How to Spend Your High School Summer

At the risk of stating the obvious, please keep in mind that you don’t have to pick only one of these—you’ll likely get far more out of pursuing things related to all five. That said, you probably have limited time. Or if not, let me know how that works.  

A Pleasant Summer

Again, positive emotion. This one is super subjective, and you know the things that give you smiley-face times far better than I (because I’m just guessing), but here are some things to play with:

  • Travel somewhere you’ve never been before. And it doesn’t have to be super far away. Click here to find places to camp near you. Or talk your family into using this road trip planner and go see some weird stuff. (Pro tip: Actually check the box at the link above that says “weird stuff.”)

  • Jump on Atlas Obscura and see what cool, hidden, or unusual things might be near you.

  • Get out of your room and into the world. This goes back to that Values Exercise, but for me, time on the beach or with the trees or in the mountains always (I mean actually always) makes me happier.

  • Just keep doing the thing you love to do, but do it more. And as you do it, practice mindfully savoring the experience.

What’s great is that you can actually get better at feeling these positive emotions. As in, you aren’t simply stuck experiencing life as you do. For example, here are 21 exercises to make you better at savoring life. Or listen to uplifting or inspirational music (this one comes with a lighthouse, and this one has hobbits) or speeches. Or start keeping a gratitude journal. Or just spend time with people you care about (I can’t link to them). 

An Engaged Summer

Take this Strengths Test. It’ll take you about 15 minutes. Then, build/focus on activities that engage those strengths, and practice reframing experiences in terms of those strengths. If you’re going to have a summer job or internship (more on those in a bit), focus on those that allow you to engage more of your top strengths. 

But you can also create engagement for yourself by reframing experiences, by which I mean that you can find ways to shift how you think about and experience activities that might not seem engaging. For example, if one of your top character strengths is social intelligence, and you’re working a summer job bagging groceries to help pay bills, you can reframe your work by thinking about how your interactions with customers can put them at ease or be a highlight of their day.

Some other ways you can find engagement:

Read some long-form articles. Here’s a pretty amazing place to start.

If you aren’t screened-out, explore some TED Talks via this spreadsheet of 2,750 of them (as of right now).

Duolingo: Learn a language!

Read up on 8 ways to create “flow,” according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Then, employ these methods with your summer activities.

A Relational Summer

How can you use some of your summer to develop stronger positive relationships?

Join an in-person class that interests you, whether that’s through a local community college, or ceramics lessons, or surfing, or survival school.

Find a group of people with shared interests. For example, join a new community by engaging with a local organization that cares for local wildlands (grab that Values Exercise again). Check out meetup.com. There are probably people within miles of you already doing that thing.

Ask. Here are 100 questions that can actually build connections. 

Reconnect. It can be easy to let relationships fray some. Fortunately, you have many, many tools to reach out and rebuild.

A Meaningful Summer

Because meaning is generally the most powerful of these factors in someone’s sense of well-being, and because it may feel more nebulous than, say, relationships, I’m going to spend a bit more time discussing it.

The pos-psychos generally define “meaning” as having a sense that you belong to or are working toward something bigger than yourself. There are many ways you can develop that sense, but one particularly useful lens in this regard through which to view your summer is Effective Altruism (EA).

Over the last few decades, some of the best thinkers in the world (like this guy) have dedicated their lives (and brains) to figuring out how we can try to make sure we’re doing the most good with the resources we have. Since all lives are of equal value, how do we try to ensure we’re alleviating the most suffering we can?

This is the heart of Effective Altruism.

For example, Peter Singer points out that, while it’s admirable to train a seeing-eye dog for a blind person, that training (and the training for the blind person to use the dog) tends to cost around $40,000 (U.S. dollars). With that money, you could cure somewhere between 400 and 2,000 blind people of trachoma in a developing country. So if we have limited resources, we should probably go with the second option.

That’s Effective Altruism in a nutshell.

So (without getting neurotic about it), think about some ways you can do good better (that’s not a typo) with your summer.

  • Do one good deed a day for 30 days, then blog about it.

  • Explore 15 ways to find purpose. Jump over to the positive psychology website and explore both what we mean by “a meaningful life” and ways to find/create purpose and meaning.

  • Use your Values Exercise. Explore ways to pursue a creative activity that centers on some of the top 3 values.

  • Raise money and donate it to Give Well (charities evaluated based on EA criteria).

  • Join an organization/campaign on Do Something, which offers dozens of causes that you probably care about and can get involved with.

Self-directed projects can be a great way to pursue something meaningful. You can dive into building your own non-profit, if that appeals to you, or you can simply think about the needs people in your local community face, and how you could use your skills and insights to help meet those needs. 

If you want some guidance on how to create and develop a self-directed project (over the summer and perhaps beyond), check out our Uncommon Summer program, which helps students clarify core values, build capacity for self-direction and leadership, and develop a project that aligns with your goals.

An Accomplished Summer

Whether you’re focused on a specific goal, or simply achieving for achieving’s sake:

  • Take a class at a local community college. So that a) you don’t have to take it during the school year, and b) you’ve got something that looks super fancy on your transcript.

  • Do what Kevin McMullin from CollegeWise suggests:
    “Set a goal that you’re 99% certain you won’t be able to achieve this summer. Then go all out and try to achieve it as though your life depended on it. You’ll either get there or get much, much closer than you were at the beginning of the summer.” #FailBetter

  • Take an online course in something that fascinates you. Like Berkeley’s “Science of Happiness” course. Or here are 1,200 free online courses from top universities. Looking for something more practical? Lynda.com has over 5,000 courses in everything from How to Draw Good and Evil Comic Book Characters to How to Market and Monetize on YouTube. And don’t even get me started on Coursera

  • Create your own online course. What’s something you can do so well that you could teach people? Ethan’s brother’s friend, for example, teaches design sketching.

If you want some tools to help set and pursue goals, head to this link for 20 goal-setting templates and worksheets, and a discussion of different types of goals.

Summer internships

Because an internship might fall under any or all of these categories, I’m going to list them here separately, and, because there’s a ton to say about them, link to our how-to guide to internships.

As a bonus, applications for competitive summer programs can nicely prepare you for writing your college essays.

How high school summers impact college applications & admissions

To clarify, because people often ask: There is no single program or experience that’ll guarantee a student’s admission to [insert great college here].

It’s important to actually think holistically—to be able to reflect on the greater meaning an experience had for a student, on how it connects to a cohesive story, so an admission team understands the impact it had on the student’s life. And it’s also important to be clear how it integrates with other aspects of the student’s work and actions. It’s generally the cumulative experiences, rather than a one-off, that make a difference. Colleges like seeing a story arc, with summers building on one another. If you’re reading this early in your high school career, think of summers progressing through stages of curiosity and exploration, then depth, then refinement.

In this episode of the CEG podcast, Jill Tipograph talks about varying your experiences. 

Explore different opportunities. Think about ways that you can use summer to grow further into being the human you want to be. Set yourself up to explore possible majors or career options.

But don’t think of these activities as isolated to summer.

For example, if you take a writing program over the summer, do something like contributing to the school newspaper during the year.

Use summer to build skills (in particular, communication and critical thinking skills) that will be most important to employers in the future and that you can reflect on in your applications.

Jill and Paul Kaser co-authored a survey in which they asked 100 colleges what summer opportunities matter most on an application. If you want a copy of the full survey, you can check out their site here (you’ll have to enter your email address to download it).

It has a lot of great info, but here are some key takeaways regarding what types of experiences add the greatest value to an application:

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