6 Smart & Productive Ways to Spend Your Summer

With the winter semester completed, many undergraduate students are left with a simple question that is often difficult to answer – What do I do this summer? Unlike high school where summer spans 2 months from late June to August, the official summer semester at most universities can begin as early as mid-April and run all the way until early September. That’s a whole 4 months! Almost double what you get in high school!

For most of us, school takes up a large portion of our time for the remaining 8 months of the year. As such, when given such a long break, students sometimes have trouble deciding what the best thing to do in that time is. Let’s look at a few options.

  1. Summer Classes

Many students opt to take summer classes. Depending on the university, summer courses may run the entire 4 months, or may be condensed into a 2 month or 6-week period. Depending on how your institution schedules summer courses, taking a summer course may mean that by the time you finish, there is not much left of summer vacation. As such, make sure you research the details and dates of the course prior to registration so that you can adjust according to other summer plans.

You may choose to take summer classes to lighten your course load for the upcoming academic year, to finish more course credits so you can graduate earlier, or to improve your overall GPA or mark in a previously taken course. Whatever the reason, make sure you consider the fact that the course is condensed, and that taking even 1 course will require a lot of time and effort. From personal experience, I would strongly suggest thinking twice before taking 2 or more summer courses at the same time. You don’t want to be too overwhelmed, especially if you also have to juggle work, social and family commitments!

  1. Volunteer

Volunteering is a great way to give back to your community and to experience something new! There are many summer volunteer opportunities, from helping out at a senior’s center to being a group leader for kids at a day camp. Many volunteer organizations are non-profit and your efforts go directly into helping the community or a particular group in need. These organizations may range from very large ones, such as AIESEC which exists within several universities across the country, to local ones, such as your community food bank.

Regardless of the organization, the best way to start volunteering is to find an organization that supports a cause you are passionate about. It will make the entire experience much more rewarding and will help develop your knowledge and skills in the field of your interest.

Next, contact the organization’s volunteer coordinator to set up a meeting, learn more about them and how to start volunteering! Most organizations will have a volunteer coordinator who coordinates training and schedules volunteer shifts. If your particular organization does not have a designated coordinator, feel free to contact someone else and inquire about volunteering.

It should be said though that volunteering is a two-way street. Organizations love passionate and enthusiastic volunteers, but as a volunteer, you also need to show your interest and willingness to learn, and to help, in order to get the most out of your experience. Finally, although volunteering does not yield any monetary gain, often times, the self-satisfaction and rewarding things you experience through it are absolutely priceless!

  1. Research/Internships

Regardless of whether you’re in Science, Engineering, Arts or Commerce, there are always opportunities in the summer to work as a student researcher or to work for a company through an internship. Both are fantastic opportunities to gain experience in your field of interest, and to have an extra source of income in the summer. Furthermore, working in the summer allows you to network with many different professionals for potential future employment.

For science students, finding a summer research position heavily depends on your personal efforts. Few research labs post student research positions online. Consequently, it is important that you apply early and apply broadly. Researchers are often very busy and it will likely take a few months before you are trained and ready to work in their lab.

In my experience, the best way to get started in research is to find a laboratory that studies a topic you like and then, email the principal investigator directly. Keep in mind that you will not receive a reply from everyone you email, so make sure to apply broadly! Furthermore, many laboratories will not have funding to pay you for your work. However, if a summer income is important to you, you can apply for scholarships, such as NSERC, or university-based summer student scholarships.

For arts, commerce or engineering students, companies will often post job listings online, or even come to your school to conduct interviews for a summer internship. An outstanding summer performance may lead to an offer of a contract for employment at the same company following graduation.

Regardless of what you choose to do, make sure that you learn as much as you can about who you’re working for and what you may be doing before starting. This will make the transition much easier and show your employer that you are genuine interested in the position!

  1. Professional Development and Preparation

Summer is an optimal time for many students who wish to become professionals to take their respective entrance exams. This may involve writing the MCAT, DAT, LSAT and/or GRE to gain admission into medical, dentistry, law and graduate school, respectively. Studying for these exams may involve taking a course put on by companies such as The Princeton Review or Prep101, or simply by studying by yourself and with other friends.

However, having studied and taken the MCAT myself this past summer, I can attest that it requires a lot of hard work, self-discipline, dedication and perseverance. The preparation for each exam or application will vary, depending on your background, personal study style and other summer plans. However, on average, each exam will likely require at least 1-2 months worth of studying and writing practice exams beforehand. Having been in school for the previous 8 months, it is very tempting to put off studying for your LSAT in August when it is a gorgeous June afternoon.

My advice would be to start studying as early as possible, and to break up studying into little chunks (~3-5 hours per day). That way, you can still make and enjoy summer plans, while making sure you are on the path to success. Unfortunately, there is no easy way out and cramming, despite past experiences, likely will not work for these exams. However, I can guarantee that the hard work, dedication and sacrifice will be worth it when you receive your acceptance to your dream school!

  1. Travel/Summer Abroad

The summer is a fantastic time (if not the only time) for busy undergraduate students to travel and see the world. You may choose to travel and take courses at other universities around the world as described by Luke Chen here or volunteer abroad, as described by Monica Baradi here.

Just as rewarding is to just travel and enjoy your time. Travelling is a great way to learn about different cultures and traditions, to see fantastic monuments, museums and views of the world, and to learn more about yourself. It’s also a fantastic way to make long-lasting memories with friends and family.

Travelling as a student is also very financially beneficial, as there are often discounted student rates for admission fees and accommodation. Popular student-friendly destinations include Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Florida, Asia (particularly Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore) and basically every country in the European Union! I personally love to travel as much as I can in the summer. Once you start working, there is no such thing as 4 month summer vacation anymore!

  1. Do Whatever You Like!

Ultimately, the summer is YOUR time to do whatever you like. You work hard during the rest of the year so feel free to do what makes you the happiest, whether it’s reading, working or simply doing nothing.

The summer is also a great time for personal development and goal setting. Perhaps your goal is to exercise more by hiking all the trails in your city, or perhaps you want to learn how to ride a unicycle, or master cooking 10 different dishes before school starts again!

Personal goals are just as important as professional and academic goals, as they can greatly further your development and add extra flair and excitement to your life. As mentioned before, you only get a 4 month summer vacation for a few years, so make sure you enjoy every moment of it!

Have a great summer!

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