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Articles / Preparing for College / Don't Let Summer Drain Your Brain

Don't Let Summer Drain Your Brain

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | June 19, 2014

I wonder if anyone reading this is old enough to remember rocker Alice Cooper. He had a big hit years ago called School’s Out. If you’re a rising high school junior or senior, school is probably out right now for you, too. Cooper’s song’s chorus went:

School’s out for summer

School’s out forever

School’s been blown to pieces

No more pencils

No more books

No more teacher’s dirty looks

Well, I hope that your school hasn’t been “blown to pieces” and you haven’t gotten any “dirty looks” from your teachers. The point, however, is that now you don’t have to get blasted out of a deep sleep by your annoying alarm clock (or the pestering of a parent). You’ve got the whole summer stretched out in front of you. The challenge for you now is how to make the summer work in your favor and how can you keep your brain from sliding into the ditch of forgetfulness about all things academic.

Things are a lot different today than they were when I was in high school. Summer jobs were about the only requirement for me during my rising-junior and rising-senior summers. If there were fancy, impressive internships, I didn’t know about them. “Significant” employment wasn’t available, at least in my area. I recall applying for temp work at a local employment agency. That landed me a gig as a busboy at the local Holiday Inn. I should have kept a journal about those experiences. I learned a lot about dealing with various types of people in the hospitality business and the realities of a restaurant kitchen (don’t ask; you don’t want to know).

Then there was my Cold Power delivery job. I’ve mentioned this before, but I often recall it whenever I’m going through a period of stress or hardship. When I do, my current  calamities don’t seem so bad. Wikipedia explains that “Cold Power is a brand of laundry detergent made by Colgate-Palmolive. It was sold in the United States during the 1960s and into the early 1970s, but the brand was discontinued due to lagging sales … The name is derived from the fact that it is advertised as washing clothes well in cold water …”

I was part of a team that distributes small sample boxes of Cold Power door to door throughout the central region of our state. We would climb aboard a large box truck that had all the samples loaded on it. Then we were transported like cattle to the various neighborhoods where we would hand out our samples. I think part of my current back and shoulder aches and pains had their genesis with my Cold Power job. We would strap on a large box of samples, looking like young men carrying huge cardboard purses in front of us. Then we would go from house to house hanging a Cold Power sample on the front-door knob. The sample would go inside a clear plastic bag and a promotional leaflet would complete the sample package.

We did this five days a week for a couple months. The money was decent. I think the minimum wage was $1.25 per hour back in those days. At least it provided me with money for gas, dates, and tennis gear. This was the most exhausting summer work I ever had to do. After high school, I moved up the social status ladder and scored a job tending the clay tennis courts at a local country club. The money was okay but the perks of meeting girls at the pool were hard to beat.


As I said, things are much different today for high schoolers as they face both what to do with their summers and how best to make those summers count in a positive way toward their college quest. The best way to do this is by having a plan. What kinds of action items would be good for an effective summer plan?

Test prepper Frances Kweller, founder of Kweller Prep has come up with seven solid ideas for a successful and productive summer. Here they are with a few comments of my own:

– Visit “Your” colleges. For college-bound students, pick your 3-5 dream schools and visit them. Check out the neighborhood, the campus life and the bookstore. What better way to provide motivation than to visit a school and imagine yourself being a student there. Every school has multiple tours available over the summer. Just visit each college’s website and sign up.

Dave says: They don’t have to be just “dream” schools. They can be reasonable, “ballpark” schools where you think you may have an even chance of getting in. Visiting possible “safeties” is also prudent. Remember: You’re going to be (hopefully) spending four school years at one of these campuses, so make sure it’s to your liking.

– Vacation with education. Enhance your family vacation by going on an historical tour. Visit a museum, take a tour of historical locations or even visit a local tourist attraction. Nothing is more educational or mind-opening than having a visual experience to think about.

Dave says: You never know from what source inspiration will come. Something you see in a museum or historical site may register in a significant way with you and provide source material for an impressive application essay.

– Volunteer with a purpose. Volunteering should be aligned with your long-term goals. Hands-on learning is the best form of education. If you want to be a doctor, you should look into volunteering as a candy striper or in a nursing home. Enhance your resume by taking the opportunity to create mentors in your field of interest. Summer is a relaxing time and therefore a great opportunity to learn from an experienced person in your field.

Dave says: Keep in mind that volunteering should also be about helping others, not just a way to enhance your profile. Admission committees have a kind of sixth sense that can see through to those volunteer efforts that are done with a genuine heart motive vs. those that are mere resume line items.

– Set up a testing plan. For sophomores and juniors in high school, set up a testing plan for the months ahead. The testing season begins in September starting with the ACT and SATs in October. Setting up a testing plan will help keep your eye on the ball and have you focused and ready to go when school begins.

Dave says: You’ll be surprised how fast the summer slips by. Although you may groan when you think about test prepping during the summer, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the confidence you experience when you walk into that test center this fall, knowing that you are ready for anything the SAT or ACT can throw at you.

– Get a head start on your college application. The common app changes slightly from year to year, so you can use last year’s college application as your template and fill it out. This way, you’ll know exactly what you’ll need for each application once school starts. Don’t wait around until the last minute. Take your time over the summer and begin to get your application organized. You’ll need to gather your recommendation letters, personal statements, transcripts, create a resume, portfolio and draft multiple supplements. Besides, if you organize yourself in the summer you can apply for Early Decision or Early Action to college, which means you’ll get your acceptance letters much sooner.

Dave says: This is another one of those “You’ll be glad that you did it” things. The beginning of the new school year tends to rocket by. It seems like Thanksgiving happens much faster than it should after school starts. This is especially true for seniors who are applying to college via Early Action or Early Decision. Those November application due dates come roaring to the fore before you realize it. That’s why a summer head start on applications is such a good move.

– Reading is key. Reading is always a good motivator but don’t just pick up any book. Take the summer to read books that are not part of the required reading lists at school. Better yet, research a list of banned books in the United States and expand your knowledge to learn about something new.  This also makes a great subject for a college essay!

Dave says: Reading is also a key activity for doing well on standardized tests. The better your vocabulary is, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with Critical Reading and other text-heavy questions. The Internet can be part of a good summer reading plan. Many sophisticated Web sites offer mature subject matter for anyone motivated to seek them out. Don’t waste too much time on social media. The Wall Street Journaland New York Times, for example, offer higher level material than Facebook.

– Create and motivate. Challenge yourself by working on a summer project. Look into your family history and create a genealogy chart, organize a charity event, assist the elderly in old age homes or build something after you’ve taken a carpentry lesson. Taking on projects alone or with a friend will serve as a good learning experience and will also be a great way to show that you’ve completed a task that you’ve started.

Dave says: Another great project would be learning basic auto maintenance. You may already have your own car or might be getting one to use for college. If you can take the time to learn how to do such fundamental (but important) tasks as changing spark plugs, maintaining proper tire pressure, checking air filters, changing oil, etc., you’ll save yourself time and money (and maybe even a breakdown) down the road, so to speak. Being your own car mechanic also makes for an excellent application essay topic.


So, as Paul Simon once said in a song, make a new plan, Stan. Think about your summer as an opportunity to do practical, rewarding things. Obviously, take time for some fun, too, but don’t waste your summer on Twitter, tweeting all your prime time away … and draining your brain.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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