Will your summer experience become your college essay?

I’ve often heard students (or their parents) declare their pre-selected essay topic before the experience has even taken place, especially when it comes to summer. It sounds like this:

“I’m going to a summer journalism program at Northwestern for two weeks. It’ll make a great essay topic for my applications.”

Maybe you’ve got your own impending summer plan you’re excited about. Travel. An on-campus program. A summer course or internship or deep dive into an existing interest. It’s entirely possible that one of those experiences could make a great essay topic. But here’s the thing: you can’t possibly know yet.

One of the most important Collegewise pieces of essay advice is “Don’t repeat information from the rest of your application.” Students can avoid that common mistake in two ways: (1) Write about something that isn’t mentioned elsewhere in the application, or (2) share new information about a previously referenced experience.

Your summer experience will almost certainly merit inclusion on your application, particularly in the “Activities” section. You should be proud of your productive summer efforts. And colleges will want to know about them.

But once you’ve referenced that experience on the application, what else will you be able to say about it that will be new and interesting? Remember, these admissions officers read thousands of applications. If other students have done it, chances are they’ve written about it in college essays. That’s why admissions officers don’t need to read a 600-word essay to understand what happens at Harvard Summer School. It’s been covered, repeatedly.

How will this experience affect you? Will you be changed because of it? Will you learn or do or experience something that, when shared in an essay, will help the admissions officer get to know you in a way that the rest of the application has not yet allowed?

If your answer is “I don’t know,” then you’re on the right track. An experience can be worthwhile and rewarding without necessarily lending itself to a read-worthy essay topic. That doesn’t invalidate the experience. It just means you should choose another topic.

So go forth with your summer plans. Lean into them. It will be up to you to extract the maximum value from your summer experiences. And you won’t find it (or an essay topic) by passively participating and waiting for the magic to impose itself on you.

But don’t preemptively assign the experience to your college essay. It’s premature, and it closes off your mind to other potentially stronger topics. Wait until you see the prompts for your chosen schools, and then find the story—summer or otherwise—that fits best.