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"And What Did You Do Last Summer?"
Jeannette Webb, 6/15/2012

Jeannette Webb is founder of Aiming Higher Consultants, a high school planning and college consulting firm dedicated to helping homeschooled students reach their potential and successfully apply to their dream colleges.  Learn more at aiminghigherconsultants.com. Jeannette was the (wonderful!) keynote speaker at last year's PHAA High School at Home Conference, sharing her many years of wisdom and perspective. 

Photo of Evan Chow, homeschool 2012 grad and student in many PA Homeschoolers AP Online classes-- Evan's family has appreciated working with Jeannette Webb during the college admissions process.... and Evan looks forward to attending Princeton this fall!

This query usually surprises students when it appears during a college interview or on a college application.  While it appears to be a fairly trivial inquiry, it is a loaded question. You see, how we spend our time when we have the freedom to make a choice provides great insight.   Your answer speaks volumes about who you are and what you value. 

It is not my intent to make you nervous about interviews or applications and read more into them than is there, but to underscore the importance of your summer choices.  Admissions officers do not have a list of things they expect you to do, rather they are looking to see if you have spent your time well, if you are an interesting person, and if you would make a good contribution to their campus. 

What are some good uses of your time during the hot days of summer?  Well, it really depends on who you are.  It is not necessary that your summer be jam packed (and I heartily suggest that it not be), but you do need to pursue meaningful things.  Here are a few hints:

  • Do something substantial – playing video games or watching movies or hanging out with friends for days on end might be fun, but won’t help you get into a good college.  Choose something that will change your life or someone else’s.
  • Follow your heart – God hardwired you in a certain way and your summer should reflect that.  Whether you write a book, spend eight hours a day practicing your violin, or build a house for Habitat for Humanity, what matters is that it matters to you.
  • Don’t seek to build the resume – instead seek to build your character.  Do something challenging.  In fact, I recommend finding or creating something difficult enough that you just might fail.  If it is easy, you won’t learn much.

Here are some things I’ve seen outstanding students do with their summer:

Start a Business

The world is full of needs and all you have to do is fill one of them to have a successful business. You can learn a great deal by starting your own business – advertising, pricing, customer satisfaction, bookkeeping, and responsibility. Becoming an entrepreneur gives you more flexibility than a traditional job and potentially more financial reward; however you are on your own to fulfill your obligations.  Here are some business ideas:  music studio, website development, teaching craft classes, creating something to sell (jewelry, software), buying something wholesale and reselling online, graphic design, catering, mowing yards, sewing custom clothing . . . .The list is only limited by your imagination and your skill set.

Create an Organization

My kids used the relative freedom of summer to build organizations.  Some were their concept that they originated and built from the ground up (an online debate club), others were branches of an existing organization that hadn’t gotten started in our state (TeenPact Leadership School, debate clubs, etc.).  The extra breathing room of summer gave them time to conceptualize, plan, and implement.  I’ve seen other kids develop curriculum for an organization, start a summer camp for a museum, develop a ministry for something they wanted to support.  Even if the actual event won’t happen until the school year, by doing the heavy lifting in the summer, your life will be much less stressful.


Develop a Big Leadership Project

Creative work takes think time and summer provides that.  I’ve watched students orchestrate a huge Boy Scout Eagle project, plan a large fundraiser or drive, implement a ministry outreach, or plan a summer program for inner city kids.

Learn or Improve an Important Skill

Whether it is taking watercolor lessons, going off to music camp, apprenticing to a carpenter or volunteering in a research lab, learning a new skill or perfecting an old one is a great use of your summer. 

Create Something

Less structured days are great places to write poetry, compose music, or tackle that invention that’s been at the back of your mind.

Explore Career Fields

After years of watching kids figure out what they want to do with their lives, I can tell you with certainty that most students figure it out by the process of elimination.  Thus, spend some time this summer job shadowing or interning in career fields you are interested in.  If those options aren’t available, ask for an hour to interview a professional and come with questions in hand.  The more you know about real world jobs, the better equipped you will be to select the right college and the best career field.


In the grand scheme of things, spending two hours a month shelving books at the library (so you can get community service hours) doesn’t help anything.  It’s not enough to benefit the library and it doesn’t do much to boost the impression that you care passionately about that important institution.  By all means if you care deeply about your library, start with shelving books and volunteer enough hours to matter.  Show that you are dependable and try to move quickly into adult-level responsibility - organize a book study; recruit folks to teach classes, do read-alouds, or perform one act plays; raise money for needed improvements; or boost community awareness by writing op-ed pieces for your local paper.  I would rather see one strong area of volunteering in an area that a student cares about than fifteen organizations listed on the resume with minimal involvement.

Get a Job

In a day and time when few kids need to work and are honestly pretty spoiled, college admissions officers can place great value on the kid that works to help support himself and his family.  There is much to be learned from punching a time clock and following orders.

Summer Programs

These expensive little opportunities can be fun and maybe even teach you a thing or two, but don’t think you have to have them to get into good colleges (or that being accepted into one at a prestigious college will guarantee your entrance there).  If you can afford a good summer program, by all means go.  Just keep it in perspective and realize that it doesn’t usually make you stand out from the crowd.

The Summer Activities We Don’t Talk About

Summer is also an important time to prepare for the academic side of college.  After your sophomore year, I recommend spending a fair amount of time preparing for the PSAT, SAT or ACT (taking practice tests, brushing up on weak areas, etc.).  However, test prep is the elephant in the room.  Everybody does it, but nobody talks about it to admissions officers.  It is decidedly uncool to talk about how hard you had to work to improve your scores.

After the junior year of high school, I recommend spending part of your summer writing your college essays and filling out college applications.  We won’t send them in until fall, but having everything done online will make your senior year MUCH more manageable. 

Less is More

I’ve given you many ideas to help you brainstorm about how to spend your time this summer.  Just remember, pick 1 or 2 things that you care about deeply and do them extremely well.  Not only this give you a great answer when the admissions officer looks you in the eye and asks for an accounting, but your summer will be more fun and you will come away a better person.


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