What to Do on Your Summer Vacation (To Get Into Your Dream School)

Ahhh, it’s a great feeling: that last exam completed, that last term paper turned in, that June SAT or ACT finished. And after your sophomore or junior year in high school, you probably can’t wait for the moment when you get to sleep in, hang out with your friends, and work on your tan.

But while spending some of your time decompressing is absolutely vital to performing your best once September rolls back around (and oh, it will), using that time wisely can set you up for success in the school year to come—and using it unwisely can derail your momentum. So do make sure you’re getting the most out of your summer break! Here's how.


During the summer between sophomore and junior year...

1) Explore your passions

Sure, there are more concrete kinds of test prep and college-process prep that will come into play here. But don't let them overshadow cultivating your interests and figuring out who you are. After all, how will you be able to know what college is the best fit for you if you don't know who you are in the first place?

Think of all the activities that appeal to you—and then lean in harder. Love music? Make it a point to go to summer concerts in the park, join a youth choir, or take a DJing class. Mesmerized by fashion? See if there’s a sewing class you can take or if you’re old enough to intern at a fashion house to see how it’s run. Or perhaps create a line of crocheted pink hats for your friends or sale on Etsy! Fancy being a doctor? Shadow a friend’s parent’s private practice, go to science camp, or volunteer at the hospital.

The point is to see if you actually want to have this interest as a bigger part of your life or not. And if not, then explore the next one!

2) Start thinking about your college list

You don't need to know exactly where you want to apply to college yet, but at this point, you should start thinking about it if you haven’t already. Your college list will inform which tests you have to take, what scores to aim for, and how you should approach your overall test-prep strategy, so it's good to get a sense of what it's going to look like. Some questions to ponder:

  • What part of the country do I want to live in?
  • How big of a school do I want it to be?
  • What might I want to study?
  • Is there a particular interest that MUST be there? A competitive water polo team, say, or a forensic science department, or a vocal studies program?

These are just ways of jump-starting your thinking! Remember, putting together your college list is all about you: who you are and what you want to do with and during your college education.


3) Decide between the SAT or the ACT

The first rule of the test-prep process? Don't do more work or spend more time than you have to. If you do, you’ll drive yourself crazy and may even burn out before you get the score you need. My favorite way of cutting your prep time in half is to decide whether to take the ACT or the SAT first, create a plan while you’re still sane, and stick to the plan when you’re not sane. (An Ace the Test: Game Plan™ makes this decision easy!) And making that decision before junior year starts will let you make it in peace and give you a leg up on the busy year ahead.


During the summer between junior and senior year...

1) Re-evaluate where you are in the test-prep process

What a difference a year makes! By the end of your junior year, you’ve come all the way from deciding whether to take the ACT or SAT to actually taking a standardized test or two! Congrats! Now, you have to get smart about what to do next.

When your finals and last attempts at the SAT, SAT II, or the ACT are done in June, give yourself a breather while you await your scores, and then course-correct your test-prep plan from a year ago. Do you have the scores you need? Do you need another attempt at the ACT? Did you add a college to your list that requires SAT II Subject Tests you now need to prep for? Figure out what you can permanently cross off your list and where you need to double down.


2) Finalize your college list

After spending ALL YEAR last year working on the SAT and ACT and thinking about the college process, you now need to lock down your list of where you'll actually apply. Hopefully, you’ve taken several tours, done lots of research, and have a pretty good idea of what your SAT and ACT scores will be. But before you can start filling out the Common App and writing all those supplemental essays, you need to have an idea of how many schools you’re applying to and what type they are. Make sure you have some test score-appropriate schools, as well as some “reach” schools and plenty of hopefully “in the bag” schools. If you plan on applying Early Decision to a college, you need to start thinking about that as well, since you’ll need to have that application done first.


3) Get a head start on the Common App

This is the single best piece of advice I can give to a rising senior: write your Common App essay (or “personal statement”, which can be repurposed for non-Common App applications as well) before school starts! If you want to mitigate the stress of the senior year fall application hellscape, this is how to do it. 

 In fact, in an ideal world, you’d spend the entire month of August opening up a Common App account, filling out the factual information, creating a stellar activities list, AND finishing a final draft of your main 650-word essay. Your school counselor or independent college counselor will probably want to make some edits to it—so it won’t be 100% “finished” per se—but it should be compelling, error-free, and representative of your overall vibe, perspective, and passions.


4) Oh, yeah…and keep exploring your passions

Can’t forget about this one! While you’re busy planning the rest of your life, you need to continue to HAVE a life. Keep going with the activities that excite you: take another class, work, intern, volunteer, create. You get the idea. BE the fascinating, passionate, curious student you’re trying to market yourself to be. That's what will keep you going through all the challenges of test prep and college admissions, and ultimately, that's what will get you into the right school for you.

You don't need to hit the test-prep books so hard you never see the sun during these summers! But using them to keep your momentum rolling towards the test score you want and the school you want it for will help keep those crucial, busy junior and senior years sane. Good luck, and don't forget to reach out if you need help making a plan that makes you feel comfortable and confident!