06/09/2014 11:53 am ET | Updated Aug 09, 2014

Maximize Your Summer

Around the nation, the summer sun dawns a new beginning and change of pace. High school students ask the perennial question: "What should I be doing?" The sun beckons out to relax -- and yes, relaxation is very important, but summer is a critical time to build on extracurricular activities.

Having seen thousands of college applications through Synocate, the one major theme I see lacking throughout is a personal theme formed by these extracurricular activities. Actively seeking a passion, which can lead through college, is one of the gifts that high school summers give us.

Here are three ways to pursue or find a new passion during summer:

1. Competition Gear-Up
2. Academic Preparation
3. Round Out

In 11th and 12th, a focus on one of the areas with a secondary pursuit fills out the time and allows our brains to function in different ways. This fosters creativity and with good time management can garner better results in both pursuits.

Here is a more thorough description of each focus, followed by two examples to bring the concept to reality:

1. Competition Gear-Up

In this method, a student will focus on getting ready for competitions that range from August-January. We will break this down by general subject category:

Science: Students will usually work with a professor at a local university to build a project that spans one or two summers. These projects may derive from the professor's interest, the student's interest based on the professor's area of expertise, or a mutual ground between these two.

Competitions in science range from ISEF (Intel Science and Engineering Fair), STS (Intel's Science Technology and Society Competition), Siemens Competition, and others. The largest competitions are for entering seniors and have deadlines from September to December. The most competitive applicants usually spend at least one summer fully dedicated to a project to submit to these types of competitions.

Writing: Many writing competitions have deadlines in August and September based on the subject. The American Foreign Service Association, Ayn Rand essay contest, and National Peace Essay Contest are some good examples of national-level essay contests.

Olympiads: Serious contenders for the various Olympiads (Math, Chemistry, Physics, Biology) will start by spending the summer reading recommended books and practicing old exams. There are competitive camps that students are selected to attend in the U.S. that tailor candidates for the various competition rounds that ultimately lead to the international level.

Takeaway: In this approach, students should consider research, writing competitions, or a full focus on preparing for Olympiads. These types of competitions are usually multi-level and require more than a month of preparation.

With the second two options, I usually recommend that students couple writing with Round Out in the form of another activity. This way students can think in different ways -- not just purely writing or academic, respectively.

2. Academic Preparation

For students in the 10th grade, I often recommend students focus on preparing for the first round of AP/IB tests along with SAT I. The majority of the time can be used towards taking a class for SAT I and supplementing that with external, weekly SAT full-length tests at home.

I also recommend SAT I preparation for 11th graders before their 12th grade summer if they want to re-take the exam. In this case, students should aim for the November test at the latest.

A third route is for students to continue academic preparation for SAT II and SAT I after the 10th grade summer and into 11th grade. I advise this for students that want more support during the year with their classes and opt to take the SAT I early in 11th grade with plans for re-take later in 11th.

Takeaway: Academic preparation is one of the most important focus areas because without solid numbers many students' extracurricular activities mean a lot less. In Synocate's strategy, we have a three-stage approach, starting with a base of academics.

3. Round Out

A third approach I recommend to students that want to further explore interests is Round Out: finding new passions through the shotgun approach or exploring alternative approaches to an established passion.

The shotgun approach we use is to have students try 5 or 6 activities over a few months and report which activities they enjoyed. We have writing exercises designed to help students reflect on why they enjoyed these activities, and these exercises can inform a major theme for the student.

To solidify these ideas, here are two examples:

Example 1

This student has an interest in physics and has done one year of research at a local university last summer. Going into the summer after 11th grade, he wants to continue in a similar vein.

In addition to continuing research to develop into a project via Competition Gear-Up for about 30 hours per week, this student should secondarily pursue Round Out.

We offered a route for him within Round Out:

Start a nonprofit that focuses on educating middle school students on different aspects of science. This would allow the student to demonstrate a community focus and strength in organizing people, which is not shown through his research. In addition, it would allow him to actually explore other paths in science.

Example 2

This student had an interest in the arts. She had done an internship at retailer focused on fashion management, but needed to build a more robust theme after 11th grade ended. Because there are not many competitions around this arts focus, we recommended her to focus on Round Out with a secondary focus on Academic Preparation.

For her Round Out, she partnered a new initiative that combined her existing internship with a local non-profit to provide clothes to the homeless. This she would focus for 15-20 hours per week.

For the other time, she had a secondary focus on preparing for the SAT I through weekly classes and two or three sessions with a local agency per week. In addition, she took monthly classes preparing for AP/IB and SAT II in Math, which can be done at any time after students reach a certain level in Math in high school.

Takeaway: With a primary and secondary focus, students should allocate at least 50 hours per week to these two focuses. Beyond that, students should explore other interests or relax. Two examples were provided of students that built their extracurricular portfolio during the summer and strengthened other aspects of their lives. This focus in turn helped both students with time management and had them meeting students they would have never met otherwise.

Summer is an important time for students from 9th-12th grade. Often students ask what they should be doing, and we have three major recommendations for students at Synocate:

1. Competition Gear-Up
2. Academic Preparation
3. Round Out

Students should have a primary focus on one of these areas and a secondary focus on another, with a goal of having at least 50 hours per week designated to either of these focuses. In this way, students can structure their time, stay motivated and meet new peers.