05/30/2008 06:09 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Truth About Summer Work for College Bound Teens

I'm in a state of shock, dumbfounded actually. Is CNN really encouraging students to lifeguard for the summer? Become an amusement park attendant? Babysit? Obviously, their recent article detailing this year's "Top 10 Summer Jobs" is directed at the onslaught of full-time students soon to be hitting the increasingly hot pavement in search of the ever-elusive summer job.

True, the market isn't getting any easier; The New York Times made that abundantly clear in the May 22nd article, "Toughest Job this Summer is Finding One." But it's worth the struggle, not only for the extra money, but because of the added texture employment brings not only to the student as a person but also to the college resume. While it's considerate of CNN to offer their expert advice in assisting teenagers currently embarking on the summer job hunt, I cannot help but take a bit of offense to this supremely unhelpful, if not altogether hurtful, article. First of all, CNN, where is the creativity? There's nothing new about these woefully standard summer jobs. The truth is that, for the majority of students looking to get into a selective college and also looking for summer work, this article does not offer good advice.

Just a thought: might not it be a better idea, on this three month hiatus from school, to consider one's academic future and, rather than take a holiday from oneself, get involved in something (paid or otherwise) personally engaging?

The truth is that colleges like to see high school students working--but not in a job chosen from a trite and uninspired list. Perhaps if your daughter loves children and is toying with the idea of studying early child development and marine biology in college, then being a lifeguard at an ocean-side youth camp very well may be the perfect job for her. But if she is an aspiring chemist, she would probably be most engaged working in a laboratory. If your son is interested in pursuing hotel management, working the front desk at a resort is a lovely idea. But if he is interested in English, perhaps his skills are better used at a local newspaper or library. The point is that it is important to make sure students are pursuing jobs that fit with and build upon their interests. Your children will not earn extra spending money, but gain invaluable experience in their prospective professions.

I can already hear some of you saying: "But, when do kids get to be kids?" If the work is meaningful, and aligned with the student's true interests, then this summer commitment will be engaging--even fun. I recommend working at least 20 hours per week for 2 of the 3 months. (So, yes, there will be time to relax!) It takes about 2 months to get acclimated to a working environment, to get to know one's new colleagues and to really make an impact somewhere, not to mention the importance of showing consistency on one's college resume. Students can also follow the newly popular four-day workweek plan--they will save on gas and have an extra day during the week for band practice, wake boarding or any other independent pursuits. It is even better if the student can continue the work in some way part-time during the school year or the following summer. Colleges appreciate long-term experiences where there's an opportunity to really learn a lot and make a difference.

If extra cash isn't an issue, then summer also allows for an opportunity to find a great volunteer experience or internship. In this economic downturn, many organizations, not surprisingly, appreciate volunteers. And contrary to popular belief, brand name doesn't really matter - following your passion and making an impact does! Stuffing envelopes for the United Nations isn't necessarily as impressive as working closely with a community service organization to create a new after school program for inner city students, or doing research at a college or hospital laboratory.

In summary, this is the truth about adolescent summer jobs: they're vital for gaining new experiences, especially if these new experiences challenge and engage you and look great on college applications. If nothing else, a part-time job will surely stave off boredom and the inevitable ennui of inactivity. My advice to students is it to work hard - but not on your tan. Remember, summer is a holiday, but it's not a holiday away from yourself. You'll be grateful upon your return to school that you learned something and, as an added bonus, you'll actually have something interesting to say when your college interviewer asks "So, what did you do last summer?"