Your Summer Plan – Make it a Priority

Some students worry that their academic qualifications do not stack up well when compared to those of their peers. Fortunately, summer can be a time to help level the playing field as they prepare for college applications and their lives as young adults.

Grades, test scores, and whether or not your family has the resources to send your child on an amazing volunteer trip need not come into play here. Everyone can find something to do in the summer that will be worth talking about in a college interview and that may make them stand out in a crowded field of applicants.

More important, it will genuinely move your child along on his/her path to maturity and increased self-awareness. It may even help with the discovery of a passion or a career direction.

Summer activities can help your teenager learn about his or her strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. It can help increase independence, provide a sense of responsibility, develop an ability to interact with and accept feedback from people they do not know well, and even realize the consequences of not following through with commitments.

A job, internship, or volunteer experience is a great way to accomplish many of these goals. Similarly, something as informal as learning how to code online, set up a regular time to visit/help an elderly neighbor, help at a local food pantry, start a lawn or pet-sitting business, help a non-profit with its social media presence, tutor a neighbor, and more, can have a big impact.

It’s Not Too Late

I’ve been talking with my students about planning for the summer for a while. But I know there are still many teens who do not yet have a plan. It is not too late, but finding a worthwhile summer activity does take work and persistence. Also, I find that this is an area in which your child may need some encouragement and help (from you) in brainstorming options, thinking outside the box, and finding an opportunity that feels worthwhile.

Here are some questions to help get your child started:

  • How much available time is there to add something new (considering current responsibilities)?
  • Does your child need to make money? Is there money to spend on an activity or experience?
  • Is there a career interest that could be explored? Either through a formal career exploration program or by setting up shadowing opportunities with acquaintances to learn about various careers.
  • Is there a class or a weekly tutoring session that will make a difference for school in the fall? This may be the time to learn some more effective study skills, communication skills or work on strategies for writing.
  • Is there an interest that has not been fully explored? Maybe there is a class that is non-academic – cooking, photography, painting, woodworking, modern dance, etc. Or maybe there is a neighbor who is skilled in an area of interest and who could use a volunteer and teach some skills at the same time.

There are many free or low-cost virtual classes available on both academic and purely fun topics. Learn to code from Code Academy, learn photoshop and editing from the Education Channel on YouTube, sharpen Spanish skills with daily practice on Duolingo.

Other class platforms include Coursera, EDx, Udacity, Udemy, and Skillshare (there are many more).

Ideally, your child will uncover something that he or she is passionate about and excited to pursue, either as a possible career focus or leisure activity. Having an area of intense interest can help a teen blossom and weather many of the less than positive experiences that they need to get through on their way through high school. Learning what they do not like can be important, too, as is the ability to tolerate some boredom or frustration.

Whatever your child decides to focus on this summer, and however it turns out, they will have gained some skills and insights into their strengths and have something of substance to talk about when the college interviewer asks that inevitable question: “How did you spend your summer?!”

What Matters Most In College

I attended a webinar led by Brandon Busteed, former Director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup. He presented a well-known study – the Gallup-Purdue Index from 2015 – along with its most recent updates.

I have known of this study for years; its findings are as important as ever as your student looks for a college that will be both a great learning and personal growth experience.

This research, which consisted of 30,000 college graduates reflecting on their undergraduate experiences, recommends picking a college where you can thrive, not just one in which you attend class and get good grades.

Here are the six elements that made the biggest difference in eventual post-graduation success:

#1. A mentor who pushed students to reach their goals and dreams (this was ranked as most important). Professors were the largest group cited, but other staff, coaches, older students, or family members were also mentioned. Keep in mind that mentoring relationships with professors can be difficult to come by if class sizes are very large or undergraduate research is emphasized more than teaching.

#2. A professor who made the student excited to learn.

#3. A professor who cared about the student as an individual. Students specifically mentioned that their professors knew their names.

#4. Involvement in a long-term project. One that took a semester or longer to complete.

#5. Completing a job or internship related to classroom lessons.

#6. Being engaged in extracurricular activities and groups and being extremely involved in at least one activity.

As you can see, many of these factors are about much more than simply attending class. (The old saying, “The more you put into it, the more you will get out of it,” applies here!)

As you narrow your search over the next couple of months, make sure to ask probing questions of admissions staff, current students, and career services, and set up virtual or in-person meetings with professors in areas of interest. Doing so will help with your student’s post-graduation success!

Make the Most of Campus Visits

Winter and spring breaks are usually popular campus visit opportunities.

For seniors, that means going back to “Accepted Student Days” or making a second visit on a typical school day. It may take multiple visits to make this important decision. It’s essential to sit in on a class or two, meet with faculty in a specific department, and consider spending the night on campus. If you will be using accommodations in college – such as extended time on exams – visit the Accessibility / Disability office to get a handle on their procedures and to find out if they offer any additional support.

Juniors, on the other hand, will likely be visiting for the first time and deciding whether to keep a given school on their list.

During Covid, colleges are offering many options virtually (minus the overnight!). If a given school is not yet open for in-person visits, plan to spend more time over school vacation weeks. Start with a virtual tour and information session – these can be found on the college’s admissions website. Even if you will tour the school in person, it makes sense to attend a virtual information session at home before you get to campus.

It’s helpful to visit before May so that students will still be on campus prior to their summer break. While most schools start offering tours again in June – and the summer can work for an initial visit – if you like the school, make sure to return when students are there.

Remember as well to always “officially” sign up for a tour and information session, whether it is in person or virtual. This way, the admissions department knows you were there, and you get “credit” for visiting.

Consider each of these factors as you learn about colleges. Take notes! (Seniors will want to get into more detail in each of these areas.):

Academics: What is the strength of the school or the program your student is interested in pursuing? How strong is advising for students who are undecided on what they want to study? How accessible are the professors? Are teaching assistants used to teach? Is the school’s emphasis on undergraduate teaching or on graduate research? Is the atmosphere more competitive or collaborative? What is the level of student stress?

Class size: How large are the freshman classes? (This is not the same as the faculty-to-student ratio.)

Graduation Rates: These may be reported as four-year and/or six-year rates. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples across schools.

Retention: What is the percentage of freshmen who return as sophomores? Compare this to other schools of a similar nature.

Support: Are there resources to help with the transition to college? Are there writing, math and foreign language labs? Is there a fee for content tutoring? Are the tutors peers, grad students or faculty? Is there help with time management, organization and study skills? Does faculty tend to notice if a student is struggling and recommend resources?

Internships: What percent of students complete internships? (A college degree is not always enough these days!) Does the school (career services) help secure the internships?

Housing: What percent of students live on campus? Is housing guaranteed all four years? Are there any living / learning communities?  If students live off campus, are they commuters from home or do they live in near-by housing?

Student Body: What is the level of diversity in all areas – racial, socioeconomic, religious, sexual orientation, geographical, etc.? What is the level of tolerance for differences? Is there a political leaning one way or another? Do at least some of the students seem like people you could be friends with?

Campus life: Do the students look happy? (Keep in mind that no one looks happy on a college campus early in the morning or when they are dashing to class in the rain.) Try to talk to students in addition to the tour guide. Ask what they like about their school and what they wish were different.

  • What percentage of kids goes home on the weekends?
  • Are there plenty of activities for students who are not interested in parties?
  • Is there Greek Life and, if yes, how dominant is it?
  • Are there ample opportunities for volunteering?
  • Does the school have the amount of school spirit you are looking for?
  • Do students regularly attend sports games or dance, music, drama performances?
  • Where do students go when they want to get off campus?

Location: How easy/expensive is it to get home and how much does that matter?

Finances: It’s important to consider the overall expense to graduate. Look at the percentage of kids who graduate in four years and consider the extra cost if additional time is often needed at a particular school. All schools now have a “Net Price Calculator” to get an early estimate of any financial aid your child may be awarded.

Pandemic or not, exploring colleges takes a bit of time and effort. Plan to get started soon so that you can begin sharpening your preferences and narrowing your list to those that seem like the best fit!