Summer: It's the New Fall
I don't recall reading the Associated Press announcement, but there must have been a day about a decade ago when the "vacation" was removed from "summer vacation" and "enrichment" took its place. It might have occurred around the time that some public schools became "year round." As a student of sociology, I'm interested in the history of that transformation, but today I will limit myself to addressing the urgent queries from students and parents who ask me what colleges want high school students to do during the summer months. It couldn't be, "Just relax and enjoy your time off," or they wouldn't ask for details.
It is true that you won't get much mileage with colleges if you spend your summers lying on the couch watching reruns of House, despite the exposure it would give you to the latest diagnostic techniques in medicine. It is also true that you don't have to build a new public transit system in Djibouti to do something meaningful that admission directors will find interesting.
Colleges ask how you have spent your summers because they want to get a fuller picture of you and your interests, not because they want to see specific prestigious programs that you have or haven't attended. In recent years, it has become increasingly common for the children of middle class and wealthy parents to feel that there is a requirement to do spectacular things during summer breaks from school: feed the hungry in the Third World, rebuild Haiti after the earthquake, or successfully negotiate a Middle East peace settlement. In practice, selective colleges are just as happy to see students work during the summer in a part-time job. It is not the case that you need to find the most exotic, far-flung way to do community service that you can find. What you should do during the summer is delve deeper into those things that interest you in ways that are not possible during the school year. And much to the chagrin of pricey summer programs, there are inexpensive ways to pursue a variety of interests.
No summer activity will make or break your admission to a particular college. The activity will end up mattering in the college admission process to the extent it ends up mattering to you. If you find the experience compelling enough to write about in one of your essays, then it may play a salient role in your admission, but not simply because you did it; rather, because it influenced the way you think and feel and move in the world. In short, it isn't the particular summer activity you choose, it's your reasons for choosing it that matter.