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Don’t Seek Summer Internships Just To Impress Admissions Officers

The rush to get summer internships can feel as intense as the pressure to get into college. There is a misconception that specific internships will get kids into their dream colleges or that certain “unique” experiences will help to set students apart in the admissions process. So students trudge through applications. Teachers are forced to write more letters of recommendation. And school registrars barely take a breather before sending out another set of transcripts. And as with college applications, students tend to apply to too many programs just in the hopes of getting in. In the meantime, parents ready their pocketbooks for another expensive educational investment.


But the question has to be asked: are these expensive programs really worth it in the long term?


Unfortunately, like with most questions that relate to college admissions, the answer is “it depends.” I always tell my students that the program means nothing if they get nothing from it. In the same vein, students can capture meaning and learning from a variety of summer experiences. I often steer students away from the really pricey and easy-to-get-into programs. Simply doing a program for the sake of doing a program is a waste of time and money. The student could rather have used that time to really pursue his own interests, perhaps found in the smaller or less expensive internship and work opportunities. 


Sure, it is cool to say that you worked at this up-and-coming tech company, but if all you did was run errands and answer the phone, the experience is actually not that interesting. Perhaps working a lab will give you a taste of medicine, but don’t expect that you will be discovering a cure for diabetes in just six weeks — science does not work like that. Perhaps you want to be a future CEO, so something business-related appeals to you, but really everything is a business, even the local ice cream shop!


Summer used to be a time when kids got to actually relax a bit, ride around on their bikes and explore their surroundings. Students got jobs not because it would look “good” on their college applications, but because they wanted or needed to earn money. Kids would help out their parents with chores around the house or even at their offices. Teens would spend time playing instruments they loved, swim because the weather allowed it, and actually gain a sense of independence — the best preparation for life.


While I don’t expect that summers will swing back to those more relaxed times, I do believe there is value in exploring one’s personal and professional interests during those 10 weeks of sunshine. You can combo having some time to participate in your hobbies alongside your summer job or internship. 


If you are a teen, think about what would make you the happiest this summer. This does not mean you should while away the summer at the mall or playing video games. But what are the things you simply do not have time to explore during the school year? What experiences have you been craving?


Perhaps you are excited about practicing your Spanish and learning about medicine. Maybe you can find an opportunity to volunteer alongside a medical translator. Maybe you want to earn some money and explore business. That local ice cream shop I mentioned is a great way to get experience learning about customer behaviors and how real businesses make money. Maybe surfing has been on your bucket list for a few years now. Wake up early to catch the waves, assuming you live close enough, and then spend your day doing something else.


The craze around summer programs directly relates to college experiences. The reality is that admissions officers appreciate these real-life, everyday experiences as much as they do the more structured programs. And the truth is that the real experiences tend to actually be the unique ones because each experience is new rather than scheduled and planned.


So while I have no issue with students applying to and going to programs, I do have concerns when that is for the sole purpose of college admissions. Rather, summer is an opportunity for students to demonstrate to colleges their unique interests, experiences, and perceptions. Ultimately, the more meaningful and fulfilling summers tend to be the most interesting to one’s life and, and in turn, on a college application.


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