Summer Opportunities to Improve Your College Applications

If you’re a rising sophomore, junior, or senior looking to apply to selective colleges, it’s essential to start thinking of summer ☀️ activities to improve your college application! You’ve probably heard of students going to leadership camps, playing sports, or getting internships, but do these activities actually help?

When evaluating your application, college admissions officers care about two things: passion and consistency. They want to see that you care enough about something to spend your free time 🕰 focusing on, and they want to know that you are disciplined enough to pursue that passion for an extended period. When you’re choosing summer activities, it is important to consider your spike–the thing that you’re most passionate about and that you’ve dedicated the most time towards.

Camps and Leadership Programs

Many colleges and organizations offer leadership camps and courses over the summer, but they’re usually pretty expensive. While these fancy camps 🏕 seem like they would help your college application stand out, the truth is that everyone is using that same logic! And, besides showing that you can dedicate a week to doing some team-building activities, attending these camps doesn’t truly show anything special about YOU. Remember: you are the main character 💃 of your college application.

If you do decide to attend a camp and show growth in your leadership skills, that’s a huge green flag. The key is to choose specific camps that cater to your interests. Are you part of the debate 🧑‍⚖️ team? Cool! Go to a debate camp. Do you play volleyball? Attend a workshop. If you’re really interested in doing a camp or workshop at a college, look into the college’s summer courses 🏫. The UChicago Summer Sessions have an exciting selection of classes, as do several other colleges. Pick a course in the field that you’re interested in. This will show that you’re spending time doing something genuinely important to you, not just trying to impress admissions officers.

Keep in mind that not everyone has the resources to attend these camps, and that’s totally okay! Many camps offer financial aid options and many other ways to make your application stand out.


Volunteering is a great way to spend your summer vacation–even if you’re not doing it for your college application. However, in terms of college admissions, try to focus on volunteering for a cause that aligns with your interests. If you want to be a political science major but volunteer at a hospital, college admissions will be confused. Instead, volunteer for a political campaign or at an organization that does social or political advocacy.

That was an easy example. Let’s say your major is business. Your next move could be to apply to a youth board at some nonprofit and run for the treasurer or marketing  📈 position. You’re using your skills and interests to help the world around you, and that’s what college admissions officers want to see. Also, make sure that you stick with this organization for a long time: you shouldn’t join a youth board the summer before senior year. Bonus points if you did some volunteer work at the organization freshman year, joined the board sophomore year, and acquired a leadership position junior year! Admissions are a sucker for consistency AND leadership promotions.

Sometimes, students want to start a nonprofit organization 🎗 to boost their college applications. If you’re genuinely passionate about the work you’re doing, then you should create a nonprofit! But keep in mind that your nonprofit needs to do something important: college admissions officers are very wary of students starting random nonprofits that “connect volunteers to other organizations,” for example. Starting a nonprofit requires time and effort that you could have used to make a bigger impact at an established organization, so always keep your end goal in mind, and try to fill a gap that isn’t already filled in your community. Even if your nonprofit fails ☹️, it’s okay. Write about what you learned in the process!

Some red flags 🚩 for volunteering include mission/humanitarian trips and donating money abroad. Usually, they do more harm than good, particularly if you’re in a western country. These trips are often considered assertions of neocolonialism, and college admissions may notice that as well. If you’re curious to learn more, you can read this paper or watch the documentary Poverty, Inc.

Check out this article for a student's perspective on these types of volunteering experiences.

Jobs, Job Shadows, and Internships

Many students will get a job or an internship over the summer–not only to spice 🌶 up their college application but also to bring in some extra revenue for themselves or their families. Even if your job doesn’t have anything to do with your intended career, it still looks good on your college application if you’re able to maintain your appointment for a lengthy period or even get promoted to a higher position. This will show that you are a hard worker 💪, which colleges value!

If you're looking for a summer job, check out this guide!

If you are seeking an internship, then you should focus on your intended major or career. That means that if you want to be a doctor 🥼, it would be best to avoid taking an internship at an engineering company (unless you want to do biomedical engineering!). Don’t just accept an internship to accept an internship; make sure that you are genuinely interested in the field. And, don’t worry if you’re not able to take an internship (especially an unpaid one). They’re not feasible for everyone, and colleges will understand!

Here is a great guide that provides tips for finding and applying to internships!

If you can’t arrange a full internship, another option is to job shadow. Job shadowing is great for making connections and networking 🤝, which will help you in the long run! However, don’t plan on putting a 3-day job shadow on your activities list. Instead, make a good impression and follow that job shadow with a request to intern or research 🧐 with the company. The chances are that even if they don’t have a space for you, they will connect you with someone who does.

Check out this Fiveable article 📃 about whether or not an internship is worth it and this Fiveable blog for companies 🏢 that hire high schoolers!

More Studying!?

Whatever field you’re interested in will likely have research opportunities for you. Beginning in early spring, you can start emailing professors 🧑‍🏫 of departments at local colleges asking if you could be involved in any research projects that they are working on. They may invite you to work with them, or they might connect you with someone who would be interested in working with you. This might be intimidating, but usually, professors are super passionate about their research 🧑‍🔬, and they’ll be excited to have you shadow them! Remember that research doesn’t just apply to STEM departments! If you’re a humanities 📜 major with a passion for research (in really any field), there are plenty of professors and projects to help guide you.  

Check out this article about finding research opportunities!

Taking online 💻 courses is also a great way to immerse yourself in your field. Coursera offers tons of free courses from colleges, and the time commitment is relatively low. If you’re struggling academically, then you can also enroll yourself in tutoring. In your “Additional Information” section of your college application, you can communicate your growth: “I struggled quite a bit with math my freshman year of high school, but I took [insert course] over the summer and improved my grades by sophomore year.” This demonstrates that you are proactive with your learning and that you’re able to bounce back 🙌 when things don’t go your way!

Demonstrated Interest

Admissions officers like to see that students are interested in attending their college, and many colleges even track demonstrated interest 🙋 as part of your application. Use the summertime to sign up for college tours (either virtual or in-person is okay) and attend other online information sessions. If you’re a rising senior, you should also sign up for admissions interviews during the summer.

This Fiveable study guide has more information 🧠 about demonstrated interest and which colleges track it!

tl;dr; Use the summertime to add to your college application and show that you are a committed student willing to use your free time to pursue interests and goals 🎯. Your application will glow when you indicate that you’re eager to put in time and energy to have a significant impact in your field!

Check out these other guides that you might need.