Fifty summer activities for high school students

What should you do this summer?

First, you should sleep in.  Not every day, but certainly more than you do during the school year.  You should have fun and hang out with your friends and do things that have absolutely nothing to do with college applications.  Colleges don't expect you to spend every waking second learning and volunteering and improving yourself.  It's still OK to be a normal teenager. 

But colleges are also looking for motivated kids who do other things in addition to logging some well-deserved rest and fun this summer.  You don't have to spend money on an expensive program; you just need to spend your time doing something interesting that excites you (while you deservedly relax and recharge your batteries a bit). 

So here's a re-post from May 2009 of fifty summer activities you can do for free or almost free.  All of these are positive, productive and interesting to potential colleges.  Pick the one(s) you feel you could really get excited about.  Or use them as inspiration to come up with your own ideas.  Then get going and have fun.

    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) 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.

      Would you quit an activity for $1,000?

      A lot of students think that once they start an activity, they should never quit because it would look bad to colleges. But colleges don’t want you to just plod through something for the sake of sticking it out. Successful people not only know how to commit to things, but also how to quit.

      You change a lot while you’re in high school. A club or activity you joined as a freshman might lose some of its oomph by the time you’re a junior. Good quitters can sense when an activity, a job, a project or a relationship isn’t going anyplace good or is just making them unhappy. So they quit and move on, and they don’t beat themselves up about it.

      One of my former Collegewise students was a standout football player, but he quit right before the start of his junior year. Football was making him miserable. He realized he just wasn’t the type of guy who would ever enjoy, as he put it, “doing something where he was regularly congratulated for trying to take someone’s head off.”

      My student wanted to do other things that he thought would make him happier. So he quit, joined a steel drum band at his high school and started volunteering at his church. He went on to attend and graduate from Notre Dame.

      When you give time and effort to an activity, it should give something back to you. If you hate every second of marching band practice and are pretty sure that lugging your tuba around every day after school has caused permanent damage to your spine—stop. Don’t march in the band anymore. Find something else that you enjoy with lighter equipment.

      When quitting pays big
      Knowing that quitting is an option can also strengthen your commitment to things you really care about. The online retailer Zappos bribes new employees to quit. “The Offer,” as it’s known at Zappos, is the brainchild of CEO Tony Hsieh. Every new call center employee at Zappos goes through a four-week training program during which time they earn their full salary. At the end of the program, Zappos offers $4,000 to any new hire who wants to quit. Only about 2 to 3 percent of the people take the money and run.

      By giving new employees an easy way to quit, Zappos fills its ranks with people who really want to be there.

      Are you doing an activity that your heart’s just not in anymore? If the answer is, “Yes,” why are you still doing it? Why not find something you love enough that you’d never take the bribe to quit?

      Keep in mind, not all quitting is good. If you love being on the volleyball team, but quit just because you didn’t get picked as the starting setter, maybe you should stay and work to earn your spot back?

      You get to choose which activities you do outside of class. If you make the wrong choice, or if what used to make you happy just isn’t working for you anymore, don’t be afraid to be a good quitter and make a different choice.

      Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted

      You’ll win if you love it

      I just finished reading a great book about the best distance runners on the planet–the Tarahumara Indians in the Sierra Madre mountain range in Mexico.  The Tarahumara routinely run 100-200 miles in rugged terrain wearing homemade sandals.  And the best part is how much they love doing it. They smile and enjoy themselves while they're running.  Even when they were brought to the US and began competing in (and winning) 100-mile ultra marathons, they're just laughing and having fun while they do it.  The author says that while we run to win races or to punish ourselves for eating a big slice of cheesecake last night, the Tarahumara run for one reason–because they love to do it.  And nobody can do it better. 

      Now, you know there's a college admissions lesson coming here…

      The most successful college applicants I've ever met didn't take hard classes because they wanted to get into famous colleges; they took hard classes because they wanted to be challenged and learn something.  They didn't do community service because they wanted to put it on a college application; they did it because they really wanted to help someone.  Their excitement about college has nothing to do with getting into an Ivy League school.  They might be happy to go to one but that's not why they do what they do.  They're happier, more interesting, more confident and just plain cooler than kids who make all their decisions based on what they think Stanford will appreciate.

      Like the Tarahumara, they do it because they love it.  It's not about winning a competition for them.  And yet they beat out the other applicants who spend four years of high school trying to make themselves competitive without enjoying most of the experience.

      It's your choice.  Which kid do you want to be?


      A college admissions secret

      Did you know that colleges love stamp-collectors?  They go just crazy for stamp collectors.  Can't get enough of 'em.     

      OK, I'm kidding (a little).  Colleges don't have a special affinity for stamp-collectors any
      more than they do any other activity.  What colleges love is passion. I
      really doesn't matter what your passion is–dance, art, sports,
      reading, rodeo, student government, working a part time job at a burger
      joint, juggling, magic or, yes, stamp collecting.  A kid becomes much
      more interesting to an
      admissions officer when that student is genuinely passionate about her activities.

      Colleges would, in fact, appreciate a student who was super-serious about stamps.  The more into it you were, the better. They'd like the kid who visits stamp shows on the weekends, who reads stamp-collector magazines, who belongs to stamp-collecting organizations, who takes classes and writes articles for stamp-collector newsletters.

      So go after your passions.  Celebrate them.  Take them to a reasonable and productive extreme.  And don't worry whether the colleges will like them.  If it's important to you, and you inject your intellect, talent and energy into it to make something happen for yourself or others, the colleges will care about it, too (as long as it isn't illegal). 

      And when you apply to college, share your passions–in the applications, in the essays, and during your interviews.  Help the colleges learn about them.  Don't keep them secret.  

      Don’t be a title collector

      In their efforts to impress colleges, a lot of students become title collectors. 

      They're driven to accomplish things so they can list them on their resumes.  And when they apply to college, they can't wait to rattle off their list of leadership positions held, awards won, and total number of community service hours completed.

      But titles aren't unique.  They're everywhere.  You're not going to impress a college with a long list of titles alone.  It's much more important to make an impact. 

      Every school paper has an editor-in-chief.  But not every school paper has a section editor who takes a journalism class at a college and then offers to share the material with the rest of the writers on the paper once he completes the course.

      Every basketball team has a captain.  But not every basketball team has a point guard who organizes informal practices during the summer so they can run the team's new offense.

      Every student body government has a president.  But not every student government has a treasurer who researches examples of effective high school student governments and shares ideas with the president about how they can better serve the students.

      Every high school musical has a lead.  But not every high school musical has a lighting tech who hosts a viewing of the Broadway production of the musical (on DVD) at her house the weekend before opening night. 

      Every orchestra has a first chair violinist.  But not every orchestra has a second chair oboe player who convinces the conductor of the local community symphony to come to one of their music classes to talk about life as a professional musician. 

      Every high school physics class has a student with the highest grade.  But not every physics class has a B student who organizes an all-star team of classmates to compete in the county-wide high school physics Olympics. 

      There's nothing wrong with titles.  A lot of them are bestowed upon hard-working, passionate students who are making an impact.  But don't become the editor or the president or the captain just so you can say you held the title.  Your goal should be to make an impact first. 

      The collection of titles will almost certainly follow. 

      Who needs a champion?

      In my life before Collegewise, I worked for a local office of The Princeton Review, best known as an SAT prep company.  But they prepare students for other exams, too, and for a two year stretch that immediately preceded my time there, the Princeton Review office where I worked enjoyed record-breaking enrollments in their LSAT course (the LSAT is the entrance exam for law school).

      But the enrollments never returned to those record highs.  Not even close  So I asked my boss what he thought had changed, and I never forgot his answer.

      “Because The Princeton Review had an LSAT champion in Ian.”

      Ian was in charge of running the LSAT courses during their heyday at The Princeton Review.  He knew everything about the exam and loved teaching students how to beat it.  You could feel that energy when he would do free seminars for pre-law students.  Teachers he hired caught his contagious enthusiasm and passed it on to the students.  When Ian would write letters home to students about course details (yes, this was 1991 before everyone had email), he would always inject humor and spirit into his communication.  He wasn’t just phoning it in.  He loved what he was doing and he was exceptionally good at it.

      During Ian’s tenure, everyone involved with the LSAT courses could sense they were getting involved in something special, something they couldn’t find from the competition.  You can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm Ian displayed.  That’s why students enrolled in record numbers.

      As my boss put it, “Once Ian took over the courses, the students just kept coming.”

      What project, organization, class, club or team in your life needs a champion?  What do you think would happen if you took it on the way that Ian took on the LSAT courses?  And most importantly, what would people be saying about you when your tenure as the champion was over?

      If you want to make an impact that people will appreciate, find something or someone who needs champion.

      Not all quitters are created equal

      Quitters often get a bad rap.

      You've probably heard this advice:  "Whatever you do, never give up.  Don't be a quitter." 

      But you've probably also heard the advice, "Find what you love to do.  Pursue your passions."

      How can anyone possibly do both of those things simultaneously? 

      We're conditioned to think that the only way to succeed, the only way to get ahead and achieve is to refuse to quit no matter what happens.  We're taught that success will come if we just keep going.

      But if you follow that advice all the time, how are you supposed to find what you love to do?  It doesn't work.  And that's why a lot of the happiest, most successful people have quitting in their history. 

      I'd like to propose that not all quitters are created equal.  There are good quitters and bad quitters. 

      If you get one low grade on a math test and refuse to try anymore, you're a bad quitter.  You're giving up because something got difficult, and nobody who succeeds in life regularly gives up as soon as something gets challenging.  If you love being on the volleyball team but quit just because you didn't get picked as the starting setter, maybe you should have stayed and worked harder?  And if you quit your part time job just because you don't like the way your boss gets mad when you show up late, you really have some lessons to learn about the way the work world functions. 

      But there are also good quitters.  

      Good quitters quit the right things at the right times.  They can recognize when something they're involved in isn't bringing them any happiness or fulfillment.  They can sense when an activity, a job, a project, or a relationship isn't going anyplace successful or productive.  They'd rather spend their time on something with more potential.  So they quit and move on.  And they don't beat themselves up about it.

      One of our former Collegewise students was a standout football player at his high school.  But he quit right before the start of his junior year.  Football wasn't making him happy.  In fact, it was making him miserable.  And he had been grinding through it just because he didn't want to be a quitter. 

      But as he told us, he came to the realization that he simply longer wanted to do something in which he was regularly "congratulated for trying to take someone's head off."  He wanted to be doing other things that he thought would make him happier.  So he quit, joined a steel drum band at his high school, and started volunteering at his church.

      He went on to attend and graduate from Notre Dame.  They didn't mind him being a (good) quitter.  

      Here's the most important characteristic that distinguishes good quitters from bad quitters; bad quitters want to quit so just they can stop doing something.  Good quitters want the opportunity to do something else, something better for them, something they really want to throw themselves into, something that might even be harder.

      For good quitters, it's not about getting more time to sleep or watch TV.  They quit because they've got bigger goals, not smaller ones. 

      Quitters never win?  I don't buy that.  Bad quitters might never win.  Good quitters win all the time.

      So don't be afraid to quit.  Be afraid of being a bad quitter.

      Why high school activities can be career training

      Getting ahead in your high school activities is a lot like trying to get ahead in a company.  Yes, you've got to make your boss (president, coach, editor, etc.) happy.  But you can do other things, too, that will be noticed and appreciated.   

      1.  Figure out how to make your customers happier.

      If a business delights its customers, that business is going to grow.  And if you are an integral part of making customers happy, you're going to have a good career.

      Does your club or organization exist to provide something for others–like a service, entertainment, or guidance?  If so,  you've got customers.  The school newspaper and the student government exist to serve students.  Dance teams and cheerleaders exist to entertain fans at sporting events.  Peer mediators exist to resolve conflicts between other students. If you're in any organization that has customers, what ideas do you have that would make customers happier?  What contributions could you make to help achieve that goal. 

      2. Energize and inspire your co-workers.

      Some people at work just know how to make everyone else around them better.  They usually lead by example and show other people what it looks like to cheerfully work hard in an effort to make things happen.  They never say, "That's not my job."  What could you do to inspire the people around you and lead by example?  What recognition or acknowledgment could you give to other people to let them know that you recognize and appreciate their efforts.  What could you do to help your fellow tennis teammates, or members of the Spanish Club, or musicians in the jazz band celebrate and enjoy their experience even more?  Start by being as engaged and enthusiastic as possible, and other people will follow.   

      3. Develop a deep product knowledge.

      A copywriter at an ad agency who knows how to write good copy will do a good job.  A copywriter at an ad agency who knows how to write great copy because she's studied how to do it, who's also researched the most successful ad campaigns and knows the copy by heart, who's read about the business of advertising and has learned why some companies succeed and others fail, who wants to sit in on the meetings with the entire team so she can learn more about account management, design and media planning, that copywriter is going places. 

      What more could you learn about your "business?"  Whether you're on the tall flag team, the school yearbook staff, the Red Cross Club, the student government, the school newspaper, or the football team, I promise you there is more you could learn about what it takes to be successful. You don't necessarily have to learn everything, but the more you know, the more valuable you will be.

      Don't wait until you have a career to learn how to get ahead.  Start getting ahead now. 

      Are you indispensable?

      I just finished reading an interesting book called "Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?"  It wasn't written for high school students trying to get into college; but if you took its lessons and applied them to your high school life, I think you'd find yourself happier, more fulfilled, and more appealing to colleges. 

      Here's the gist of the book:  If you want to have a successful career that you enjoy, it's not enough to just work hard, follow instructions, do what your boss tells you to do, and avoid mistakes.  That's fine if you do that, but it won't make you indispensable.  A boss can find lots and lots of other people who will follow instructions and do good–but not indispensable–work. 

      Indispensable could mean being the best sales person who makes millions for a company.  But it can also be the grocery checker who's so warm and enthusiastic that customers love her and specifically come to that store because of her. It could be the waitress at the coffee shop who remembers customers' names and their favorite drinks and makes a great impression on everyone.  It's anyone who loves her work, puts her whole self into it, and in the process delights customers and co-workers.  It's these people who are getting and keeping the best jobs today because they're indispensable.  They can't easily be replaced.

      Being indispensable isn't all about talent.  It's about attitude, investment, and energy that you bring to your job. You don't have to be the CEO of a company to do that, and you don't have to be the club president, the editor of the school newspaper, or the captain of the football team to do it in high school.

      If you're on the student government and end up with the job of collecting tickets at the door for the homecoming dance, you can do that one of two ways.  You can show up on time, sit where you're supposed to sit, collect the tickets, not make any mistakes, and leave when it's over. 

      Or you could show up a little early to help set up.  You could suggest that the table be moved to a different spot, because you can see that its current location will make it difficult for people to make an orderly line once the big crowd shoes up.  You could smile and enthusiastically greet people when they arrive.  You could tell people how great they look (and be especially complimentary to those kids who don't hear that kind of praise very often).  At your break, you could offer to go get some water and snacks for everyone working the table with you.  You could figure out ways to keep being valuable once most of the students have shown up, like picking up the tickets that students have dropped on the ground, checking in with the chaperones to see if they need anything, and offering to run out for more ice when you see it's running low.  And when the dance is over, you could be one of the last to leave, staying to help clean up and offering to help carry the tables back the cafeteria where they came from.

      Which of those two approaches makes you more indispensable to the student government?  Which makes a bigger impression on the people around you?  And most importantly, which makes you feel better about yourself when you go home that night? 

      Taking tickets is not a highly-visible job.  It's not something you'll list on your college applications.  It's not going to win you any awards.  There are few reasons to do it if you expect a tangible and immediate reward in return.   

      But you have a choice about how to approach your role for that one night.  You can phone-it-in, do what you're supposed to do, and not make any mistakes.  Or you can use it as an opportunity to actually do a great performance, to bring your whole self to the role, to lead by example and show people that you're the kind of person who brings a lot to any job you do, whether or not it's important and visible. 

      It's this kid, not necessarily the ones who have the most impressive titles, who's going places.

      When I've written about kids who are active and engaged in class, those are the kids that teachers find indispensable. 

      When I've written about kids who bring a positive attitude and work ethic even if they're not the best player on the soccer team, those are the kids that coaches find indispensable. 

      When I've written about the kid who does community service not to chalk up hours but because she cares deeply about the mission of the organization, or the kid who doesn't get the lead in the school play but volunteers to run the lights, or the water polo player who leads the team's fundraising drive, or the kid who doesn't hold an office in the Spanish club but makes authentic tamales everyone loves for the meetings, or the kid who does scientific research with a college professor because he just has to know more about physics, those are the kids that are indispensable.

      So, are you indispensable?  If you're not, what could you start doing today to become that way?

      Some advice on choosing activities…

      What you choose to do outside the classroom, and the passion with which you pursue it, tells the colleges a lot about the potential impact you are likely to make on their campuses.  As you think about how you want to spend your time outside the classroom, here are some pointers to keep in mind:

      1.  Start with what you already know and like.
      Think about what you like, and ask yourself, "What else could I do in this area?"  For example, if your passion is sports, there are a lot of ways to get involved.  Join a team at your school.  Be the manager of the baseball team.  Write the sports column for the school newspaper.  Be the announcer at the basketball games.  Take pictures of sports for the yearbook.  No matter what you like to do, if you commit yourself to it, the colleges will be impressed.

      2.  Don't be a "joiner."

      Don't sign up for every club on campus to try and make the colleges
      think you were involved.  A long list of activities alone isn't going
      to impress the colleges as much as a substantial commitment will.  Pick
      the things you really enjoy instead of padding your resume.

      3.  Always try to make an impact.
      When you graduate from high school, what
      legacy will you leave behind in your involvements?  It might be
      something big, like the fact that you founded an organization that
      raised $12,000 for Juvenile Diabetes.  It might be something small,
      like the fact that even though you rarely played, you still got the
      Coach's Award on the soccer team because of your dedication.  Whatever
      you do, find a way to make contributions in your own way.  Colleges
      like the students who make an impact wherever they are.

      4.  Never ask, "Would (insert activity here) look good?"

      Every time one of our Collegewise students asks us this, we make that
      student go run a lap around our offices.  OK, not really, but that
      question is like fingernails on the blackboard for us, and for the
      colleges.  Instead, ask yourself, "Am I really interested in this, and
      does is seem like something to which I could commit to substantially?"
      If the answer is "yes," you're probably on the right track.

      5.  Never quit an activity you enjoy just because you aren't succeeding.
      If you love being on the soccer team even though you spend most of your time on the bench, don't
      quit!  Colleges understand that you're not going to be great at
      everything you do.  Besides, it takes just as much fortitude to stick
      with something that's challenging as it does to continue in an activity
      where everybody is always telling you how great you are.

      Conversely, if you don't like an activity, get out!  If you hate every
      second of wrestling and you got beaten so badly at the last match that
      your liver fell out, stop.  Don’t wrestle anymore.  Find something else
      that you enjoy where you won’t be slammed into a mat quite so often.