The Value of High School Summer Experiences

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Jill Tipograph

Summer is the perfect time for high school students to challenge themselves and their values, master new skills, gain a broader global perspective, volunteer, earn money, and of course, prepare for college and the workplace.

While teens deserve to have fun, in today’s career-focused society, they should consider participating in a summer program that includes at least one of the following activities: academics, service, internship, employment, social growth, adventure/sports, language, leadership, or travel.

As an independent summer program consultant for more than 15 years, let me share some of my recommendations to help students and parents land the ideal teen summer experience.


To design a fulfilling summer, students and parents should actively work together to define a primary goal for this two-month break. Create a teen/parent partnership, so to speak. Not only will developing a clear goal (with student and parent input) at the outset lead to the right program, it can also lead to greater summer success!  When selecting a program, students and their parents should consider the following:

  • Does your student want to?
  • Meet a personal challenge?
  • Reach out to help others?
  • Improve a skill?
  • Earn a paycheck?
  • Pursue or develop a passion?
  • Strengthen social skills?
  • Experience diversity and/or a different culture?

Of course, a combination of answers to the above might be necessary to decide on a definitive summer plan.


There are numerous summer opportunities out there for teens. Most are co-ed, although there are some single- gender offerings. Here is a brief overview of the types of summer programs available nationwide and internationally:

Academic Enrichment:  Credit and non-credit programs offered by organizations or institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

Some academic programs may be single or multi-focus, gifted programs, research opportunities, remedial, college prep/SAT, and/or language based.  Curriculum content and class hours vary greatly.  Generally housed in colleges or schools, most academic programs incorporate fun extra-curricular activities such as workshops, college visits, weekend travel, and service. Student populations and sessions vary significantly, and eligibility criteria will differ by grade and academic requirements. More selective programs may also look at standardized test scores, class ranks, and more.

Community Service:  Volunteer projects in the U.S. or abroad, may also include adventure and/or cultural activities.

Most service programs for teens are based in impoverished or rural U.S. areas and third world countries, and will vary in size from 12 to 25 students. Service in these sorts of programs typically involves physical work (construction of schools, clean-up, restoration); teaching; working with underprivileged children and adults; caring for animals; or environmental projects. International community service programs may have a language prerequisite or instruction. Living arrangements are very basic, including homestay, centralized group housing, or camping accommodations.

Internships: The opportunity to gain exposure and hands-on experience in an occupation of interest.

Teen internships typically require that students be at least 16 years old and have completed their sophomore year of high school. Often programs will interview students for acceptance; some assign an internship within a chosen field, while others can be customized. Internships generally range from three to seven weeks, and students are generally based in college dorms in urban locations in both the U.S. and abroad. A college prep component, as well as extracurricular activities, and weekend trips are typically included. Some programs offer students a small stipend although most are unpaid.

Language Programs:  Learning or an immersion experience in a single language.

Language program instruction may be classroom-based or experiential and courses are typically abroad in cities, suburbs, and rural or coastal areas. Programs often combine a language portion with cultural travel. Both residential or homestay opportunities are common options for language programs.

Residential programs are usually housed in dorms at foreign universities or in apartments or hotels. Homestay programs abroad tend to be small and involve one to two students in neighboring communities with host families who know each other so that the student can get together and learn from one another.

Leadership Programs: Activities that introduce or develop leadership skills.

There are several types of leadership programs available. Some of the main categories are outlined below:

In academic programs students are provided with academic enrichment opportunities and are introduced to leaders in both the private and government sectors. These programs may also include hands-on experience in role-playing scenarios. Program focus can be on art, business/finance, international diplomacy, law, government/politics, medicine, and more.

In adventure-based programs leadership skills are integrated into physical adventure activities; many are rugged and may require previous experience and have a minimum age requirement. This type of leadership program tends to be small in size, with typically fewer than 20 teens.

Lastly, counselor-in-training programs abound and allow teens that love camp to learn to lead younger campers.

Adventure trips: Activity/sport-based travel in the U.S. or abroad.

There are a wide variety of summer adventure programs available for teens. They tend to be multi-sport and may be either land or water-based. Housing is often camping or in hostels and these programs are usually small consisting of 12 to 16 students on average.

Recreational Travel: “Teen Tours” to popular and/or cultural U.S. and International sites.

These group travel tours include a mix of activities with more standard accommodations in hotels, dorms, and ships.

Specialty Programs: Focus on visual and performing arts, sports, special needs, or other specialties.

Session lengths vary. For a well-rounded summer, students often combine a specialty program with another summer opportunity.

Camps: Special teen programs in an outdoor camp setting.

Camps offer a variety of activities and scheduling. They are a bridge to more specific teen programs.


There are countless advantages for teens who engage in a well-planned summer program. But one of the biggest rewards is the value that it can bring to the college application process.

In short, meaningful summer experiences add significance to college applicants.  The Common and the Universal College Applications ask applicants to list summer schools and programs attended since the ninth grade, as well as extracurricular activities, community service, and summer employment. Most colleges also provide the opportunity for the student to elaborate on them in application supplements.


In her 2010 interview with Everything Summer, Danielle Toglia, George Washington University’s Regional Admissions Director, shared some of her insights on the value of a positive summer experience, along with the following list of advice for teens.

  • Don’t try to trump others with your experiences. Colleges do not evaluate students this way. Instead, they consider what is important to each individual applicant.
  • Work on time management skills during the summer. College has a good deal of down time, so it is valuable to learn how to structure your free time.
  • Spend time away from home sharing common spaces. This will provide you with the skills to communicate and resolve issues by learning to put aside personality and habit differences.
  • Experience diversity in a different setting. College is a big diverse community. Use the summer to diversify yourself—academically, geographically, socially, and through travel if possible.
  • Learn how to approach situations in different ways. Most issues in college stem from residence hall life and social skills.
  • Think outside the box. Make your summer experience one that builds your personal and social skills.
  • Take note at summer’s end. Write a personal essay about one piece of your experience, one moment where you felt something mattered. Put together your resume; apply the information from your experience, and see how your extracurricular activities identify your skills.

In the end, determining a goal and making the effort to research the ideal program for a teen is well worth it, because the right summer program can help students become more open-minded, pursue a passion or explore new interests, develop interpersonal and problem-solving skills, gain independence, and increase self-confidence and self-esteem.

Finally, don’t forget the fun! No one (including college admissions officers) expects teens to be hard at work the entire time between school years. All teens need a break from their hectic schedules of academics, extracurricular activities and/or jobs to replenish and re-energize. Summer programs provide the perfect solution. Not only do they rejuvenate young students, but they also help build rewarding summer experiences that offer lifelong memories and self-discovery.