“Don’t use a pebble to kill a pigeon; use a boulder to destroy a vulture nest.”
Now that 96% of colleges are SAT and ACT optional, high school summer extracurriculars are so much more important. It used to be that you could get good grades, get a 1570 on the SAT, take a million and one AP and IB classes, and that would be enough to get into a school like UCLA or University of Michigan. However, colleges are beginning to prioritize depth and diversity of experience over pure academic excellence.
The bottom line: if you want to get into Harvard, Stanford, or Princeton— start spending your summers wisely. I’ve compiled a list of 6 thematic high school summer extracurriculars you can do to maximize your two months of summer.
Become the Best at Something (time frame: indefinite)
Amazingly, one student got into some of the best universities by being the best Elvis impersonator— winning numerous state-wide and nation-wide competitions, performing at cruises and shows and volunteering at hospitals. This is one great example of high school summer extracurriculars.
Let’s say you’re the best juggler in Southern California. What does this do for you?
- It makes you stand out during the admissions process
- It shows a degree of commitment and passion
- It helps the college admissions person create a narrative of you in their head
- It gives them a reason to pick you over another smart, talented individual who isn’t the best at something
I’m not good at anything! How am I going to become the best?
- The correct way to think is, though I’m not good at most things, what area is my strength and how can I make myself shine in that area?
- There are things that even worms can do. Start a YouTube Channel. Learn tetris strategy. Be a nerd about cryptocurrency and NFTs. Become a hyperpop producer.
- Have some faith.
Volunteer and serve your community (show commitment for at least a year)
What is your talent? Playing the violin? Making scarves? Writing poetry? Mentoring younger children?
I started volunteering because my mom basically forced me to. I helped out at the library (albeit unwillingly) and stamped little children’s reading cards. Then in middle school, my mom made me volunteer at my church. I hated it— at first. I was atrocious at getting kids to do anything. One kid started screaming cuss words and throwing pool balls at people and it almost hit another kid in the head. Then he crawled under a table and wouldn’t come out!
I did this job for 5 years. I taught and mentored the same children the whole time and I watched them grow up. It was an invaluable experience— not just for college essays, but also for me.
Go to an unfamiliar place (time frame: at least a month)
The point of going to an unfamiliar place is to become more cultured, more conscious of global issues and the human experience, more inspired, and put yourself outside of your comfort zone.
In high school, I went to Taiwan twice to teach English during the summer of my sophomore and junior year. The experiences from these 2 trips became significant topics for my college essays. I got to teach and become friends with students who were from so many different backgrounds: some who lived in rural areas, some who were from the city, and many who had different religions. It challenged me in many ways and represented a big turning point in my life.
Before you decide to go to a new place, consider two things. First, are you able to demonstrate a long-term commitment to the place? Second,, do you have a connection to the environment? Is this your cultural/family heritage? Is there a specific reason you care about the people there? Emphasizing your connection and commitment to the place shows that it had a genuine impact on your life and wasn’t just a one-time service trip.
Brainstorm an Independent Project (at least a month)
In high school, I started writing poetry on allpoetry.com. I ended up writing over 300 poems and starting a poetry club from that passion. When I think back on it, it might’ve been cool to try and publish a poetry collection. The point is, that there are some things you can do without anyone else if you just set your mind to it. If you need some inspiration, check out our list of the 20 most unique extracurricular activities and our guide to creating your own passion project.
- Check out my article on 3 step guide to creating a passion project for humanities (to be written)
- Explore what other people have done by researching examples online such as the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies.
Take the Initiative and Start Something
This is a crucial one. Every single student accepted into Harvard University displays this attribute— at the highest level. Initiative means to go out and do what other people are afraid to do. In other words, they make their high school summer extracurriculars count.
Start a business. Start a fitness club. Start a music program. Lead a karate class for elementary kids. The reason why you should start in the summer is because you won’t have time when school starts and you get caught up in homework, clubs, and other activities.
The part where people often fail is in making their initiative successful. After you start your business, club, organization or nonprofit, you have to make it grow— get at least 50 members. 100 is even better. Yes, it’s difficult, and 95% of us won’t be able to do it. However, I’m willing to make this bet: that even though 95% won’t accomplish it, 95% have the capacity to.
- Start a business using something you’re passionate about.
- Don’t do it by yourself; do it with a friend who is also determined.
- Research and create a plan with small steps.
- Start something that has the potential to make a difference; then set goals to evaluate your progress toward making that difference.
Go to the library (to gain knowledge in research and professional fields)
This is probably the most undervalued, yet reliable way to get into top level universities. Every university has two primary goals:
- To create the highest quality education so their students can achieve great things in the world
- To publish the most innovative and world-impacting research
Gaining skills and experience in a career or researching in the field you’re interested in helps universities to further that goal. As a freshman and sophomore, you won’t be expected to know how to conduct statistical analyses on multivariable datasets or how to apply thermodynamics to a combustion engine. However, you can start reading books, building relationships with professors, and developing an interest in an academic field.
- Go to databases like JSTOR, Google Scholar, Proquest, Pubmed, and your local library (!!!) and explore what scientists and scholars have said about the topics you’re interested in. I started with cultural analyses of Kung Fu Panda (believe it or not, there’s research there), before I found my interest in studying the intersection between poetry and affecting social attitudes.
- Sometimes all you need to read is the introduction and conclusion of the book
- Take notes and think about which areas are not being studied well enough, that you would want to study
Develop Leadership skills (but don’t waste your time on a leadership camp)
Don’t do leadership camps. Practically speaking, there are a thousand better ways to develop leadership in a more subtle and applicable manner. If you’re in the robotics club, you can work your way up to be a lead engineer or vice president. If you’re volunteering in an organization, you can demonstrate leadership and get selected to the board of volunteers. Draft a plan to get elected as your school’s class president. Take your chess club to a state tournament and inspire your team members.
One student at my high school who got into Dartmouth started a COVID talent show when the pandemic started to get people to feel connected despite being online. She also organized protests and political walkout events to express her voice on LGBTQ and mental health awareness.
The key point: if your goal is to develop a skill like leadership, maximize your time by developing your passion and that skill at the same time. Don’t use a pebble to kill a pigeon.
Use a boulder to destroy a vulture nest.
When you can’t find any high school summer extracurriculars, try Dewey Smart’s Internship Match Program: