The Journey to College Begins with a Fun Summer | LJ Learning Works

The Journey to College Begins with a Fun Summer

Journey to College

What do you want to BE when you grow up?

An astronaut? Ballet dancer? Firefighter? It’s a fun question until sometime in junior year of high school when the question becomes a bit more real: “what are you gonna major in?”

It’s not unusual to be unsure about your college and career goals while you’re in high school. How are you supposed to know what you want to spend the next 4-8+ years studying without trying some potential interests first?

Up until that junior year moment, we focus on academics. It’s all about the grades, the AP courses, and the SAT which allow you to get into the best possible college. But to what end? Academic achievement is certainly something to be proud of, but it’s even more impactful when applied toward a path that you’re excited and passionate about.

Explore and expand your interests

There are so many ways that a student can take advantage of summer break to conduct some self-discovery and growth activities – and while you’re at it – build a competitive resume and college application.

The good news is that you don’t have to look far beyond your own interests to find fun and productive way to spend your summer, and these interests don’t have to be academic! What do you spend time doing on weekends? When you leave school at the end of the day, what are you looking forward to spending your time on when you get home? Consider who you enjoy spending time with or who you have great conversations with – and ask those people what they see as your interests and passions. An informal love of animals could become a fulfilling summer job at a veterinary office, or your pretty serious dedication to surfing might translate to a summer gig as a lifeguard or surfing coach. Don’t let anyone tell you your interests are trivial or unimportant. They can be the start of something amazing – and a potential career goal – if they matter to you.

Give it a try

Let’s meet Sarah. Sarah had excellent grades and thought that volunteer efforts would help her stand out on her college applications. But what should she volunteer in? In the summer after sophomore year she decided to volunteer through a local organization dedicated to preserving local wetlands. She learned about conservation and ecological issues, and enjoyed several weeks of summer out on the coast. Sarah describes that summer as the beginning of her interest in environmental sciences. Her summer volunteer work, she says, showed her how much she enjoyed being outside in nature. The experience helped her get accepted into an international program the summer after junior year. Sarah went to South Africa as a research assistant, studying the conservation efforts of local endangered species. That adventure was pivotal in her decision to apply for college as an environmental science major, making it an informed decision.

How to choose your summer activities

1. Genuine interests
You are already working hard at school during the academic year, so give yourself a much needed break by focusing on something you find fun. Narrow down your search for summer opportunities to those you have a genuine interest in but that also allow you to show responsibility or leadership. For instance, Nick was a high school student that couldn’t see himself doing anything but football and sports. He was able to spend his summers not only in football practice, but also coaching and mentoring younger students in a youth sports program. He was able to do what he loved while also taking on a new responsibility.

2. Potential for long-term commitment
Sticking with a particular area of interest is highly preferred by colleges, so the hope is the you find a cause or field that you can work at throughout high school. Certainly parents want their children to be well-rounded, but don’t fall into the trap of dabbling for quantity over quality long-term activities. The good news is that means the more convenient and affordable local summer activities are likely to be of more value on your student resume than expensive one-time international service trips, for example. Service in your own community can foster connections with others and life lessons that can help you develop goals for the future. A student who develops an interest in coding and technology in a summer camp at UCSD might find themselves mentoring younger students the next summer or interning at a local tech start up – laying the groundwork for continuing their studies in college with goals they can truly be excited about.

Or maybe coding camp helps you realize you hate coding. This is also a helpful insight. Self-discovery is a journey!

3. Start early
Summer internships and camps for high school students are fantastic opportunities. Often they are very competitive, however, and applications are due much earlier in the year. Get a head start by searching for internships in the winter. Plan ahead to give yourself the chance to get out of the house and try new things. And don’t worry if a prestigious internship doesn’t work out; consider looking for a summer job. Cashiers and office assistants may seem like a modest way to enter the world of work, but you can learn a lot about different careers and have just as much opportunity to show personal leadership and responsibility with a traditional job.

4. Keep an open mind and take initiative
Fantastic summer experiences can come from a huge range of surprising or informal sources. Make use of family and friends and their connections in different fields. Ask your teachers. Check out camps and courses offered at local universities for more structured experiences. Or, students can create their own summer work. Keep an open mind and take some initiative if you have to, like Emma. She was always very interested in nail polish and makeup. In summer after her freshman year, she and a couple of her peers decided to apply their interest in a new way: they founded a local chapter of a national organization called GlamourGals, which provides makeovers for women living in senior homes to battle elder loneliness. Throughout high school Emma continued to enjoy her makeover hobby through GlamourGals at the same time as providing service to her community, all through an effort that shows leadership and initiative.

Stand out with extracurriculars

So a fun and engaging summer is an important way for you to take a break from school – but it will also help you build an interesting and competitive student resume for college applications down the line.

The findings of the annual admission trends survey conducted by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) reveal that year after year, grades and test scores are the most important factors in admission decisions. However, NACAC also points out that more moderately important factors like extracurricular activities and essays “tend to provide insight regarding personal qualities and interests of students.”

Although the quantitative aspects of a student’s profile, GPA and test scores, are reported to far outweigh any other factor in admissions decisions, you will very often find the same colleges reporting a “holistic” approach to admissions. A typical recruiting pitch by admissions officers will describe the school’s desire to understand the applicant as a whole person and to consider their interesting qualities in addition to achievement. UPenn is very clear that they want to “understand who you are, what’s important to you, and the positive impact you’ve had on those around you.”

Let’s look at UC Berkeley. For the 2017-2018 school year, Berkeley reported that they received over 85,000 applications. Of that staggering number, 98% were in the top tenth of their high school graduating class. That means top students competed for spots at Berkeley with 83,300 other students that graduated at the top of their class. A student who achieves a composite score over 30 on the ACT should be extremely proud, but don’t expect that to differentiate them from the nearly 60,000 other applicants at Berkeley who scored just as well or better.

In 2017, Berkeley admitted around 18% of those students. If the vast majority of applicants had very similar, although strikingly impressive, qualifications, then how do admissions officers choose? A holistic approach suggests they consider factors that help them determine other qualities about the student. Academic success, at least at popular and highly regarded institutions like UC Berkeley, is the norm and students need ways to stand out.

Remember Sarah and her community service geared toward environmental issues? Not only did Sarah’s summer work provide her decide to major in environmental science, it also helped her get into college. While her excellent grades and high test scores allowed her to apply to some excellent schools, the extra time over summer spent pursuing her interests helped her to stand out in her application. Her extensive list of extracurriculars and long-term commitments to community service clearly showed the colleges her character and interests in a way that her grades alone could not. And she was accepted to Berkeley. With a scholarship.

Where to start?

There’s a very good chance that the answer to the question, “what are you interested in?” is still “no clue.” That’s completely understandable! Sometimes self-discovery needs a little more structure.

Many students benefit from personalized guidance to help them understand themselves and to construct meaningful goals for their future. Independent educational consultants are a great way to access the endless resources out there and receive individualized support tailored to a student’s unique personality and needs. You aren’t alone!

Or consider enrolling in the Career Interest Coaching at La Jolla LearningWorks this summer. Students work their way through projects rooted in interviewing local professionals to find out how successful people have found their way to fulfilling careers. Spoiler alert – it’s usually by getting out there and trying stuff!

So however you spend your time this summer, get involved and have fun!

Here’s a list of resources here in San Diego to help you get started planning your summer:

About the Author

Jen Fordham is an Independent Educational Consultant in San Diego who assists students in creating and achieving their high school and college goals. She specializes in working with students with learning differences or special needs, drawing on her 15 years of experience as an educator in multiple school settings. Jen holds a Master’s Degree in Education from Pepperdine University and a certificate in Educational Consulting from the University of California, Irvine. Jen provides individualized support to students and families to achieve the ultimate goal: happy and successful students. For more information about Jen’s personalized college advising services, you can reach her at

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