50 ways to spend your summer

If your family has the means to send you to shear sheep in Tibet this summer, knock yourself out.  But please don’t do it because you think you need a splashy or expensive summer experience to get into college. 

One of the many ways the college admissions process has spun out of control is kids planning their summers based on what they think will be most impressive to colleges, often at great expense.  What colleges are really interested in is how you chose to spend your time, and a summer spent bagging groceries can have just as much meaning as one spent at Harvard Summer School.  In fact, one of the best essays I’ve ever read was a student who worked at a hamburger stand who began his essay, “I make a mean hamburger.  In fact, I’m a professional.”

In 2009, I started publishing this list of 50 ways to spend your summer, all of which are free or almost free, and none of which require that you forgo hanging out with your friends, sleeping in occasionally, or goofing off with regularity.  Pick one that looks interesting, or use it as motivation to think of your own way to carve out a great summer for yourself. 

50 Ways to Spend Your Summer

  1. Take an interesting class at your local community college.
  2. Get a part-time job at the mall. 
  3. See how many books you can read this summer.  
  4. Work in your family's business.  Consider doing so for free.
  5. Think of ten people–teachers, coaches, family members, relatives–who deserve your thanks.  Write them a hand-written letter of at least one page expressing your appreciation and detailing how they've impacted you.  Tell them what you're going to do to make them proud and spend the summer doing it.
  6. Take saxophone lessons.  
  7. Coach little league.  Or basketball.  Or soccer.
  8. Work at a summer camp.  
  9. Volunteer at the local mobile health clinic, or the animal shelter, or the public library.  
  10. Tutor kids.  
  11. Start a business with your friends.   
  12. Set a goal that you are 99% certain you won't be able to achieve this summer.  Then go all out and try to achieve it as though your life depended on it.  You'll either get there or get much, much closer than you were at the beginning of the summer. 
  13. Learn how to write computer programs.  
  14. Read to the blind.  
  15. Teach something.  
  16. Learn to paint.  
  17. Pick something that really interests you and see how far you can go with it.  
  18. Take classes to become an emergency medical technician.  
  19. Learn sign language.   
  20. Pick a cause in your community that you care about.  Find groups who care about it, too.  Organize people. 
  21. Offer to intern for free someplace where the work seems interesting, like the city councilman's office, or an advertising agency, or the local newspaper.  
  22. Play guitar at coffee shops and see how much money you can make this summer. 
  23. Learn CPR. 
  24. Cook dinner for your family once a week.  Each time, learn a new dish that you prepare.  Write your recipes down and make your own family cookbook. 
  25. Volunteer to lead tours of local state parks.   
  26. Buy a college guidebook and learn as much as you can about 20 colleges you know nothing about today.  
  27. Raise money for someone or something that needs it. 
  28. Learn something that is pure fun, like bongos or hip hop dance or how to make your own purses (check out your local community colleges' "community education" programs). 
  29. Pick something you love and figure out how to use it to make contributions to others, like playing piano in a jazz band, teaching residents at a retirement home how to use a computer, or helping run the lights for a play at the community theater.  
  30. Work full time and give all the money to a charity of your choice at the end of the summer.  
  31. Pick a subject that fascinates you and challenge yourself to learn as much as possible about it. 
  32. Learn karate. 
  33. Teach karate. 
  34. Join a book club. 
  35. Organize a book club. 
  36. Go to your school principal and ask what you could do, for free, to improve the school.  You could paint a classroom, clean lockers, or refurbish the lunch benches.  Better yet, enlist five friends to do it with you.  Don't just tell colleges you want to make an impact.  Make one.  
  37. Set a goal to learn as many new things as possible this summer–facts, skills, concepts, etc.  Write a blog detailing what you've learned so you can share it with cyberspace. 
  38. Build an iphone app. 
  39. Master one subject or skill you currently don't know anything about. 
  40. Hold informal soccer conditioning workouts, or barbecues for the new student council members so you can get to know each other better, or meetings at Starbucks with your co-editors to brainstorm story ideas for the paper this fall.  Show colleges you can organize people and lead them.    
  41. Have a neighborhood bake sale for the French Club in which all sales are conducted in French.  
  42. Get a group of kids from the drama club together and enroll in an improv class. 
  43. Pick a classic author and read all of his or her works. Find out what all the fuss is about Twain or Hemingway or Plath or Dickinson. 
  44. Take the hardest college class you can find and enroll in it "not-for-credit" so you can challenge yourself with impunity. 
  45. Visit as many colleges as you can in a 30 mile radius of your house.  Take your friends with you.  Write your own reviews of each school and share them with people. 
  46. Learn to cut and style hair.  You'll be a savior during prom season. 
  47. Vow not to watch any TV this summer.  Not one single second.  Pick something cool and fun and productive to do instead.    
  48. Find a class offered at a local college that looks fascinating.  Email the professor and ask if you can sit in on a session or two just to experience what the class is like.  
  49. Train to run a 10k, or a half-marathon, or a marathon, or to do a triathlon.  And get your friends to join and train with you.  Consider raising money with your efforts and donating to a worthy cause. 
  50. Pick the five most enticing things on this list and do them.  At the end of the summer, email me at kevinm (at) collegewise.com and tell me about your experiences.  I'd love to hear from you, and if you give me permission, I'll share your story here on our blog.

What does a “balanced” college list look like?

I wrote in yesterday’s post that I’d never heard a student say, “I wish I didn’t apply to so many schools where my chances of admission were good.” I was trying to point out just how risky it is to compose a list that’s reach school heavy (one in which the bulk of your schools are those where your chances of admission aren’t strong).

But I didn’t do a good job of describing what a “balanced list” is. Reader Ted from Chicago pointed out that some students today apply to 20-25 colleges just to make sure they have options. The fact that an applicant may have a good chance of admission at that many schools doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to apply to so many. Applying indiscriminately isn’t a good strategy, either.

There’s no magic number of colleges to which you should apply. Collegewise students generally apply to an average of about eight schools—1-2 reaches, 1-2 safeties, and the rest somewhere in the middle. A good place to start testing the balance of your list is to ask yourself these questions:

*Do you like every school on your list?  I mean really like them, enough that you’d seriously consider attending any one of them? (It’s not a perfect list if you’d rather go to juvenile hall than go to your safety school).

*Do you have a thoughtful answer to the question, “Why are you applying to this school?”

*Do you have at least one safety school?

*Do you have at least one financial safety school where you’re sure to be admitted and that your family could pay for even if you didn’t get the financial aid you were hoping for?

*Has your high school counselor seen and approved of your list? Don’t make the excuse that your counselor doesn’t know you. She’s not applying to college—you are. Visit her, help her get to know you, and invite her feedback on your list.

If you can say yes to each of those questions, you’re on your way to a balanced list.

You won’t regret it

In twelve years of running Collegewise, I have never once heard a senior say in admissions retrospect,

“I wish I didn’t apply to so many schools where my chances of admission were good.”

A balanced college list is the most effective, accessible tool you have to take control of your college search.  It’s fine to take your shot at 1-2 dream schools that are out of your reach (though there’s no law that says your dream schools can’t be your safety schools, too).  But our Collegewise students who create balanced college lists with at least one slam dunk safety school are left with:

  • More acceptances to celebrate
  • More schools from which to choose
  • More—often unsolicited—financial aid and scholarships
  • Less admissions stress

And the best part?   You don’t need a high GPA, great test scores, or a private counselor to find schools that will admit you.  With over 1600 colleges that accept more than 50% of their applicants, even C students can have safety schools.

Pre-college questions for juniors

When some students apply to college, they’ve done all the work to be qualified, but aren’t prepared for some of the most basic common questions like why they’re applying to a particular school or which activity has meant the most to them.  So here are four pre-college questions for juniors to think about.  These aren't necessarily the exact questions colleges will ask you, but they get to the heart of what colleges want to know (beyond numbers like your GPA and test scores).  If you want to get the most out of these, imagine that someone is asking you to answer them in detail in an interview.  That will force you to really think about your answers.

1. What’s your favorite subject/class/teacher and why?

You don’t have to love every subject equally, but college is school.  And if you’re going to spend four years learning someplace else, it’s good to think about your favorite subjects, classes and teachers.  What made those learning experiences so rewarding?  How did those situations bring out the best in you as a student?

2. What’s a subject you’d like to learn more about but haven’t had the chance to yet?

You don’t necessarily have to know what you want to major in when you apply to college, but if a college interviewer asks you what you plan on studying and all you can do is shrug your shoulders, that will paint a portrait of a student who has not thought about the learning part of college.  Colleges are academic supermarkets where you can learn virtually anything you want to learn.  Even if you aren’t ready to commit to a major, where would your current curiosity take you?  Are you doing anything to satisfy that curiosity today?

3. To which extracurricular activity are you giving the most time, and why?

Many colleges will look beyond your list of activities and ask you to discuss what made them so rewarding, to share stories of your involvement and give them a sense of why you chose to spend your time the way you did.  Asking yourself this question doesn’t just prepare you to discuss your activities when you apply to college.  It also lets you do a little activity audit and make sure you’re spending your time the way you really want to spend it, not just plodding through something because you hope it will help you get into college.

4. What is one club, team, group or other organization you’re involved with that would miss your contributions if you stopped showing up?

I’ve noticed a lot of colleges have started requiring essays about how applicants plan to contribute to the campus community.  “Contributing” in that sense means making an impact—a noticeable difference because of your effort and contributions.  And one of the best ways to answer it is to point to a situation in high school where you’ve made that kind of impact.  You don’t have to be the fastest kid on the track team to have a great attitude and be a great teammate.  You don’t have to be the editor of the paper to write solid articles and stay up late to help with layout when necessary.  You don’t need to be the manager of the store where you have a part time job to show new employees the ropes and make their first day a little easier.  Think about the involvements where you do more than just show up, where you’re really making an impact, and you’ll have some evidence to show colleges just how valuable your contributions really are.  

5. What parts of college are you most excited about?  (Hint: pick at least one academic and one non-academic).

The stress around college admissions and the corresponding journey to get there makes some students forget just how wonderful college will be.  It’s good to daydream about what your life will be like once you get there.  Thinking about that now will make the work you’re doing now have more meaning, and it will probably remind you just how many places could give you those things, even if they aren’t highly competitive colleges.

For our email blog subscribers

If you’ve been receiving my daily posts via email, you’ll notice a change starting today.  Now you’ll get the full text of each entry in your email, rather than just the “teaser” opening lines.  You’ll no longer have to click into the blog to read the rest of the entry. 

I selected the original settings thinking it would be good to let people choose whether or not they wanted to read each entry in its entirety.  But all that did was force people to open their browsers to read the rest of each post.  In retrospect, it’s not a good idea to make it harder for subscribers to read the content they’ve asked to receive. 

Thanks to Shane for pointing that out. 

You can subscribe to receive the daily posts by email here.

CRM software for private counselors

For a long time, we’ve been looking for the right CRM (customer relationship management) software to use at Collegewise.  We needed something that would allow anyone in our office to look up a student from a central database and find out things like:

What is this student’s email address?
What is his parent’s phone number?
When is his next appointment?
Who will be meeting with him?
What's the agenda for that appointment?
What is his homework that needs to be completed before that date?
Did he show up for his appointment?
Was the homework done?
What's his next step?

So in January, Breanne in our Irvine office took on the task to not just compare different options, but also to actually make a decision and implement it.  Thanks to Breanne, we’re now using Highrise by 37Signals.

Some of the key features that sold us on Highrise were:

  • We can search easily
  • We can customize fields (we added “Class of,” “Referred by,” “Counselor,” etc.)
  • We can upload an image
  • We can enter a contact when they meet with us for an introductory meeting, then move them to a “Customer” when they enroll.  
  • We can write notes on each contact, such as "to do" lists or follow-up items
  • We can add “tasks” and “cases,” which can be used to track each student's different applications.  That will let us set up a case for each student; then each college he applies to and each application he sends will be stored in that case.
  • We can keep all of our emails and communications about a student in one place.
  • There’s no software to install—it’s all web based.
  • It’s pay as you go ($24 per month for up to six users, $49 per month for up to 15 users) and there’s no long-term contract. 

Breanne also wrote a short how-to guideline so we can all get started using it.  We think it’s going to be the perfect tool to do just what we need it to do.   And as we learn even better ways to use it, I’ll share them here. 

Waitlisted students: When can you expect to hear about your status?

For seniors who’ve been placed on waitlists, the earliest you’re likely to hear any news is around May 8-10.  After the May 1 deadline for admitted applicants to commit, colleges will count their enrollments through the first week of May and get a sense of whether or not they’re likely to fill the class.  If it looks like they’re going to come up short, that’s when they’ll go to the waitlist.  This is why even a good-hearted admissions officer can’t give you much sense of your waitlist status before then.  They might need to take a couple hundred off the list; they might not need to take any.  Some schools will wait until the end of June to review the final senior grades as part of this decision.

So that means two things for waitlisted students: Make absolutely sure you send in your deposit to another college that accepted you by May 1—don’t wait until you hear your waitlist status to commit to another school.  And keep your senior grades up.

Thanks to Arun for his insight on this. 

One parent’s admissions perspective

The Choice blog ran an entry this week—College Admissions Advice for ‘Neurotic’ Parents—that generated some good comments from readers.  One in particular I thought was worth sharing.  It's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture during the college admissions process, but Lizzie and her daughter offer a gentle reminder about maintaining perspective.

"My daughter is special needs, which put the college admissions race for my son into perspective. With my daughter, we’re just hoping she’ll be able to hold down a minimum wage job someday and maybe learn to pay her own bills so she won’t have to live in a group home when we’re old. I couldn’t care less whether my son goes to an Ivy or the state university."


Celebrate the decision

The day you decide where you're going to college is a big deal.  No matter which colleges said yes, when you pick the school you'll be spending the next four years attending, that deserves some fanfare.  And it's hard to imagine a family doing a better job than our student, Mike, and his parents do here.


The best part?  One of the schools he eliminated had waitlisted him.  I love it when a student has the collegiate confidence to just say no thanks to a waitlist and pick a school that accepted him outright.

Good job, and good decision, Mike.  Go Orange!

Former Collegewise students and parents: We need you for our book!

This summer, we’re publishing our book tentatively titled “The Collegewise Way” to teach people how to do what you did—to successfully navigate the college admissions process, find the right schools, and actually have fun doing it. 

We’d love to include sidebars that feature you and your experiences, like…

  • How you took charge of your applications with us and relieved your parents of their project management responsibilities
  • How you found the right schools even if you hadn’t heard of them before
  • How you wrote essays that were “you,” not what you thought might impress colleges
  • How you’ve met plenty of smart, impressive people at your not-so-famous college
  • How you celebrated every offer of admission, even from your safety schools
  • How you received generous, even unsolicited financial aid
  • How you ended up blissfully, ridiculously happy where you are in college, even if it’s a school that wasn’t your first choice

…and anything else you’d like to share.

If you’d like to be featured, drop me a line at kevinm@collegewise.com.  Looking forward to hearing from you!