Why I tell my students to be contrarians…and to not do a “summer programme” (unless…*)
This is the time of year when my inbox fills with questions from colleagues asking one another if summer programme X would help her student get into university Y.
This is also the time of year when a parent will ask me if it makes sense to apply to “very-overpriced-but-at-a-prestigious-university-campus-summer-programme” for my student.
And…this is also the time of year that I almost universally steer my students away from any pre-cooked, sit-in-another-classroom-all-summer (even if it’s at a “prestigious university”), and do-what-everyone-else-is-doing-just-for-university-applications summer programme. I find the whole notion of the “summer programme” (yes, with some exceptions*) to be misleading: Parents shell out thousands of dollars, students find themselves again sitting in a classroom, the client is made to believe this will really help the application (in very few instances it can, but this is case-by-case), and so in the end the money, time, investment is all done for…for what? For the application itself, but very rarely for the applicant himself. Are there exceptions? Always. But, here I am focusing on the masses.
Yet, we forget something critical here and that is what the summer should be taken advantage for: for the student to really do something she wants to, to take a risk, to do something new (read: probably not sit in another classroom), to be creative, to have a job, to follow his unique interests. To be himself, which also means being different!
No, we won’t ever know if that glitzy or even quite competitive summer programme was what got Karina into her top university; but, chances are it wasn’t. And, chances are even greater that having done something different than the masses over the summer break and reflective of that student’s genuine interests—and really taking time to explore and develop what that will be on the student’s part—is what will in fact set an application apart. Because, the student is doing something over the summer for herself. To grow. To learn. To take a risk. And, this develops character. It develops an open mind. It’s something that is interesting to people. And, surely it’s interesting to admissions officers, too.
So, I go through a summer break brainstorming programme with my students. This involves them looking inward for a moment, trying to grasp what they might want to do if they could do anything. What are their interests? What would they love to learn or continue learning or doing if they could? In what ways could that be done? Volunteering? Proposing something to a local organization? Designing your own project? Then we see how it might be possible. Or not. A few of my students will decide to take a break over the summer. Consequences? Perhaps. But, they know all of this by then and take decisions that best suit them. Not the admissions office. *Some of my students will decide to enroll in a summer programme because it’s right for them and their interests. Investigating different types of engineering is one case. Studying and trying different forms of visual arts is another. No, my students have not built orphanages or written a novel over the summer. But, they will be true to themselves and learn something. Whatever they do is connected to who they are, to their interests, to their goals, to their ideas for what they want to get out of the summer and break. This makes them unique. And, uniqueness stands out. Going with the flow and the masses can be pretty boring.
And, well, that’s my point. We have to stop teaching adolescents that the way to “success” is to follow what the packs are doing. We not only send the wrong message—talk about lack of individuality—but we restrict any potential for self-discovery, creativity, and thinking…outside of that box. And, surely, do we need to be strategic with university applications? You bet! But, always with the student’s interests, character, goals and reinforcing genuine actions and interests in mind!
Summer and break plans are discussed in detail in my upcoming book, The International Family Guide to US University Admissions to be published by Wiley & Sons on 22 May 2017.