Honors classes, AP or IB classes, extracurricular activities, standardized exams, perhaps a high school job at the local coffee shop. High school students are busy – to say the least – during the academic year!

But what should you be doing during your breaks? How can you make the most of that time as you prepare for the upcoming college admissions process? Check out our suggestions below for both younger and older high school students. We offer seven ideas on how to take advantage of school and summer breaks:

  1. Research schools and majors. Students in Grades 9 and 10 should be visiting universities’ websites and taking virtual campus tours. Why not also review majors and courses offered by each university you visit virtually? If you don’t know what you want to study in college, that’s okay – at most universities, you don’t need to declare your major until the end of your sophomore year.
  2. Visit colleges. There are so many factors you should consider when selecting where to apply: size, location, campus architecture, environment, climate, selectivity and distance from home, to name a few. When you’re in Grade 9 or 10, visit colleges informally and unofficially during your breaks. Start with the colleges that are geographically close to home: Walk around the campus, check out the museum, listen to a guest speaker or attend an athletics event. If you’re in Grade 11, visit as many colleges as you can, and make sure that they are formal and official visits: Sign up for tours and information sessions on universities’ websites in advance. Visits can occur during the academic year breaks, when students are on campus, or during your summer break, when you’ll have more time to spend at each school.
  3. Prepare for standardized tests. In Grade 10, take a practice SAT and/or ACT during your winter break. Score your exams to see if you’re better at one exam or the other. Then, in the summer break before Grade 11, study very seriously – on your own, in a class, or online with a tutor – for either the ACT or SAT. If you’re not taking the official exam until the second half of the school year in Grade 11, then you should utilize that winter break to continue studying.
  4. Intern. You must be at least 16 years old for most internships, and thus students in Grades 11 and 12 typically land these positions. Why is this a valuable experience? You can learn firsthand about various professions. If you want to go into journalism, work at your town newspaper or television station. If you’re thinking about a career in politics or law, volunteer to intern at your city council, or help a candidate run for office. A short shadowing program, consisting of a week or two, is considered an externship and usually occurs over winter or spring break; a more substantive and lengthy stay will occur over the summer. Admissions officers will be impressed with an internship that consists of four or more weeks, not to mention an internship will help you articulate more strongly your academic and professional interests in interviews and essays.
  5. Demonstrate interest in an academic area. During your winter breaks, look for one- or two-week immersion programs to learn more about your burgeoning academic interests. During your summer breaks, attend a much longer immersion program or camp, typically on the order of three to five weeks. During the summer, also consider taking a class at a community college or university, or joining a research program. Any of these experiences will allow you to further develop your academic interests, or at least discover what you do (not) want to pursue in college.
  6. Volunteer. There is a common misconception that you must participate in community service to be admitted to colleges. This is completely untrue! Volunteering is, however, a great way to get involved, give back and learn something new about yourself. If you really want to impress admissions officers, you’ll need to volunteer many hours over a sustained period of time. (But again, you don’t have to participate in community service unless it’s an activity you truly enjoy.)
  7. Relax. Breaks can be a fantastic way to refresh, relax and renew. If you’ll be applying to selective and highly selective universities, then you’ll want to take advantage of some of the winter, spring or summer breaks in Grades 9 through 11, but don’t feel compelled to spend every waking moment of every break joining one of the activities listed above. If you do, you’ll burn out! 

You’ll be more balanced, more happy and more well-rested to tackle the challenges of high school and the admissions process if you enjoy some of your breaks. Read a book, play board games, take up a musical instrument, bake, cook, play outside, vacation with your family.

No matter how you spend your breaks, be sure to record what you’ve done – keep an updated file or résumé so that, when you’re a senior, you can look back on all you’ve accomplished in high school.

About the author
Marc Zawel

As author of Untangling the Ivy League, Marc literally wrote the book on gaining admission to highly selective colleges. He earned a BA from Cornell University – where he met AcceptU’s co-founder – and an MBA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Marc chaired the admissions advisory board; he has also conducted alumni interviews for Cornell for more than fifteen years.

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