The Art of the A+ Summer: Six Ways to Stand Out


Summer is a time for beaches and barbecues and sleeping late in the minds of many teens. When parents allow their teens to go from 75 mph during the school year to a screeching halt, problems can occur. After moving through final exams, proms, and the excitement of friends graduating ahead of them students sometimes want to remove their batteries in favor of TikTok and mental coagulation. It’s not their fault—they honestly are exhausted, and deserve some time to catch their breath. They just don’t need ten full weeks to do that..

College admissions officers don’t expect students to hold full time jobs while curing cancer and solving political tensions in the Middle East between June and September, but a summer filled with nothing constructive to report has created admissions hurdles for more than a few teens I’ve mentored over the years. One recommendation to mention: initiate dialogue about the summer to come starting every January no later than 8th or 9th grade. Many deadlines for summer programs occur between January and March, so waiting longer than that will sometimes mean lost opportunities. Here are six primary areas to consider, as we share  here at Valley Prep Tutoring. Students do not need to implement all six of these, but all will benefit by including at least a few.

1. Volunteer

Teenagers are not toddlers, and need adults to teach them that the world needs each of us to give back, not just take. Encourage them to find at least one community service commitment, whether once a week, for a weekend, or longer. Some teens I’ve known have gathered valuable work and leadership experience by being junior counselors at camps for disadvantaged youth, helping with concessions at Special Olympics, or just stocking grocery bags for their area food pantry for the homeless.

Nonprofits like soup kitchens and animal shelters frequently seek volunteers, and depending on the teen’s interests and intended major in college (if known), this is a great time to target not only real- world experiences but also potential reference letters from community members who can vouch for the contributions and character of the teen on letterhead stationery.

2. Work

Paid employment holds a special appeal for many teens, and understandably so. Seasonal employment over summer breaks gives many an opportunity to experience generating their own income for the first time in their lives. This can be heady stuff, and dovetails nicely with their desire to become more independent. Common options include hometown parks, community centers, and schools for younger kids. While securing a leadership position is ideal, even something like working on a staff at a local business can generate essay ideas for future college prompts.

3. Travel

Not everyone can afford to fly to Paris and Dubai every summer, but many American families can look for some sort of travel option, even if it is a road trip across the state, to expand students’ horizons. Of course, actually exploring foreign countries will exponentially expand your teen’s awareness of other cultures, not to mention helping them hone their language skills. (Dónde está el cuarto de bano, por favor? Suddenly this phrase becomes more pressing when in Mexico or Puerto Rico and needing to use the bathroom.)

Another form of travel meriting mention here is the all-important college visit. Campus visits, preferably by grade 10 but definitely by grade 11, should be part of the summer plans of every teen who plans to go to college and can afford the travel costs. Colleges love to hear that applicants were checking them out early in their high school careers, and including this in interviews or essays at application time can set them apart from other applicants. Virtual tours and virtual college fairs can do in a pinch, and are easily searchable online.

4. Take Classes

Many high schools, both in person and online, offer summer classes. This can help teens recover from a D or lower on a final report card by retaking a class, or advance their math or language skills (hint: try to get them to Calculus by senior year if they can manage it, and four years of foreign language looks way better than two or three, no matter what their high school required). Local community colleges also offer for-credit summer courses and allow high school juniors and seniors to enroll. What a great way to divvy up courses in anticipation of easing the transition into freshman year of college.

I’ve seen smart parents start their teens as early as 10th grade taking two core curriculum classes each summer (English 101 or Intro to College Math, for example—two common prerequisites). By the time they graduate high school, they are well on their way to sophomore status—especially if they took AP courses and are attending a college that accepts those for college credit (note: many don’t anymore). Another great thing about this option is that it is a way teens can explore possible career options while their schedules are still pliable enough to modify in the event they find a passion. Do some research online, but do it early, before missing deadlines.

5. Prepare for Testing

Standardized tests are sometimes a necessary evil, and for juniors who haven’t hit desired scores on the SAT or ACT, the summer between junior and senior year is a time to double down on some tutoring and study time to increase those numbers. Once you’ve helped your teen look online to determine 8 to 12 colleges of interest (a few safety schools with low requirements, several target schools that feel within reach, and a few long shots are often recommended) gather data on college website admissions pages or by calling to determine their average score accepted in the previous year’s candidate pool. Summer is great for test prep because teen brains aren’t as exhausted from homework and other school activities. You can also consider hiring an IEC—Independent Educational Consultant—like me or any of the thousands who do the important work of mentoring teens through the college admissions process so you as mom or dad are saved from the stress.

6. Play Sports

Playing on intramural teams, club sports, community leagues, or with school organizations can give athletic teens a real advantage, not just

physically but cognitively. All that blood flow and oxygen works wonders for the mind’s acuity. There are even potential financial benefits for those who may be scholarship candidates in a sport, if they perform well in tournaments or competitions—whether in tennis, golf, gymnastics, or on team sports. College admissions boards don’t like “one trick pony” students, though, so be certain that sports activity is balanced with other categories outlined here. Balance athletic profiles with summer activities emphasizing social, mental, and altruistic activities.

A well-organized series of events on a teen’s calendar provides an important opportunity for parents who want to give their children the right support. Teens need enrichment like gardens need fertilizer. By the time they’ve completed a full year of schoolwork, those ten weeks of summer vacation can feel like a well-earned time to watch YouTube and work on a tan. Help them create the appropriate amount of play to balance all that work, but keep in mind the reality of college admissions season. It’s right on the horizon.

Whether you live in LA, New York City, or somewhere in between, we hope these reality checks help you prepare your student for a great admissions experience.

If you’re a parent reading this article, you're invited to connect with Valley Prep Tutoring’s founder Pamela Donnelly for a Q & A session about the admissions process for your teen.

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