation for college interviews.

"The large block of time that most students have for summer vacation also allows them time to catch up on reading not required for school," says Pam Rambo, Ed.D., a college consultant. "This prepares them for the dreaded essay question asked on some college applications and college interviews about books students have read that were not required for a class."

Pick up a few classic books or explore your favorite genres this summer. We recommend reading whatever you feel will spark your interest and lead to personal growth.

4. Pursue a Passion

Including a summer activity that demonstrates who you are and what you're passionate about should appeal to admissions counselors — whether that's working on some sort of project, joining a program, creating an app, starting a club, or mastering a new skill.

"Students can choose a unique topic program that will be fascinating to discuss in an interview or on a college essay such as Second City Improvisation Camp, the LIM Fashion Lab, or the Center for American Archeology," says Laurie Kopp Weingarten, certified educational planner and president of One-Stop College Counseling.

Weingarten also says any activity that shows a student's intellectual curiosity can be beneficial.

"Perhaps a student always wanted to learn sign language, or they dream of hiking multiple national parks, or maybe they have a goal to write and produce a screenplay, or become a stand-up comedian, or learn how to build a boat? All can be growing experiences!" stresses Weingarten.

5. Attend an Academic Summer Program

Many universities and organizations offer summer programs for high school students.

For example, UCLA's Mock Trial Summer Institute teaches students public speaking skills and how an attorney prepares a case. MIT's LaunchX program focuses on entrepreneurship and gives students the opportunity to start real companies.

"Summer programs … provide the opportunity for high school students to take a deep dive into a subject related to college major, some of which allow students to earn high school and/or college credit," says Rambo.

These types of summer programs are ideal for students who are set on attending an Ivy League school or want to add some extra academic prowess to their application.

If your college application is already academic-heavy, try to focus on activities that show expertise and interest in other areas.

Some of these programs have enrollment fees, but free options are available.

"There are many free (although some are highly selective) programs that do appear impressive on a college application because they know that accepted students had to compete for a spot," says Weingarten.

Some examples of these, according to Weingarten, are Bank of America's Student Leaders program, MIT's Research Science Institute, and Kode With Klossy.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Kate Sonnenberg

Kate Sonnenberg

Kate Sonnenberg is a graduate of Princeton University and the Columbia University School of Law. She is a former application reader in the Princeton University Admissions Office, where she read thousands of applications each year. Prior to working in college admissions, she practiced law and taught English composition and legal writing.

Currently, Kate works with students on all aspects of the college admissions process and runs essay writing workshops for high school students, most recently this past August for students at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.

Portrait of Carolyn Nelson

Carolyn Nelson

Carolyn Nelson is director of scholarships at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She has 15 years of progressive experience in admissions, new student programs, and scholarship programming. She annually administers approximately $1.5 million in recruitment scholarships for new students and provides consultation for over $4 million of campus and foundation awards.

Carolyn has presented at local, regional, and national conferences in scholarship administration and emergency aid best practices. She holds a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in educational leadership.

Portrait of Pam Rambo, Ed.D.

Pam Rambo, Ed.D.

Pamela Rambo, Ed.D., earned her terminal degree from William & Mary. After a career of 30 years working in colleges and high schools, she founded Rambo Research and Consulting LLC in 2010, where she guides students and families through the college process. Contact Pam at ramboresearch@gmail.com or visit her website.

Portrait of Laurie Kopp Weingarten

Laurie Kopp Weingarten

Laurie Kopp Weingarten is a certified educational planner and president of One-Stop College Counseling. She graduated with a BSE from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and received an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Working with eighth to 12th graders, Laurie guides students through each stage of the college admissions process. She covers topics like high school course selection, extracurricular activity enhancement, essay topic selection, and all other situations that arise during the high school years.

Laurie is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, as well as a member of HECA, NACAC, NJACAC, and PACAC. She is also a proud member of the Character Collaborative.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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