What Summer Activities do Ivy League Colleges Look For?

05/18/2017 03:23 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2017
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Part four in our ongoing series, “Who Gets Into Harvard?”

In previous blogs on this subject, we’ve outlined the grades and curriculum choices, test scores, and extracurricular activities that highly selective universities look for as they evaluate applications. If you’re trying to figure out whether or not you will be competitive for Ivy League college admissions, turn your attention to summertime.

How did you spend your summer vacation?

I know how most of us would like to spend our summer vacations: chilling at the beach, organizing cookouts, hanging out at the movie theater, or all of the above. You probably know by now that these types of summer activities don’t really fit on a college application, and that selective colleges want to see you make better use of this time. But what you may know less about is what kind of activities tend to stand out on an application to a highly selective college.

Did you travel to Africa with family, build houses in Costa Rica for a week, or take a college class (perhaps at an Ivy League university)? You might be surprised to learn that none of these are particularly compelling in the highly selective admissions process. Travel for fun can highlight privilege rather than passion, and community service abroad sounds a bit like spring break with some feel-good work thrown in for better optics. Taking a course? Most summer programs on Ivy League and similarly selective college campuses are designed to generate revenue, not give you an edge in the admissions process at those schools.

If you are doing an organized summer program, is it selective? By that I mean did you need more than just a transcript, test scores, and a teacher recommendation to get in? Were specific coursework or skill and experience in a particular area required? Did you have to write essays and/or participate in an interview? Did hundreds or thousands of high school students apply, but only tens get accepted? These are all signs that the program is quite selective, and not just anyone who can afford it can attend.

Are you doing something no one else could do? What tends to have the greatest impact in Ivy League college applicant pools are activities in which students carve their own path. That might mean turning down Governor’s School for an internship you sought out at a venture capital firm, where you can learn while improving the business plan for your own fledgling company. Or organizing a research project focused on obesity issues in the local population. Or managing a group of high school student volunteers for a politician in your district.

And don’t assume a job isn’t interesting. A summer spent digging ditches or manning the night shift at a local restaurant can be as impressive as one spent investigating a new math theorem. Some high school students have a responsibility to support their families with their summer earnings, and others can learn valuable lessons in doing difficult tasks all day, every day. Both can stand out in Ivy League applicant pools, but time and commitment are very important when it comes to work. A part-time gig scooping ice cream with your friends is not the same as a job that requires 40 or more hours per week.

The next question to ask about your school and summer involvement is, is it all cohesive? Does it further a particular interest or passion, or deepen and expand upon an area of involvement? In other words, is it a distinguishing excellence? If you are wondering what that is and why it’s important in highly selective admissions, come back for part five in our series on evaluating your chances of acceptance to the Ivy League.

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