During the school year, homework and exams, not to mention SAT prep, sports, and school orchestra rehearsals, take over a high school student’s calendar.

So when can a student find time to invest in really meaningful extracurricular activities?

Summers are obviously the only extensive blocks of free time students have. This means that summers must be wisely spent and carefully planned for.

I’ll answer three frequently asked questions about summer activities.

  1. Should a student’s activities be closely related to his or her intended major?
  2. How much time should a student invest in summer activities?
  3. Is it worthwhile to start a new activity the summer before senior year?

Should students’ activities be related to their intended college major?

The most important thing is for a student’s summer activity to be integrated with the rest of his or her profile as a whole, not that it relate specifically to the student’s academic interests.

Many students don’t have a very clear idea of what they’re going to major in. For such students, summer activities should express their current priorities and interests.

Take Sam, a student vaguely interested in majoring in political science, international business, maybe even pre-law. Though he doesn’t have a clear view of his future, he does have a very strong set of current interests. He’s always been into learning about other cultures and has traveled quite a bit and picked up two foreign languages.

Now Sam can choose between taking a summer law course at the University of Chicago or going back to Peru to engage in a community-service project and further develop his Spanish skills. What should he do? Sam’s summer activity should integrate with his well-developed extracurricular priorities, rather than possible future college major. Sam should go to Peru.

But there are other students who have a very clear idea of what they want to do in college. These students will, in all likelihood, have already focused their extracurricular activities on academic activities.

For example, Amy knew from very early on that she wanted to become a doctor. She aggressively piled up biomedical research internships every summer and hospital volunteer work every school year. Amy’s summer activity will link up with her future college major—but it will also integrate with her extracurricular activities.

How much time should a student invest in summer activities?

Time is a student’s most precious commodity. Regardless of whether high school students will agree to this, they absolutely apply it in their own lives: students inevitably find time to spend on the things that they enjoy the most.

I’ve known countless students who are “too tired” to practice the piano or read a novel after completing their homework. But no matter what time those students close their books, they inevitably have enough energy and interest to go online, update their Facebook page, play video games or watch Manga videos.

Why? Because students love those activities. Some parents have told me that their children can sit in front of a computer for ten to twelve hours at a time without getting up to get a drink or use the bathroom. Now, that’s passion!

It’s unsurprising, then, that colleges often consider the number of hours a student devotes to a project a rough measure of his or her passion. Obviously, students can only spend so many hours a week pursuing extracurricular activities during the school year.

But how much time should they devote to these activities during the summer?

The right answer to this question varies from student to student. But as a general rule of thumb, I counsel my students as follows:

1. Set aside around eight hours per day for college-prep related activities, whether studying or pursuing extracurricular activities.

Remember: eight hours a day is not all that much time! It is roughly equivalent to the number of hours students spend in school during the school year. Even students who need to sleep ten hours a day will be left with six hours of free time daily!

2. Eight-hour days spread over a ten-week vacation yields 400-500 hours of total work over a summer.

Wisely spent, this can generate really astonishing results.

3. Identify all the major tasks to be accomplished during the summer and then prioritize them, making sure to allocate enough time to the higher priority activities.

It’s far better to cut down on commitments and follow through completely on the remaining ones than to end up with poorly done or half complete jobs all around.

4. Set specific goals and deadlines for all activities.

Don’t work aimlessly, killing time. Rather, create a plan so that every task achieves something. It’s better not to work at all than to work pointlessly!

Is it worthwhile to start a new activity the summer before senior year?

To answer this question, we must first define “new.”

Students who have been involved with a particular activity throughout high school naturally end up with a coherent, personal story to tell. At the very least, admissions officers will see a consistent commitment to this activity.

At best, they’ll see an interest steadily cultivated and eventually flourishing into a passion. For students with such long-standing and well-developed interests, the summer before senior year is the time to take things to the next level.

They may start something “new” so long as it connects organically with their other activities and maintains continuity.

Of course, some students will not have been involved with any activities at all during high school. Such students will obviously have to start brand new activities the summer before senior year, investing as much time and energy as possible into making those activities meaningful despite the brevity of their engagement with these activities. Better late than never.

Hopefully, though, most of our blog readers aren’t in such straits.

The next few posts are directed at students at earlier stages of the admissions process. They’re intended to make sure students don’t end up having to fabricate new interests right before college applications are in. I’ll start by addressing freshmen and then work my way up to seniors, using case studies to make my points.

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