It’s a rite of passage — every year, millions of high school seniors apply to college.

The college application process typically follows months of research, campus tours, and meetings with advisors and admissions officers to find programs that offer the college life and career opportunities the student is looking for.

Finding the right colleges to apply to can be exciting. But completing the college application process can be stressful — really stressful. A recent survey found that 74% of students applying to college felt “very high” or “high” stress levels during the college application process.

Part of the stress comes from the fear of not getting into the school of their choice. Competition to get into Ivy League and other top rated colleges can be fierce. While students typically apply to several schools, most have just one or two that they really want to get into.

High school students looking for a meaningful way to boost their college application and grow at the same time should start by exploring pre-college summer programs and activities outside of school that they can include on their applications.

Why Is Boosting Your College Application Important?

Admissions officers are inundated with applications, especially in the era of the common application — a single application that can be sent to over 1,000 participating colleges and universities. While having good grades, strong standardized test scores, and a positive letter of recommendation look good, there are other things that can help boost a college application so that it gets noticed.

Colleges look for well-rounded students

Not that long ago, the most important thing on your college application was your SAT or ACT score. That is no longer the case, with some schools even doing away with those standardized test requirements. Colleges today are looking for more than strong academics. They are looking for well-rounded students who get involved and are active members of their school and wider communities. Joining extra-curricular clubs, participating in sports, and volunteering are all good ways to get involved.

The 8 Best Pre-College Summer Programs and Activities to Boost a College Application

If the college application process is looming and you are looking for ways to strengthen your application, here are eight summer activities and pre-college summer programs to boost your college application.

1. Take College Classes

Many high schools and colleges across the United States offer dual enrollment opportunities where you can take some college classes while still in high school. You can also enroll in summer programs for high school students offered at many colleges. These classes are usually discounted to help with costs. As a bonus, many of these programs allow you to earn college credits, giving you a head start on your college graduation requirements. Having some college credits on your application demonstrates that you have initiative. It also shows that you are able to handle the rigors of college coursework.

Which college courses to take

The best college courses to take while in high school are ones that fulfill general education requirements for college graduation, so you can dive right into your major coursework when you officially get to college. It’s also a good idea to take classes that offer the opportunity to explore new things. Many high school students don’t know what career path they want to take. Taking college classes in different subject areas while still in high school can help you explore possible majors before arriving on a college campus.

Where to take summer college courses

When looking for the best summer programs for college applications, check the colleges in your local area first to see if they offer pre-college summer programs for high school students. Don’t overlook community colleges, who often offer courses with a lower price tag. Many universities also offer summer scholars programs for high school students and a variety of online courses.

Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education offers summer college programs for high school students where you can take college-level courses and participate in activities such as college admissions panels and how to write your college essay.

2. Volunteer

There are so many benefits of volunteering. Not only is volunteering vital for building strong communities and supporting those in need, but it is also good for your overall health and wellbeing and builds “soft skills” that will help you navigate college. These include teamwork, communication, leadership, problem solving, adaptability, and decision-making.

You can also explore different career choices when you volunteer. If you are interested in working in healthcare, hospitals and nursing homes often look for teen volunteers to fulfill a variety of duties. If you like working with animals, you can volunteer in an animal shelter.

Any time spent volunteering should be added to your college application to help show your willingness to help others and your commitment to giving back to your community. These are valuable traits that college admissions officers look for in prospective students.

How to Volunteer in Your Community

Many organizations need volunteer help and will gladly put your enthusiastic spirit to work. Organizations like VolunteerMatch and TeensVolunteer are full of opportunities for high school students.

There are also travel volunteer programs that offer high school students the opportunity to experience different cultures while giving back. Service organizations plan the trips, which often include food and housing. In many cases, financial aid is available to help with the costs. Companies that offer travel volunteer programs include Global Works and International Volunteer.

3. Participate in Research

Medical research organizations often look for volunteers to participate in their research studies, including high school students. Students participate by working in a lab, which teaches hands-on STEM skills, or by taking part in surveys or other studies — or both. Volunteering to participate in research studies shows your interest in academia as well as your initiative. It could also lead to a career in science or medical related fields.

4. Study Abroad

A fun college application tip to boost your application is to step into the world and join a summer study abroad program. Studying abroad gives you an immersive experience that will help you become a more informed global citizen in today’s interconnected world. Participating in programs like Harvard Summer School’s Study Abroad summer program demonstrates that you are open to new learning experiences and are invested in your own personal growth. These are qualities that stand out on college applications.

The people you meet in these programs will become a valuable part of your network, which will help you along your educational journey. Financial aid is often available for study abroad summer programs.

Learn Another Language

When you study abroad, you are surrounded by people speaking a different language, which will fast-track your own language learning goals. Learning a foreign language helps you deepen your knowledge of another culture. It could also help you meet any language requirements you may have to earn your college degree.

5. Work a Summer Job

Taking a summer job in high school teaches skills that will benefit you for the rest of your life, including communication skills, teamwork, organizational skills, and financial management. You will also learn valuable interview skills and gain confidence in your abilities to accomplish a variety of tasks. Admissions officers look for applicants that have the maturity that comes with being part of the working world. Taking that summer job looks great on your college application.

Find a Job that Aligns With What You Want to Study

Finding a summer job in a field you would like to study could give you valuable insights to help guide your future career. You can experience first hand what it is really like working in that industry. There are so many work opportunities open to teenagers who have strong work ethic across several industries, including hospitality, healthcare, public service, financial services, and environmental sciences. You could also make strong connections that will benefit you after you earn your degree.

6. Participate in an Internship

Another way to show your commitment to your field of study is to get a summer internship. Many enterprising high school students are turning to internships because they look impressive on a college application.

Internships can offer more meaningful work than traditional summer jobs because interns are immersed in the professional working world. By taking a summer internship, you can gain valuable real-world experience that will help you when you enter your career after graduation.

Finding the Right Internship

The best place to start finding the right internship is to turn to your network. Parents, teachers, and other adults in your life could have insights into internships where they work. You can also research organizations in your field of study and contact them to see if they have internship opportunities. Searching the web is another good place to find internships. US News and World Report has compiled a list of organizations that offer internships to high school students.

7. Start a Business

If you have a passion — or a million dollar idea — turn it into a business! It’s never been a better time to break into the business world by becoming an entrepreneur in high school. Plus, that side gig will look great on a college application.

Starting your own business takes confidence, leadership, resilience, and tenacity — all good qualities that will help you on your educational and future career journeys. You will also gain valuable insights into the business world and experience that can’t be learned from a textbook. That business you start in high school could grow into a highly successful venture after college.

8. Earn Helpful Certifications

It’s never too early to earn career certifications. From software to cybersecurity, project management, and auto mechanics, professional certifications demonstrate that you have taken initiative to gain specialized knowledge in different fields. All of your certifications can be included on your college application.

Many colleges offer courses to earn certificates, and the major software tech companies like Microsoft offer online certificate programs. Earning a certificate in high school can not only boost your college application, but it could also make you stand out when you apply for jobs after graduation.

How Harvard Can Help Boost Your College Application

Harvard can help motivated students get the boost they need on their college applications. From our summer abroad programs to classes that help students earn certificates, we offer a wide variety of services to help students with dreams of going to college get into the school of their choice.

It’s never too early to get involved in new activities or to take advantage of the best summer programs for college applications. Students should start working on ways to boost their college applications as soon as they enter high school to ensure their application gets noticed — and accepted by their top choice school.