Education doesn’t always come from a classroom. In fact, a lot of education comes from outside the classroom. You can learn about interpersonal relationships by reading a great novel, about history by visiting a museum, and job skills by actually trying to do a particular job. While math and biology are necessary classroom skills, use your summers to pick up some knowledge on subjects that are less affiliated with the classroom and more affiliated with everyday life. Instead of hitting the SAT study guide, hit the library, the YMCA, or a local forest!
- Visit local museums, galleries, and attractions. You don’t have to go too far out of your way to find a museum or an art gallery. One of my favorite summer discoveries came during a cross-country road trip. I was traveling through Kansas and happened to come upon a fossil museum on the side of the highway. It wasn’t out of the way at all, and there were some cool exhibits in the museum. On the same trip, I found a massive statue of an American bison outside Fort Hays and an overly large Van Gogh replica. In my hometown of Louisville, I’m always bringing visitors to see the 120 ft. baseball bat at the Louisville Slugger Museum, to bourbon tastings (if my friends are of age), and to the Kentucky Derby Museum. You don’t have to live in New York City or Chicago to find fun, weird, and educational things to do while you’re in town.
Take day trips to national parks or plan a vacation around visiting one. There are 417 national parks in the United States. Not all of them include “park” in their names, but may instead include “battlefield,” “memorial,” “historic site,” or “monument.” I worked at Fossil Butte National Monument in 2012, and while I was there I would use my weekends to visit Arches National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Cache National Forest, and the National Oregon/California Trail Center in Idaho. And these were all places I could easily get to from rural Wyoming. No matter where you live, there are going to be amazing sites to see within a few hours. Taking a few hours or a few days to explore our national lands is well worth your time and effort, especially when some of them won’t be around forever (like Glacier National Park in Montana). As an added bonus, many national attractions are free or only charge a small fee for bringing in a vehicle. While you’re there, remember that you are in a protected environment and follow the proper steps to keep yourself and the park safe.
- Get a summer job. When you get a job, even one as a sales clerk at the local bookstore, you learn skills and preferences for the future. I’ve held summer jobs doing everything from managing a volleyball team (which is a sport I never played by the way) to working at the local Subway making sandwiches all day long. Neither job was particularly thrilling, but I did learn the ins and outs of volleyball and gained mad skills with the cash register (which helped me get a waitstaff job later on). There is no skill that is too menial for you to learn. No, I don’t make sandwiches for people anymore, but I learned a lot about customer service while I was at Subway. Even if you’re not in love with your job, suck it up for the summer to boost your résumé and earn some cash.
- Visit colleges. While you won’t get the full picture when school isn’t in session, you can still visit colleges during the summer to get a feel for the area, the campus, and the facilities. You may be able to tell right away that you don’t want to attend a school in an urban area or that you would prefer not to be somewhere so rural as to need a car to get to the grocery store. While you may not settle on a school without a proper campus tour, meeting with professors and students, and sitting in on classes to get a feel for the academics, you may be able to narrow down your list so that your focus can be on visiting schools that you’d actually enjoy attending when it comes time to start working on your applications.
- Volunteer or participate in a summer camp. If you want to work with kids, ask local summer camps if they need volunteer counselors. Having CPR, first aid, or babysitter’s training through the Red Cross might be helpful in getting the position, but it’s not always necessary. You may find a position as an overnight camp counselor through Boy or Girl Scouts, or as a day camp counselor through the local YMCA, Jewish Community Center, church, or museum. These positions may be paid or unpaid, but they’ll look great on your résumé. If you’re not one for counseling, try going to a summer camp for teens or young adults. Some colleges host week-long academic camps for students to get a feel for college, or you may choose to find an outdoor adventure camp with other students your age. The downside to attending camp yourself is that you’ll likely have to pay, but you may be able to participate in mission trips or volunteer activities through local churches and nonprofit organizations.
- Complete an internship or job shadow. If you’re one of those students who knows what you want to do when you grow up, my 17-year-old self is very envious of you. It’s great, though, because then you can get a head start on getting experience in your chosen field. Ask your parents, teachers, and other adults if they know of any open internships, or do an internet search for “internships” and your chosen field and location. If you know someone (or your family knows someone) who’s in the field that you want to go into, ask if you can shadow them around their job for an afternoon, a day, or a week. Both internships and job shadows will give you insights into a particular field that you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. Even if you don’t know for sure what field you want to go into as an adult, completing an internship or job shadow is a low-key way to feel it out and decide if the field is worth pursuing.
Keep a journal or start a blog. Journaling can help you stay in control of and find meaning in your emotions as well as understand out-of-the-ordinary occurrences. It can be a nice way to reflect on your day as well, or, if you’re like me and have a terrible memory, to remind yourself of days and events that you want to remember (I always carry a journal when I travel). You may find that having a personal journal is useful when it comes time to write your personal essay or respond to short answer questions when you’re completing college applications. It can also provide inspiration for short memoirs or other writing samples that you may have to complete throughout your academic career. Not to mention, you’ll have something to read, cringe at, and laugh at when you find an old journal from years ago. (Yes, I’m guilty of that last one.)
- Learn to cook. This is probably my favorite item on this list. Cooking is a life skill. While it’s tempting to call for takeout every time you’re feeling lazy, those bills add up really, really fast, not to mention that takeout is generally less healthy than a home-cooked meal. Instead of wasting your money and taking in way too much sodium, search out recipes for your favorite dishes online. Pick a couple of recipes a week and start cooking! Things like chicken parmesan, macaroni and cheese, and baked salmon are easy and delicious. As you grow more confident in your cooking abilities, graduate on to harder recipes: chicken enchiladas with a homemade sauce, paella, eggs benedict, and chocolate lava cakes. Your future roommates are going to be impressed, your parents will appreciate not having to cook every night, and you’ll learn a lot about what you like and don’t like in the kitchen. It’s a win-win-win!
- Read a different book each month. This is not a very tall order since the amount of free time you have in the summer is more than what you’d have during the school year. Reading builds your vocabulary, relaxes you, and can help you become a better conversationalist. Reading more is better, but if you’re not a huge reader anyway, or if you’re tackling Russian literature or nonfiction, take your time. For the most recent set of Student Caffé book suggestions, check out this blog post.
- Hike. Find a local trail, grab a buddy, and head out into the wilderness! (Maybe not the wilderness if you’re not prepared for backcountry hiking, but a few miles on a local trail should be attainable.) Spending time outside not only gets you a daily dosage of vitamin D, but it can leave you feeling rejuvenated, stress-free, and more able to focus when you return. Even taking your dog (or yourself) for a long walk in the park may be enough to get your synapses firing and boost your mental health. Not to mention that it’s physically good for you to spend time moving around. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate cardio weekly.