For better or worse, the ways that older teens spend summer vacations have become just as important to the college application process as grades, essays, recommendations and SAT scores. Whether its volunteer service, family travel, a summer job or a summer camp program, these experiences demonstrate what is important to the teen and are likely to became fodder for the all important common application college essay, which this year will ask students to bare their souls to admission staff, in 650 words or less, by crafting a highly personal and insightful response to one of the following questions:
- Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Teen summer camp options range from short sports showcase and development camps to six or eight weeks living in college dorms and taking college level classes. Many camps offer returning older campers counselor in training (CIT) or leadership development options while service or travel camps provide opportunities to explore around the world. The asking price for these sorts of peak experiences range from $500 for a long weekend, non-residential sports showcase to as much as $6,000-$8,000 for extended residential college campus programs or $10,000+ for lengthy international travel and service experiences. Month long CIT programs, shorter on campus or day programs at local colleges, and some service trips can be a bargin in the $3,000-$5,000 range.
Each teen summer camp program offers a unique opportunity for self-discovery and expanding horizons. The choices are almost endless. In our recent experience we have seen friends of #1 son spend their summers hiking across Australia, exploring theatrical and science career options at a leading colleges and universities, crewing on a tall ship, digging deep into creative writing and philosphy in residence at a world recognized prep school, and showing off athletic talents at national camps scouted by dozens of colleges.
Amid all these options, we have been surprised at how few teens prioritize local volunteer work or getting a summer job where they can actually earn some cash and pay their own summer entertainment expenses. #1 Son has held a local summer job working 30-40 hours a week for each of the last 3 summers and before he went off to college had managed to bank the cost of a pretty pricey summer camp program. When it came time to complete his college applications, the fact that he had held a job actually caught the eye of more than one college. One even specifically mentioned it in his acceptance letter.
A few teens with families lucky enough to be able to travel for the whole summer will be able to learn from that type of experience. But, for many families, the vacation will be a week or two at the beach. For older teens it really should not be an option to spend the rest of the summer at the pool. It is only February, but, now is the time to start getting your teen to think about summer priorities and decide whether they should be looking for a job, signing up for a camp, or connecting with local volunteer and service opportunities.
In making these decisions it is important to think about a number of issues including:
- Cost – no family should be going into debt to fund their teen’s summer camp experience. If the teen is going to be expected to contribute to the cost of college or to put gas in the car, summer is a great time to start earning and saving
- Interest – does the teen want to focus on academics, sports, service, making money, travel or something else?
- The teen’s maturity level – many college-based programs provide minimal supervision and expect a 16 year old to be able to make the right choices about how to spend their free time. Programs may be on urban campuses that allow for access to a wide range of options – how prepared is your teen to make the right decisions?
- College goals – if your teen aspires to play college varsity level sports, summers are critical times to get seen by coaches. If they are trying to refine thoughts about which major to pursue, some exposure to college level classes and opportunities to learn about different majors could be invaluable
The choices that teens make about how to spend their summers show a lot about what is important to them and will directly impact how they approach the college application process. There isn’t one right or wrong choice, as it all depends on what the teen wants to get out of it and what is realistic for a particular family. The key thing is to develop a plan to get the right balance of summer fun, enrichment, service and employment and make sure the teen has the opportunity to gain some deeper insight into their own priorities and the realities of the world around them.