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High school summer activities might prove to be the crucial component that pushes your application to the “yes” admissions pile.

While colleges want to see stellar grades and consistent extracurriculars during the school year, they also want to see that you engage with your hobbies and interests even during the breaks. Your summer activities will ideally showcase that you have genuine commitment and passion for your pursuits, above and beyond what is asked of you.

Were you so interested in chess, that you spent the entire summer analyzing different strategies and practicing with your grandfather? Perhaps you noticed a lot of stray animals in your neighbourhood, so you decided to volunteer at the local animal shelter. Maybe your favourite teacher recommended some cool books, and you decided to do an online course on that topic.

In a nutshell, Ivy League colleges want to see what you choose to do during your free time. Beyond just smart students in the classroom, they want active and enthusiastic students who will contribute to their college community. They are not just looking for someone who will score an “A” in Introduction to Computer Science, but also for someone who will develop an app or represent the school at cyber security competitions. They want someone who will create and edit a college zine, or stage a new theatre performance show.

The summer activities are your chance to prove that you will make that meaningful contribution to their campus. Here at Prep Zone, we advise you on how to select and think about your summer activities, as well as on how to incorporate them into a meaningful story when writing your application essays.

Activity #1 - Give Back To Your Community

Doing service projects is one of the most meaningful ways in which you could spend your summer. Making positive contributions to your community will also highlight personal qualities such as leadership, compassion, and morality.

Recently, Harvard released a report titled, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions”. Written with a broad coalition of college admission offices, the report details concrete recommendations for “meaningful ethical and intellectual engagement”.

In this page, we will summarize the key points of this report, and how you could incorporate them into your summer plans.

Meaningful, Sustained Community Service

Let’s take a guess. What do you think college admissions will value more, two weeks spent building a school in Cambodia, or a summer assisting the accounting of a local struggling bakery?

You might be surprised to hear that you do not need to do expensive or exotic programs in order to have an exemplary community service record. While building a school in Cambodia is a noble undertaking, it might showcase more privilege than a genuine concern for your community. There is no need to look far to help, whilst ignoring the struggles of your local communities.

Colleges are looking for a service that will have personal meaning for you. Instead of stacking up your resume with fancy but brief stints, focus on sustained (sometimes years-long!) endeavors that demonstrate your ethical awareness and emotional intelligence.

Collective Action That Takes On Community Challenges

While individual service is valuable, it is often teamwork and working with other people that allows us to advance the common good. Again, your community service shouldn’t be just about being a leader, but about utilizing all existing resources to achieve some tangible results.

Think: what is a common challenge faced by my community? Perhaps you live in a community with migrant workers who have little access to legal education, or you see elderly people struggle to make ends meet due to Covid-19. Are there any organizations already tackling these issues? How could you contribute with your skill sets?

Choose something that aligns closely with your personal history and values. If you were a struggling student from a lower socioeconomic class, why not support other such students?

Authentic, Meaningful Experiences With Diversity

In college applications, community service efforts often tend to come off as patronizing. Rather than challenging social structures, some volunteering opportunities tend to reinforce these inequities.

When choosing your volunteering opportunities, it’s important to be mindful of the difference between “doing for” versus “working with” your community. Rather than assuming you know what is best, ask. Do your research!

If you witness elderly people struggling to adapt to a post-Covid-19 world, ask what would make this transition easier for them. This process of genuinely trying to understand the struggles of others will also highlight your compassion during the application process.

Service That Develops Gratitude & A Sense Of Responsibility For The Future

Think about all the generations before you, and all the generations after you. How can you build on the service of others? How can you contribute to a better world for the people after you?

If you are an underprivileged minority, how can you build on the efforts of your parents that have brought you to where you are today? In an increasingly precarious world due to climate change, you can organise a water saving campaign in your school.

Activity #2 - Expand & Deepen Your Interests

Ivy League students are learners with an insatiable curiosity. They keep asking questions, never satisfied with the knowledge that is already out there. Universities like Harvard or Princeton want students who will go on to publish papers and conduct research that will revolutionize their respective fields. They are not looking for students eager to close their books after the school year is over, but for ones who will go to the library and search for more papers in their fields of interest.

The summer is a great opportunity for you to showcase your own commitment to learning, by participating in a summer program or taking an online course. With that said, not all summer programs will be equally beneficial! Broadly speaking, there are three key factors to consider when choosing a summer academic program, (1) its rigour and prestige, (2) its academic depth and engagement, and (3) how it relates to your target college list.

Rigour & Prestige

When selecting summer schools, you want to think about the excellence and prestige of that program. Were specific skills or background required in order to be considered for admission? Were there more than a 1000 applicants, out of which only a 100 were selected? Did you have to participate in an interview during the selection process?

Your prior admittance to academically rigorous programs will signal to the Ivy League schools that you are a qualified candidate.

Academic Depth & Engagement

You also want to consider the kind of opportunities offered at the program. Did you only attend classes, or also had the opportunity to delve deeper into your topic of interest by writing essays and doing research? Sometimes, doing research at a local and unknown university might display deeper academic engagement, if you had the opportunity to work closely with a college professor.

In other words, it’s not all about the name, but about what you were able to learn and how you then choose to highlight what you learned in your college application essays.

Authentic, Meaningful Experiences With Diversity

When deciding whether you are a good fit, admission officers want to see a demonstrated interest in their respective college. Knowing that they are probably not the only school you are applying to, they want to see proof that if you were offered an admission, you would take it.

Thus, if you have a dream school, it would be beneficial to attend their respective summer programs. For instance, if you really want to study at Yale University, you might consider applying to the Yale Young Global Scholars program for high school students.

It can be confusing and difficult trying to navigate all these considerations when selecting your summer programs. At Prep Zone, we advise you on what opportunities work best for your profile and help you with writing essays and applying to the selected courses.

Lastly, in-person summer schools are not the only option for satisfying your academic curiosity. Especially during Covid-19, there is a plethora of virtual and online options to explore. You could deepen your interests by taking a course on Coursera or EdX, or even enrolling in online research programs, such as Pioneer Academics.

Activity #3 - Apply Your Knowledge & Gain Practical Skill Sets

Academic programs and courses are not the only way in which you can expand your knowledge. If you are tired from learning in a classroom, you might consider applying to internships or job shadowing opportunities.

Research whether there are any organizations hiring high school students in your area, or cold email people at selected companies. With limited experience, it is likely that your internships won’t consist of the most groundbreaking work, but even taking notes during meetings might give you more knowledge on how industries work.

Don’t assume jobs aren’t interesting! Even a job serving ice cream can be as impressive as conducting scientific experiments, if you can determine its relevance. With job experiences, it is often less about the actual work you did, but about how you reflect and grow from this experience. Perhaps standing on your feet in the heat, serving ice cream for hours, taught you something about your own resilience and perseverance. Or, maybe having to interact with a diverse group of customers every single day illuminated something new about how you communicate with people.

Reflection is key for making your experiences meaningful. Thus, at Prep Zone we do not only offer assistance when writing resumes and cover letters, but we also help you to craft a cohesive personal narrative that highlights your strengths and accomplishments.

Finally, some students will not have the privilege to do an unpaid internship, instead having to take care of a sick family member or working a paid stint to cover application expenses. This matters too, and colleges will want to hear about it. The good thing about the holistic approach of US admissions is that they take everything into account, including your background and the options available to you.

Activity #4 - Research Schools & Test Preparation

Finally, Ivy League applicants use the summer as an opportunity to practice standardized tests and research the schools they want to attend! Even with universities moving towards test-optional admissions, most competitive students will pair up their application with excellent standardized scores. Having an outstanding SAT or ACT score might give you the needed edge to your application. At Prep Zone, we continue to offer extensive academic training and support for different standardized tests.

Free Ivy League Admissions Consultation

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