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(408) 479-4742


Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.

Summer Programs Alternatives: 5 Outstanding Summer Options

Elton Lin

When faced with the question of what to do this summer, a program could be the most convenient answer. There is a worthwhile program for you, no matter your interests, GPA, or goals. Still, summer programs are not mandatory for your best college results. Every year, thousands of students who have never participated in a single summer program are admitted to even the most competitive colleges.

As a former UC admissions evaluator, I have been asked many times which summer activities increase a student’s admissions chances. The perhaps unsatisfactory answer is: it depends. There are numerous factors that can make a summer experience an asset to your college goals.

For one, admissions readers review extracurricular activities for evidence of your genuine interest in your prospective major. If you love it, why wouldn’t you be spending your free time doing it? And, if you’re not sure about your major, summer is the perfect time to try something new. Even if you don’t like what you try, the time you spend exploring demonstrates your intellectual curiosity, motivation to succeed, and discipline to see something through to completion.

What admissions readers aren’t looking for is how expensive the summer program or how prestigious the host university, even if you’re applying to that host university. So, if you have summer commitments that preclude you from participating in a program, it’s not in your family budget, or you are denied by your desired programs, here are five outstanding options for your consideration.

1. Volunteer locally

So many well-meaning families arrange for their sons and daughters to volunteer overseas. However, many colleges view these summer escapades as “voluntourism.” If you can pay, you can feel good about yourself. Instead, volunteer locally. What colleges want to see is: How does your commitment to social justice play out in your own backyard? How are you applying yourself selflessly in the long term, not just during an expensive trip?

Lisa volunteered in a food pantry during the school year. When she needed to stay in town for her SAT prep course, she increased her summer hours at the food pantry. She made it her mission that summer to find a better way to organize the food donations. The experience Lisa gained from leading the food pantry project became a strength that helped her achieve her college goals.

2. Take a class

Community college courses offer a wealth of opportunities to explore your interests at bargain rates. For Kristen, earning an A in a community college accounting course became a convincing argument to colleges that she was a strong candidate for their accounting programs.

For students in 10th and 11th grades, a passing grade in a UC-transferable California community college (CCC) course is guaranteed to be treated as a weighted GPA point for UC--just like an AP course. And now, with a searchable database of online CCC courses, it is easier than ever for high school students to pursue their interests while improving their UC GPAs through CCC courses.

3. Get a job

Working requires that you show up on time, be a team player, and meet the expectations of your customers and/or boss. Even those students earning a perfect GPA have something to learn from giving good customer service at the local burger joint for minimum wage, and college officials understand this.

My student, Jared, who was interested in business and fashion got a retail job at Macy’s, which led him to a new understanding of selling techniques. Jared’s job experience became the theme of his main personal statement, and he was admitted to top business schools.

Demonstrating your ability to maintain--and excel--at a humble job in the real world is worth more than your paycheck. And, if you’re able to contribute something new to the workplace you join, your accomplishments become brag worthy, a jewel in the activity section of your college applications.

So, start working on that resume. Even if you don’t have work experience, you can still write a resume.

4. Land an internship

What student wouldn’t want a summer internship? The challenge is the much celebrated internship in your field of choice may not be readily available. Therefore, aspiring interns need to be resourceful.

James’ summer research plans fell through at the last minute. So, I had him look up local researchers who were doing the specific kind of research he was interested in. James contacted several researchers to request a brief informational interview. One of his contacts replied to him, and the interview went well, leading to a job shadow, and eventually, an internship.

5. Start something new

Completing an independent project that you’re in charge of is one of the most impressive activities that you can report on a college application.

The options are endless. Mary taught a writing course at Boys and Girls Club and was admitted to almost every school she applied to. Other students I’ve worked with have done everything from creating a shopping service, writing an e-book, and spreading awareness about hepatitis B. You can’t go wrong with working toward a solution for a local problem.

No matter what you decide to pursue for summer, remember to have fun. Exploring your interests and demonstrating your passion should translate into enjoying your summer break. If you find your summer plans to be less than inspiring, it might be time to consider a new direction.

If you’d like to know how we can help with your--or your teen’s--summer, please contact us to schedule a free consultation at or (408) 479-4742.