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Some believe that a productive summer requires spending money to attend a leadership program or travel to a remote country and paint a school.

Two presenters, Liz Marx, a college counselor with Collegewise, an independent counseling company, and Michael Gulotta, an associate director of admissions at USC, at the recent Western Association of College Admissions Counselors (WACAC) conference at Loyola Marymount University shared their summer insights in their session, “From Surfing to Shakespeare, How Students Should Spend Their Summers.”

One such insight was on institutional pre-packaged summer programs. Michael cited Stanford’s website, which states: “We do not have a preference for students who attend Stanford specific summer programs, but overall, engaging in enrichment opportunities and advanced courses may demonstrate your enthusiasm for learning and discovery. The fact that you are taking summer or enrichment programs is not in and of itself the value-add to your application; it is what you take from that experience, how you share that experience with us through your essays and how that experience has enhanced your intellectual life that is of importance.”

This viewpoint could probably extend to most selective admissions sites.

Clearly, going through a summer with a checklist of activities to enhance your admissions edge is not beneficial. What is beneficial is partaking in activities you are enthusiastic about (like perfecting your photography, fixing engines, or making short subject videos to upload on You Tube) or that might show an enterprising nature (like working in an office or store, or beta testing software) or simply personal enrichment (like reading Dante’s Inferno aloud with a group of friends in one marathon session).

However, if a program, such as a special high school chemistry program on the USC campus, which emphasizes research, and from which a student might gain a realistic understanding of the capabilities of a campus’s chemistry department — this type of program will likely weigh positively with many admissions offices.

Another myth dispelled in the session is that students should not use summers for a certain amount of downtime. Most students work hard throughout the school year writing papers, studying for tests, researching projects: many need time to unwind for part of their summer.

After decompressing for a week or two, there is still plenty of time to do some other activities. You might consider alternatives by asking a few simple questions:

1. How much time do you have to devote to activities?

2. Do you need to earn money or do you have adequate sums to support your efforts? (Realize that some summer programs have financial aid.)

3. Is there something you want to learn more about?

4. Possibly you might wish to volunteer for an activity or organization of interest; a good site to find volunteer activities in your area is

Undoubtedly, there are best of breed summer programs which require applications and recommendations, that if accepted into carry weight with the admissions office. These include the Telluride Association Summer Program, CSSSA, RSI, or Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists (PROMYS). By the way, information on these programs and many more are available free at the Collegewise Summer Program website.

The best advice for summer activities, however, is if you wish to impress: don’t. Instead, attempt to become as self-directed as possible. Build on your strengths. Of course, colleges want to see evidence that you are spending your time productively; most seek students who have a sense of who they are and what it is they want to do with their lives.

Even if you are feeding your passions with seemingly unimpressive activities such as reading a list of books, writing poetry, calculating spreadsheets to determine ROI on an online business, sweating in a dance studio, or sewing costumes for a local playhouse, you are on the right track. Enjoy your summer on your own terms.

Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC ( and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 10 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800.

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