“What I Did This Summer”

Never mind a summer job. Apparently high school students who have really serious college ambitions are now planning their summer vacations in a deliberate effort to produce material for the college application essay.

According to an article by Jenny Anderson in the New York Times:

Students preparing to apply to college are increasingly tailoring their summer plans with the goal of creating a standout personal statement — 250 words or more — for the Common Application in which to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” Specialized, exotic and sometimes costly activities, they hope, will polish a skill, cultivate an interest and put them in the spotlight in a crowded field of straight-A students with strong test scores, community service hours and plenty of extracurricular activities.

A dizzying array of summer programs have cropped up to feed the growing anxiety that summer must be used constructively. Students can study health care in Rwanda, veterinary medicine in the Caribbean or cell cloning at Brown University, or learn about Sikkim, India’s only Buddhist state.

And we wonder why it’s mostly rich people who go to America’s most selective schools.

There was, oddly enough, little reference to the fact that such activities are almost exclusively available to America’s very affluent. For the rest of American high school students, they pretty much spend their summers working. They have to because college, even public college, is now so expensive.

The article does acknowledge that there are scholarships available to help “those who lack the means to pay for an essay-inspiring trip” but that ignores the fact that many students they aren’t working in the summer because they just can’t, say, find a inexpensive trip to volunteer for women’s health programs in Kenya; no, they work in the summer because they have to make money to pay for college.

While the growth of these fancy summer programs is apparently designed to help high school students “augment who they are and discover who they are, and that absolutely helps the college process,” according to a woman who created one of these summer programs, note that this sort of thing isn’t really necessary or even effective. If someone writes a good essay about spending the summer working at Walmart, that will probably be much more interesting to admissions staff at any exclusive university; they so rarely get applicants like that.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer