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USACollegeChat Podcast

Jun 15, 2016

Welcome back to our summer series, entitled The Search Begins. Again, this series is dedicated to those of you—primarily the parents of juniors—who are starting a focused college hunt now. However, today’s episode is going to be useful to all high school parents as kids gear up—or wind down—for the summer. A note to families with younger high schoolers: It might be time to get a jump on preparing for college applications.

Long ago in Episodes 15 and 16, we talked about extracurricular activities, internships, volunteer service, and part-time jobs that students might undertake after school during the school year in order to give a boost to their college applications.

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 600 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by about 45 colleges), or an individual college’s own application (when a college does not use either one), we said then that there will likely be a section that asks your child to make an elaborate list of activities that he or she participated in while in high school (though there are some exceptions to this, especially among community colleges and some less-selective colleges). Having something to say in the activities section of the application is important in order to show that your child is a well-rounded individual, who is likely to contribute to the college community outside of the classroom. We will talk more about activities during the school year in an upcoming episode.

But, as we mentioned back in Episode 18, many college applications also ask the applicant to detail what he or she has done each summer while in high school. Knowing this now will help you work with your child to plan significant summer activities, which are useful not only in filling out college applications, but also in making your child’s out-of-school life richer and more meaningful.

If your child needs to work in the summer to help support your family, then that has to come first. But, hopefully, there will be some time when he or she can also engage in some activities designed primarily for academic or personal enrichment. If your child is looking at a selective college, then summer should not be viewed as a time to rest and fool around, but rather as a time for your child to pursue some interest or perfect some talent or learn something new or do some good for others—at least part of the time. Here are some broad categories of activities you should talk through with your child immediately since some of these opportunities will be closed very soon.

1. High School and College Study

Some high schools and school districts offer summer courses that allow students to take more advanced courses or different courses from those they take during the school year. Accelerated or enriched high school study in the summer is a time-honored tradition and would be a very reasonable summer activity, from a college’s point of view.

But, even better, would be study at a college. U.S. colleges have more summer programs than you can count for truly interested and/or reasonably bright high school students. You can’t scroll through Facebook these days without seeing sponsored ads from a variety of colleges for these programs, including from some of our nation’s top-ranked colleges. Some courses are part of full-time residential programs on the campus; others are not. Some college programs are not academic at all, but rather sports related. Unlike taking free public high school courses, programs at a college can be expensive; but, fortunately, scholarships are often available.

How do you find such a college course? Well, Google it, of course, or resort to the old-fashioned way of reading the newspaper. Colleges in your hometown likely advertise in the newspaper (even in hometowns as big as New York City). Your child’s high school should have information and brochures as well. Out-of-town colleges that your child might be interested in attending are also a great idea, because a summer course there is one way for your child to get to know the campus—even if not the college and its students—like an insider.

One final note: If your high school does not offer students the opportunity to take college courses of any kind during the school year (perhaps through an Early College or dual credit arrangement), then a course taken at a college in the summer—especially one that earns college credit—would be a particularly attractive option for your child. Being able to say on a college application that you have already taken and succeeded in a college course somewhere at some time is, obviously, an advantage for an applicant.

For families who are interested in sending students outside the U.S. to study in the summer, there are certainly programs to be had. Just Google them. This is almost an irresistible summer combination—college study and seeing the world. Great for college applications and great for life!

2. Family Travel

Quite a few students have close family connections in other countries, often in the country that their parents emigrated from. Many of these students go home to these countries during the summer to visit relatives for several weeks or more, often making it difficult for students to engage in summer programs set up by their schools or in their local communities. Students can take advantage of these family trips—for example, by keeping up with a native or second language, by visiting cultural sites, or by working in a family business—and find something interesting to write about on their college applications.

Other families might take a short trip to a different part of the U.S. or to a different country near or far. As always, giving students a close look at important historical sites or art museums or architecturally magnificent buildings or geologic wonders makes it possible for them to write in more detail and more interestingly about these summer activities on their college applications.

3. Internships and Volunteer Work

We have made the case several times that engaging in internships and/or volunteer work lets a college know that a student is responsible and dependable, takes initiative, and, depending on the assignment, cares about others. From the student’s side, an internship or volunteer assignment helps the student explore career interests and potential college majors.

Summer is also a great time to think about politics—especially this summer, of course. Local, state, and national office-seekers can use plenty of extra hands to stuff envelopes, put up posters, and get voters to declare their intentions. Media-savvy teenagers can often reach out to voters in ways that older adults do not entirely understand. A summer in a political campaign is a powerful way to learn about American government and political science firsthand.

Summer is also a great time to pursue a volunteer assignment in a hospital or nursing home. Many high school students—and indeed college students—interested in attending medical school and/or pursuing a career in health care look for these volunteer opportunities, so interested students should pursue this kind of assignment right away.

Summer internships—in which a student has a chance to try out a future career field, under the mentorship of a successful individual already working in the field—are even harder to get than volunteer assignments, so students should have already been looking for those. Parents, remember that high schoolers will be in competition for internships with college students—and, more and more, even college graduates—which makes an aggressive search even more important.  

As we said back in Episode 18, summer is also a great time to talk with local church youth groups about mission trips to nearby or far away urban or rural areas in or outside of the U.S. where teenagers can do a host of volunteer jobs for the young, the old, the sick, or the homeless—from cleaning up a park to repainting a house to playing games to serving a hot lunch to reading aloud. Having teenagers do work that helps others, while under the supervision of caring adults, is a win for everyone.

4. The New Report

In Episodes 61 and 62, we looked at a new report that grew out of a meeting a year ago hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common. The meeting brought together college admissions deans, high school folks, and others to discuss the state of college admissions. The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. While we have been critical of the actual commitment of the many excellent colleges that endorsed the report to see their recommendations through to implementation, the report does interestingly take an in-depth look at the importance of community service for high school students. Here are two recommendations from the report:

Meaningful, Sustained Community Service: We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen—that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests—that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults. We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement . . . . This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income. Just as important, it’s vital that the admissions process squarely challenges misconceptions about what types of service are valued in admissions.       Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. The admissions process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience. (quoted from the report)

So, what does it all mean? As we said back in Episode 61, it means that the service should be something that your teenager is actually interested in and invested in; that the service should be something your teenager thinks about, talks about with other kids and with adults, and learns from; that the service last at least a year; and that the service may be something that your teenager does in order to support or help your own family, such as working at a paid job if financial help is needed or taking care of a younger sibling or an elderly relative if that kind of family support is needed. I think that the report’s notion that the service last at least a year is particularly significant. In other words, the college might not look so favorably on a one-week community service project in the summer—unless perhaps a student did several of those projects summer after summer.

Authentic, Meaningful Experiences with Diversity: We encourage students to undertake community service and engagement that deepens their appreciation of diversity. (quoted from the report)

While the report goes on to talk about its own notion of what meaningful experiences with diversity are, the basic idea is clear: work in and learn from activities conducted with racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse groups of kids, classmates, and/or adults.  

So, what if that “meaningful, sustained community service” that includes “authentic, meaningful experiences with diversity” could happen this summer—and just as important—summer after summer to build up to the year-long recommendation the report makes? And, better still, what if summer volunteer work could be combined with volunteer work after school during the year to build up to the year-long recommendation the report makes? What might that look like?

5. Spotlight on After-School Programs

Here is an example. For many years, I served on the board of an after-school homework-help and enrichment program for low-income kids, including many new arrivals to the U.S., who would otherwise have gone home to empty apartments. This is a shout-out to you, Adventures in Learning in Manhasset, New York, with its one-of-a-kind executive director Diana Holden. Teenagers from local high schools and adults in the community volunteer in the afternoons to work with Adventures’ elementary-school-aged kids—to improve their reading and writing and arithmetic skills, to get their homework done correctly, to offer them special science and arts programming, and to provide them with the other after-school things that the families of kids in their classes at school provide routinely for their own kids—from Scouts to sports to tap dancing. In the interest of full disclosure, my daughter Polly is doing her master’s degree internship program at Adventures this summer, and my son Bobby did a high school internship there a decade ago. If you ask either one of them, every minute they spent at Adventures is and was worth it.

I read an article recently that proved what I have always believed about after-school programs like these. A study of 6,400 children in England was reported in The Edvocate in mid-May in an article entitled “After-School Activities Help Disadvantaged Students in the Classroom.” Let’s take a look at a few paragraphs from the article:

An academic increase was . . . observed for disadvantaged students who attended after-school programs. They attained higher scores in science, math and English at the end of primary school, lessening the attainment gap between poor students and their more affluent peers.

Academic improvements are not the only benefit documented for children participating in after-school activities. Improved social, emotional and behavioral skills were observed from students who participated in organized activities, in comparison to their peers who did not.

With there being so many advantages to participation in activities including sports, music, language, tutoring and arts classes, many schools are offering school-based clubs as an affordable alternative for poorer students. For disadvantaged students who do not have access to formal out of school activities, after school programming is imperative.

The research could have an impact on policy makers concerned with education, as well as implications for after-school childcare programming.

It is clear that the structure and delivery of after-school activities have a positive impact on disadvantaged students. The importance of exposure to these experiences [is] even more significant for poorer students who may not typically have the opportunity to participate unless the program is offered after hours via their public school. (quoted from the article)

Or, I would say, unless the program is offered after hours via community-based organizations that make up for what some public schools don’t do or can’t afford to do. Having your child volunteer to work with younger students in such a program—both during the school year and during the summer, when those programs offer summer activities, as many do—is a way for your child to make an actual difference in the academic, social, and personal futures of the kids who are enrolled.

And it is a way for your child to make a statement on his or her college application about a long-term commitment to helping all kids succeed. Feel free to have your child quote the same article I did here if your child chooses to write about this kind of volunteer work in an essay on a college application. People who think that having higher schoolers volunteer in after-school and summer programs like these is just an easy thing to do that looks good on an application couldn’t be more wrong. It is much more than that. Show them the proof.

So start looking around for a program like this near you. Your teenager doesn’t have to be a genius to help younger kids do their homework. And, your teenager can offer his or her own talents, too—music, art, sports, or something else. When your teenager wants to play all summer, have them listen to this episode. Because it will be time to do college applications sooner than you think.

Hear about firsthand experiences with community service in this week's Facebook Live video.


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