Thursday, January 7, 2010

Happy New Year...Now Think Summer

The first month of the new decade is here, and with it snow, storms, and other winter weather throughout much of the country. Summer is usually a daydream during this season, but for students who are heading to college in a few years, thoughts of summer need to be made clear and concrete now. Many wonderful summer programs have application deadlines that fall in January, and those who wait until April or May to begin planning will have far fewer options open to them.

It's more than a matter of finding camp or a fun thing to do. I'm a proponent of the strategy mapped out by author Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, who makes the excellent point that students can use summer opportunities for in-depth exploration and experimentation in academic areas of interest or in potential career fields. Her recommendation, outlined in her book, "What Colleges Don't Tell You (And Other Parents Don't Want You to Know)" is that a well-mapped-out, multi-year plan for student's summers does more than enhance academics--it can be the main driver of a student's high school experiences, with traditional school-year academics filling in and supporting the more individualized and self-selected challenges that the students take on during summer (think biology class for a student who studies paleontology in the summer, or physics for the student interested in nanotechnology). Truly investigative and authentic summer experiences can help define the student, both internally in learning more about themselves and their likes and dislikes, and externally for the colleges when application time rolls around.

Here's an example. Take two students, both of whom are seniors in high school applying to college, with similar GPAs and test scores, and both of whom claim an interest in veterinary medicine. In their essays, both expound on their love for animals and their desire to be trained in their care. Then we look at the extracurricular activities. One worked on the yearbook and was in the student body, but spent summers basically at the beach. The other volunteered at a shelter in the summers after 8th and 9th grade, attended the two-week "Adventures in Veterinary Medicine" camp at Tufts University the summer after 10th grade, and took an anatomy and physiology course at a local community college the summer after 11th grade. Which student will have the background that both supports and confirms her claim to be interested in veterinary medicine (and know what she's talking about)? A well-planned sequence of summer activities can make a huge impact on the strength of a college application, but more importantly, it can truly help students explore career fields and test out what their interests are, so they can make more informed choices about what they are looking for in a college. It also gives them a true sense of motivation and where their future might take them, which can help them keep on track and stay focused during the long school year.

Where can you go for listings of summer opportunities? I have two sources: and the Educational Opportunity Guide at the Duke TIP web site. Both are databases that let you search for programs based on location, academic fields, etc. (Enrichment Alley is where I just found that veterinary opportunity at Tufts.) Most importantly, try to find a summer program that will have you working hard and having fun. Summer opportunities should be a source of inspiration, and not a few more miles on an academic treadmill.