Although you may see summer as a time to rest from the grind of the school year, it is an important time for students, and you should not spend it idly. Instead, use it as an opportunity to explore other interests, pursue activities and projects you wouldn’t be able to do during the school year, and gain work experience. Ideally, you should set up your summer plans as far in advance as possible so you can be sure you are effectively filling your summer time. But sometimes plans fall through. If that happens, don’t panic. You can still figure out alternative ways to fill your time.

Whether you are scrambling to find new summer plans after old ones fell through, or you are just starting to plan your summer activities, this guide will help you plan your make the most of your summer break.

The importance of having summer break plans

The summer is a time to do things you don’t have time to do during the school year when you are focused on school, and it is important that you actually do those things. High school passes by very quickly; you only have four summers before college begins (and only three before college applications start), and you can’t afford to waste that time.

Colleges will expect you to do something useful and interesting with this time. Some colleges will even have a section on their application in which they ask you to account for each summer’s activities in detail. That means you should pick something that is worthwhile to you and be able to talk about it – what you did (specific tasks and accomplishments), why you chose that activity (and why it interests you), and what you learned from the experience.

If you are reading this post close to the summer, keep in mind that application deadlines for internships and prestigious programs are often earlier in the spring, so you may be not be able to consider these. That said, you have many options regardless, and you should not panic.

Also, when considering the summer plan options, remember that you can combine opportunities and activities to create a schedule that works for you. Just make sure that you have enough time for everything – you want to commit fully to whatever you do so that you enjoy the experience and can speak thoughtfully about it later.

The bottom line is: even if your summer plans fell through, you must do something with your time. It is such an essential part of your high school career, and you must treat it accordingly.

Jobs

Getting a job is a great way to spend the summer. While it might not be as high-profile or high-paid as you may wish, working any job is a good way to add to your resumé and make some money at the same time. Plus, working a smaller-scale job now will improve your chances of scoring bigger, more exciting work opportunities in the future. Check out our guide, “Should I Get a Job or Do an Unpaid Internship?” for ideas on how to work now toward future career goals.

The job opportunities available to you will depend on your community, transportation options, age, and some other factors. When applying to positions, you will have to consider potential limitations and work within them. You should also try to pick something that will teach you practical skills and give you interesting experiences. For example, working in an auto shop will teach you about how cars work, and you will interact with many customers. If you are interested in going into automobile engineering, this can be a great hands-on way to see how the technology you create in a lab is used in the real world.

Another great reason to get a job over the summer is that you can start saving up money for college. When you receive financial aid, even though many colleges cover all of your demonstrated need, colleges may still expect you to use some of your own earnings to help cover the costs. Getting a job now will not only help you start saving up for these costs, but it will also get you in the habit of making and saving your own money. For more specific information on how a summer job can help you start saving for college, read our CollegeVine guide, “How Do I Get Started Saving Money for College?

Additionally, if you work part-time, you can use your free time to tackle other summer projects, including some of the ideas below. Furthermore, by getting a job over the summer, you set yourself up for success in the future. If you work hard and demonstrate your skills, you may be able to get a reference from your boss for college and future jobs. It is also a good way to demonstrate dedication and responsibility. Colleges know that not all students can afford to pay for expensive summer programs, and they will consider working hard and learning from your job a worthwhile and practical use of your time.

Timeline: If your original plans fall through and you choose to work instead, you should apply to a summer job as soon as possible. You will have to wait while the job processes your application and you may need to interview as well. Plus, there is always the chance you may not get the job. Therefore, apply to many jobs and apply soon.

Volunteering

Similar to getting a paid job, volunteering is a great way to gain experience, build your resumé, learn new skills, and make connections. While you won’t be able to make money from volunteering, you can make important networking connections that may be valuable to you into the future. Furthermore, if your school requires community service hours, you may be able to complete those over the summer to free up time for other activities during the school year (you will need to check with your school about this first).

Colleges look at volunteering and other community service endeavors very positively – read our CollegeVine guide “Do I Need Community Service for My College Applications?” for more information on why, and our post, “Creating a Cohesive Application: How to Stand Out to AdComs” for tips on how to write about your volunteer experience on applications. Keep in mind that some volunteers opportunities may be limited by your age – check out our CollegeVine post “Can I Volunteer If I’m Under Age 18?” for more information. Volunteering is a wonderful experience and can sometimes lead to a job, so it’s something to consider if your other summer plans fall through.

Timeline: As with jobs, you need to apply to be a volunteer as soon as you figure out that you want to because there are often many steps (interviews, security checks, health clearances, and so on) before you are able to begin volunteering.

Local classes

Another approach to your summer could be taking more classes. Your school district may offer summer courses, which may even free up time in your schedule during the school year or enable early graduation, if you can get credit for the summer courses. Keep in mind, though, that graduating early is rare and can have its drawbacks – be sure to check out our guide, “Should You Graduate Early from High School?” before you make that move.

If you decide to take a summer class to free time in your schedule during the school year, however, make sure you have a productive way to fill that time – be it with an elective, an extracurricular activity, or a personal project (see the caution on personal projects below). You do not want summer credits to become an excuse to avoid doing things during the school year.

If your school district does not offer summer classes, try looking into courses at your local community center, recreation center, or other educational facility. You may be old enough to take adult courses or qualify for a teen program. These are not as prestigious as formal summer programs, but they can still be valuable additions to your resumé and college applications. Plus, you be spending your vacation learning new material and practical skills if you choose. These sorts of classes can range from demanding to low-time-commitment – if the latter is the case, be sure to fill your extra time with other activities.

Timeline: If your summer plans fall through, look into local classes right away. These often have a set start date and it will be hard to join these classes late, if you are allowed to at all. Registration takes time, so be sure you prepare all of the materials sooner rather than later.

Online learning

If you can’t find a class near you, check online. There are many online learning options nowadays – from lecture classes with required work (often text-driven) to interactive website programs. Your local school district or state college may have for-credit options that you can use to free up your schedule during the school year (though make sure to fill your time with other interesting activities and classes; don’t use it as an excuse to slack off).

Some examples of online learning classes include EdX, which offers college-type coursework, along with single-skill-specific apps and sites like DuoLingo and Codecademy. Be sure you can identify what specific skill you have learned (coding, for example) or what mastery specifically you have gained in a language (such as understandings of three different grammatical structures, or all vocabulary pertaining to food, and so on) for describing the activity on your applications.

Timeline: An advantage to online learning is that many classes are take-when-you-want, so there is less pressure to apply or sign up in advance. That said, some classes do have concrete start dates and you should make sure to account for these when you are re-planning your summer. Also, keep in mind the amount of time it will take you to finish the class. You want to be sure you can complete it by the end of the summer, so you must consider its duration and how much time the work required will take you.

Travel

Traveling the world is an exciting option that teaches independence and gives you a chance to learn about new cultures. It is an expensive option and, therefore not accessible for everyone, but if you can foot the bill, it is an interesting and educational experience. Additionally, you may be able to find a grant or scholarship for traveling the world – the Student Youth Travel Association Foundation (SYTA) and the Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE) are good places to start looking. For more tips and tricks to locating scholarships for all kinds of purposes, read our CollegeVine guides, “Helpful Scholarship Resources and Tips” and “What You Need to Know for a Successful Scholarship Season.

Going abroad is an especially useful way to spend your summer if you are learning a language or planning on majoring in the study of that area of the world. If you are learning a language, particularly one with with distinct dialects, such as Arabic, sometimes the best way to get a handle of the language of the area is by spending time in the region.

Keep in mind that when you are traveling you should try to engage in some kind of educational program, work, or project, instead of simply traveling for fun. Not only will you get more out of the experience, but it will be easier to specifically describe how you spent your time when you fill out college applications. Read our CollegeVine guide, “To Study or Not to Study-Abroad, That Is: High-School Students’ Questions Answered” for more angles you should consider before you reserve your plane ticket.

Timeline: Planning to travel may take months, especially if you need to get any government-issued travel documents like passports and visas. Additionally, you will need to arrange for flights and lodging, plan an itinerary, and, if applicable, apply for scholarships and grants. For that reason, traveling requires some time in advance and you will need to start considering it months in advance.

Personal projects

While they sound like a fun and easy way to spend the summer and are a quick solution if your summer plans fall through, think carefully before taking on personal projects. You will need to be able to explain and justify your project on future college applications, so you need to pick something that is specific and requires a lot of work and commitment.

With personal projects, you will have more freedom to explore a unique topic that is interesting to you. That said, it can be difficult to come up with and then manage a major project on your own, especially one that will produce results and growth that you can clearly demonstrate to colleges and future employers.

One way to avoid getting lost or derailed on your project is committing to a tangible goal that you can see and measure – both your progress towards it and whether or not you have accomplished it in the end. Examples of this include developing a website or starting a community garden. You should be able to answer “yes or no” questions about your goal: Did you develop a website? Did you start a community garden? You should also set up goals along the way to help you achieve your goal – milestones like securing a plot of land for the community garden, or creating five webpages for your website. From there, you can expand upon what setting and achieving these goals taught you.

Even if you do not accomplish your tangible goal, you should be able to discuss and measure what you did do, and most importantly what you learned. Be able to explain why you chose the topic of the project, how you put your the steps to reaching your goal into action, and what you might do differently. Did you learn something you were not expecting to? This are the factors you should be thinking about while working on and writing about your personal project.

Timeline: Personal projects may seem like they can be planned last minute, but they require a lot of thought and careful planning if you intend to do a good, thorough job. If you are planning on taking on a personal project, be sure to allot yourself ample time to come up with a solid, watertight plan so that you are able to accomplish your goals.

Conclusion

Your summer does not have to go to shambles if your plans fall through. There are countless ways to fill your summer. This is a critical time for high school students to develop and pursue interests outside of school and flesh your passions. Do not let this time go to waste. Figure out what is meaningful to you and what schedule works best, and get started.

For more subject-specific information on how to best spend your summer, check out our CollegeVine guides, “How to Spend Your Summer as a Prospective Political Science Major,” “How to Spend Your Summer as a Prospective Economics Major,” “How to Spend Your Summer as an Aspiring Engineer,” and “Summer Activities for the Prospective PreMed Student.”

If you decide to pursue an internship, be sure to read our guide, “The Ins and Outs of Pre-College Internships” for helpful tips and tricks, along with “How Do I Get an Internship?”.

Or, if you decidedly do not want an internship (or cannot find one that is still accepting applications), look at “5 Things You Can Do This Summer Instead of an Internship” and “College Dog Days: 5 Productive Summer Plans (That Aren’t Fancy Internships) For College Transfer Students.

Don’t panic if your summer plans fall through – there’s so much you can do. Best of luck!

Julia Mearsheimer

Julia Mearsheimer

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Julia Mearsheimer attends the University of Chicago. She is considering majoring in Philosophy, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or Political Science, but remains undecided. In addition to writing, she enjoys listening to Nina Simone and baking bread.
Julia Mearsheimer