Summer Checklist for College-Hopeful Students

By J.K. Halsted
I vividly remember my graduation. No, not my high school graduation. I’m clearly referring to a far more prestigious academic achievement: the time-honored convocation that is the fifth grade graduation.

I paraded through the hallowed halls of a 2-5 elementary school that looked like any other elementary school in a fifty-mile radius — probably brick, built during the Cold War, with one or two floors that sprawled around a campus way too large for third graders. After bidding our farewells, the stampede of prepubescent larvae took the celebration onto our cheese-colored buses. A spontaneous chorus of “Kiss Him Goodbye” (nah nah nah nah, hey hey hey, go-odbye) broke out as we pulled away from the parking lot. Sixth grade was the major leagues, and we felt the rush.

We certainly had high hopes for that summer. There were no plans to backpack around Europe, but there was talk of activities infinitely more exciting to a twelve-year-old. Ralph said we’d go to the beach sometime. James promised to have us over for football. Maybe I’d even get ice cream with Isabell — only if mom said I could stay out past 8:30.

Then, the boredom hit. Summer didn’t deliver on its alluring promises of exhilaration. I found myself spending another three months cooped up in my bedroom, oppressed by the languor and humidity, as I memorized countless episodes of Spongebob.

So goes the universal summer folktale. But the importance of summer — and the drawbacks of wasting it — only grow with age. In high school, taking advantage of summer can save students from much of the stress that crafting college applications amidst the rush of the academic year can cause. This post seeks to provide some tips to defeat the summer sloth and suggest a timeline for the college-hopeful students wondering how they should spend their summer.

Rising seniors:
Congratulations, soon-to-be big dogs on campus! Senior year is an incredible time. Here’s how you can make sure that you hit the ground running:

  • Consider retaking the SAT or ACT. If you’re not satisfied with your scores, you might want to sit for the September or October exams, especially if you’re thinking about applying early.
  • Start the Common Application. Colleges that don’t use their own separate application will likely accept either the Common Application or the Coalition Application. Major public universities that boast multiple campuses — such as SUNY, CUNY, and the UCs — typically have a shared application that, once finished, allows students to apply to any individual school within the university’s system. Completing the common portions of these major applications (like entering as your extracurricular activities, address, and contact information) will save you considerable time during the academic year. Both the Common Application and Coalition Application publish an updated list of participating schools, but if you’re unsure of a particular school, be sure to check that school’s website for their specific application requirements.
  • Draft your personal essay. Crystallizing the nuanced fibers of your personality into just 650 words can be the most challenging part of an application. If you brainstorm some possible topics and aim to finish a first draft by the end of the summer, you’ll have ample time to edit, revise, and solicit feedback from your college counselors and teachers.
  • Write a resume. Consider submitting it as a supplement to colleges — many colleges ask for one. And even if you’re not including your resume in your applications, it’s a useful tool to have!
  • Whittle down a list of colleges. Plan to visit a few colleges that you’re interested in but never got around to. Knowing where you intend to apply will let you effectively plan your first semester.
  • Think about your senior year courses. Contrary to rumor, first semester courses matter! Senioririts is real. Succeeding in challenging classes in areas that truly interest you can highlight your intellectual potential and demonstrate the caliber of student you’ll be in college.
  • Do something productive! Whether you’re excited about your community service, job, or passion, crafting a narrative is a useful tool to distinguish yourself in the application process. And more importantly, it can be rewarding.
  • Realize that not knowing is okay. Well-meaning relatives might flood you with questions about high school, college, or even your career. Sometimes, their prying can be stressful. But you don’t need to have your entire life planned out.

Rising juniors:
Oh, boy. I’m sure you’ve heard horror stories about junior year. Although few of those tales are true, junior year is undeniably challenging. Here’s a few ways to lessen that stress:

  • Begin preparing for the SAT or ACT. An increased workload from your classes might quickly overwhelm you. By starting your preparation, you can discover your ideal study habits and plan a study schedule.
  • Try a practice test. Studying for the SAT and ACT simultaneously can present new challenges. Although some students may take both exams, the vast majority prepare for the exam that best fits their learning style. Taking a practice exam and researching the differences between each exam will help you determine whether you’ll perform better on the SAT or ACT.
  • Visit colleges. College visits are an incredibly useful way to determine whether you’d fit in at a particular school. Some might shy away from visiting colleges in the summer — when most students are away, it can be tough to gauge the “vibes” of a campus — but any visit, regardless of the season, can be helpful.
  • Do something productive! If you found something you loved in sophomore year, take the summer to explore that passion!
  • Breathe. There’s a lot of hype around junior year. Try to ignore the horror stories, but do your best to keep up with the academics and manage the stress. Any challenge can become what you make of it. The fastest pitch is the easiest home run.

Rising sophomores:
“Sophomore” is Greek for “clever fool.” With one year under your belt, it might be easy to forget the three more years of maturation that lie ahead. While you’re not experts just yet, sophomore year is a wonderful time devoted to exploration. Live it un-Apollo-getically.

  • Try to visit some colleges. Taking a trip to your local schools can be a great way to dip your toe into the water of college admissions.
  • Explore what interests you. You’ve completed the transition to high school, but you’re not yet focused on college. Take advantage of this “sweet spot” by exploring ideas and passions that excite you. Who knows? You might turn those endeavors into your college narrative — and, more importantly, they’ll make you happy.

Rising freshmen:
Congratulations on entering high school! Unfortunately, it’s nothing like High School Musical. No one breaks out into choreographed musical numbers in the cafeteria. Weird, right?

  • Try to avoid focusing on college. With the incessant buzzing of competitive admissions and the demands of perfection, it’s too easy to see high school as a mere stepping-stone to college. It’s not. These next four years will be a unique time of exceptional growth and maturation. Embrace that.
  • Read some books! Hide your AirPods, but reading can be a great way to start figuring out what interests you. When I visited my cardiologist, the ultrasound technician wasn’t shy with giving a nervous junior his advice. “Reading,” he contemplated, “is a portal into the conscience.” Ironic — his probe was projecting images of my pericardium onto the dark wall — but he’s certainly right. “Put all the books you read over the next four years into a box. When you graduate, open it. That’ll be your career.” Hmm.

So, how should you spend your summer to best prepare for college?

It all depends on where you are in your high school journey. Mapping out a productive summer is essential to spreading out your college tasks and maintaining your well-being during the school year. And above all, don’t forget to have some fun.