What three things should rising seniors be doing over the summer?

As we head off into the summer, we asked our experts what rising seniors should be doing this summer. As usual, they've got some great advice about how to rest, recharge, and prepare for a couple of steps in the college application process so you'll hit the ground running -- and avoid feeling overwhelmed -- in the fall. And don't forget, two of the most important and best things you can do this summer are rest and read, read, read... Nothing will prepare you better for senior year. Enjoy all of it!


Mai Lien Nguyen
College and Career Center Coordinator
Mountain View High School
Mountain View, CA


“Having fun” and “preparing for college applications” aren’t phrases you normally hear in the same breath.  But the summer before senior year could be the golden opportunity to make this happen.  Let’s see how:


1.      Find an enjoyable and productive activity over the summer: a part-time job, an internship, a community service project, an academic program, a sports camp, etc.  Make sure it is something that you would find fulfilling and that fits your priorities.  For example, if it’s important to your family that you earn some money, by all means, find a part-time job that meets your financial needs and introduces you to some great work skills you’d like learning.  If the visual arts are your passion, find ways to broaden or strengthen your skills and aesthetic as an artist, whether it is immersing yourself in a pre-college arts program or interning with an artist you admire.

2.      Go “shopping” for your new home, i.e. visit and research colleges.  Make it fun by visiting with friends, checking out the local scene or tourist spots near a college, etc.  Although most colleges will not be as busy in the summer months as they are during the academic year, it will still be helpful for you to visit campuses.  If you aren’t able to visit colleges, use free online resources or talk to your counselor about how you can find colleges that are right for you.

3.      Go to your “happy place” to get a head start on your college applications.  If your happy place is under the sun at your favorite beach, go there to be introspective and brainstorm/free write on ideas for your college essays.  Whatever it takes for inspiration to strike, finding that happy place now will help you avoid the stress of coming up with a topic at the last minute in the middle of tests, class projects, tournaments, etc. and looming application deadlines in senior year.


Pamela Ambler
College Counselor
Woodward Academy
College Park, GA

Colleges value authentic students whose academic performance, essays, and activities work in conjunction to complete the narrative. As long as your testing is in order and you've already selected challenging courses for senior year, if you do three simple things this summer, your story should come together nicely, and your senior year should go more smoothly.  

1.      Form college impressions beyond the brochure. As you research colleges and visit their campuses, ask yourself how you envision weaving into the fabric of the institution. Be specific. You'll be a savvier applicant as a result of jotting down these details now. In a sense, you are formulating responses to short answer questions along the way.

2.       Read essay prompts. Slowly.  Allow time for essay ideas to formulate over the course of the summer. You should never feel as though you're writing an essay from start to finish in one sitting. You can find the prompts here. (hyperlink to CA prompts: https://appsupport.commonapp.org/link/portal/33011/33013/Article/1694/2014-15-Common-Application-Essay-Prompts)

3.      Tap into your passion and have some fun this summer! Your senior year schedule will be your toughest yet; make sure you plan your summer so that it is both productive and rejuvenating. For example, a high school student who is involved with organizing events at her high school and happens to enjoy English classes might secure a summer internship with a local “events” publication. Her college essay might suggest themes of what she has learned from her experiences, who her involvement has impacted, or how she’ll further develop her passions in college.  Her story would come together organically because she’s authentically seeking opportunities to be involved in meaningful ways.


Sam Bigelow
Associate Director of College Counseling
Middlesex School
Concord, MA 

Summer vacation: the promised land of sunshine, freedom, and youth. Those of us who work in academia cherish having the utmost flexibility in the summertime. We also know, however, that summer is a great time to get that elusive report done, article written, or recommendation started for the coming fall. For rising seniors, summer can and should be a time to relax. That said, it’s also a perfect time to pursue an interest, prepare for your senior fall, and get out and survey the landscape of college options. With the better part of three months to play with, how will you use your time? Here are a few ideas.

1.      Actively Participate in SOMETHING -- Colleges are far more interested in an authentic narrative about how you have spent your time than the perceived prestige of an expensive program. If that means getting a job to save some money as opposed to jetting off to help educate illiterate manatees, that is okay. College-level courses taught at a prestigious university are typically not taught by the undergraduate faculty and admission folks will tell you there is no admission benefit from taking their school’s summer courses. The benefits are the friends you make, the books you read, and the conversations you have. I had a student who dug holes in his parents' backyard one summer and wrote a beautiful essay on the value of hard work.

2. Prepare for Senior Fall -- Register for standardized tests you will be taking in the fall. Complete the net price calculators for each school where you plan to apply so you know what to expect from a need-based financial aid package. Begin working on drafts of a personal essay (find the Common App essay topics here). The 2014-15 Common App and supplemental essay topics for most colleges should be available by August 1st so you can get started on those as well before the school year begins.

3.Visit Colleges (and interview where you can) -- A campus tour allows you to imagine yourself as a student at that school and is a wonderful way to show your interest. Make sure to sign up for an interview where available at least two weeks in advance of your visit. Visit the college’s website and read the student newspaper to develop questions that show you have done your research. While you're there, take notes on memorable moments, which will come in handy when you are writing essays about why you are interested in a school.


Sandra Cernobori
College Advisor
Palo Alto Senior High School
Palo Alto, CA

1.      With time demands for the academics, extracurriculars, and the ACT/SAT/AP tests of junior year, many students not have had time to adequately research colleges. So this is the most important task for summer.  This might include college visits; even though summer isn’t an ideal time for a visit if classes aren’t in session, a visit can still be helpful.

2.      Develop a solid college list; a list of 8-10 colleges with a range of selectivity that fit your academic, social, and financial needs/goals.   Track the application requirements and deadlines.  Students should finalize this information with their college counselor.

3.In addition to using financial aid calculators to help identify colleges that are a financial fit for their list in #2, as rising seniors, students should look into scholarships for: college-sponsored scholarships (sometimes these require that the college application is submitted by an earlier deadline); local business and civic organizations; cultural and religious organizations; parents' employers; places where students have performed community service, worked or interned.  Many high schools publish and maintain a searchable database of scholarship opportunities but students should also check resources in local libraries or national search sites like finaid.org and meritaid.com.

And extra credit…

4.      Students should familiarize themselves with college application essay prompts and writing directions.  The Common App has already published the essay topics for next fall’s application cycle -- and applications for your public university and some other colleges may have theirs available as well.  It can be helpful to brainstorm possible responses this summer.  Once the Common App for 2013-2014 opens in August, students can look at any application supplements their colleges might have which require additional writing.  You should map a plan for the essays to (1) avoid redundancy between the main Common App essay and application supplements and (2) see which other application essay topics might overlap.

5.      Prepare for fall SAT/ACT tests, if applicable. 


Our experts' responses reflect not only the wisdom of their experience, but also their schools' philosophies and policies. There is a great deal of diversity in American education and some of that will be on display here. Make sure to check with your own school about their policy on any particular subject discussed here.

We would like to extend a special thank you to the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), who partnered with us on this post, and in particular counselors Marie Bigham of Greenhill School, Jody Sweeney of William Penn Charter School, and Sarah Markhovsky of Severn School.





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