Summer Programs Sure to Impress Colleges

Last Updated Jun 15, 2011 11:54 AM EDT

Back when I was in high school, summer was a time to hang out with friends and maybe earn a little spending money. Now, however, savvy teenagers (and their parents) realize that if they use their vacation time strategically, they can improve their chances of getting into the college of their choice. So if your son or daughter doesn't already have any plans for July and August, consider pushing him or her to do something that will "wow" an admissions director.

What are colleges looking for? I asked Jill Tipograph, a member of Aristotle Circle, a network of college admissions counselors and advisors, and the founder of Everything Summer. She explained that admissions directors look for students who can tell a story about themselves and their passions. The trouble is that many teenagers find they don't have time to pursue their interests during the school year. That's why summer presents teens with an opportunity to fill in any "resume" gaps and expand who they are, she says.

Here are some summer ideas from Tipograph and Aristotle Circle that are sure to impress the admissions director at any school:

1. Achieve a Goal
Colleges like to see high school students work toward a goal. The aspiration can be anything from donating time to community service to learning a foreign language or some other skill. Here are some examples:

Fee based programs: If your child's objective is to help others, there are an endless number of volunteer trips your teenager can choose from. For example, he can lend a helping hand on an Indian Reservation in Montana. Or, he could help build a school in the Dominican Republic while perfecting his Spanish language skills. As an added bonus, kids can earn 60 to 100 hours of community service. These sorts of programs typically run for 4 weeks and cost between $4,500 and $5,000 (excluding airfare).

Free Option: Volunteer locally. Your child can find nearby opportunities through Dosomething.org.

2. Pursue a Passion
Colleges love to see a teenager pursue a passion for an activity or cause. Any interest -- think music or politics -- will do, provided it is genuine.

Fee Based Programs: As an example, if your child is interested in painting, she could go to an art institute in Tuscany and study the Italian Masters. On weekends she can travel around Italy, visit museums, and soak up the culture. Cost: Expect to pay $5,500 to $6,000 for a 3 week trip.

Free (Or Low Cost) Option: Suggest your child gets out his sketch pad and starts drawing. He can also consider an inexpensive art class at a community college and funding the tuition by babysitting or mowing lawns.

3. Feed Your Brain
Colleges will never look askance at a scholar. Teenagers can impress them by taking classes and boosting their high school transcripts.

Fee Based Programs: Colleges across the country, including Brown and Cornell, offer special programs for high school kids that often allow them to take university level classes. Not only do teenagers earn school credit, but they also get a good feel for what it's like to go away to school. Cost: Around $4,500.

Cheaper Options: Community colleges often offer high school enrichment classes for kids who want to get ahead. There are also online AP courses that help prepare teenagers for the material they will see come September.

4. Get a Taste of the Real World
One great way to impress an admissions director is to land a summer job in a lousy economy. Schools also like to see students take on internships in their field of academic interest, says Tipograph

Fee Based Programs: One way to make sure your kid lands a productive internship is to pay a program to coordinate an opportunity. An an example, a program like Summer Discovery matches students up with internships in a range of careers -- from Fashion to Business -- and makes sure they aren't making photocopies all summer. Participating kids also receive college credit. Cost: Starts at $6,000, but includes room and board.

Free Option: The most obvious option here is to have your child go out and get a paying job. But if your child can't find one, perhaps she could shadow a professional for a couple of weeks. Parents may need to open a few doors and ask a friend for a favor, but you should make your teenager initiate the follow up calls and make the final arrangements, suggests Tipograph.

How will your teenager spend her summer?

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
Visions Service Adventures image courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.
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