For rising juniors and seniors in high school, the prospect of heading off to college in a year or two can be very exciting. Developing a college application that grabs the attention of recruiters at top choice schools, on the other hand, can be daunting.

Pursuing advanced academic interests over the summer is one way to differentiate an application from the many other students who also have excellent grades and top test scores.

But summer activities can also highlight personal characteristics that many colleges look for, such as self-motivation, willingness to take on a challenge, and commitment to achieving a goal.

Summer can be a time of exploration as well. It’s OK to use school-free months to seek out new experiences that might help create focus while in college and into the future.

In other words, when thinking about a college resume, it’s worth considering summer activities that translate to a well-rounded college application.

Take college classes

Taking college classes over the summer is an excellent way to boost a college resume.

Summer courses can turn a spotlight on those students who are:

  • Willing to pursue an academic challenge
  • Academically curious and committed
  • Capable of taking on college-level work
  • Strongly interested in a specific skill or topic

Successfully completing college classes while in high school can offer personal benefits as well.

College-level courses enable high school students to get a head start on exploring potential majors. Taking a prerequisite class before starting college can pave the way for more advanced material earlier in college. And taking classes for credit can potentially (but not always) save some money in future tuition costs.

There are a variety of different options for summer college classes. Many universities and colleges have continuing education programs with classes ongoing through the summer. And the plethora of online courses available today make it much easier to fit college classes into any summer schedule.

Pursue volunteer activities

Community service is a great way to demonstrate commitment and dedication. And pursuing volunteer opportunities that align with your student’s interests and core values can be a great way to explore potential areas of study as well.

There are plenty of volunteer opportunities for high school students at the local, regional, and even national level. Donating time to a local food bank or soup kitchen, for instance, or volunteering to work with kids at a local library are easy and effective activities.

A summer-long volunteer internship can be a great way to get experience at a national charity. And participating in group charity projects can be both fun and fulfilling.

Creating and following through on a sustained service project can be especially impressive on a college application. Developing a long-term commitment to volunteer service shows not only a dedication to community or to an important cause. It also highlights students with drive, imagination, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Get a job

Colleges always want to see students who are willing to work hard in any context. Finding—and sticking with—a job is an excellent way to demonstrate a commitment to hard work. And it’s always great to earn some spending money.

For the purposes of a college application, the type of work is actually less important than simply holding down a summer job.

While it might be ideal to land a job that aligns with potential academic and professional goals, bagging groceries or scooping ice cream, for instance, are just as valuable when it comes to demonstrating maturity, responsibility, and organizational and time management skills.

Find an internship

For students who are especially committed to developing specific skills or exploring potential career opportunities while in high school, an internship at a local company can offer valuable skill-building and work experience.

Internships for high school students are relatively rare and very competitive. So landing one will make a college application stand out.

The best resource for finding a summer internship are likely to be parents and other adults in the family and the community. Parents or family friends may be able to convince their company to develop a temporary position. Even a regular routine of “shadow days” can be useful if a formal internship isn’t possible.

The high school guidance office is another excellent resource. Local companies seeking to open positions for high schools often work directly with area high schools to offer specific opportunities.

Start the college admissions process

The college application process is complicated and time consuming. So summer can be the perfect time to get the process started.

Rising juniors can start the process early by thinking about where to apply. School-free months present a great opportunity to visit a few schools, make some decisions about wants and needs, and narrow down a list of potential options. It’s also a great time to start studying for upcoming college prep tests such as the SATs.

For rising seniors, summer offers the ideal opportunity to select—and visit—top choice schools in order to be ready to decide once the acceptances start rolling in.

And without the stress of a heavy senior year class load, summer is a great time to start working on the actual applications as well. Students can get a head start on contacting teachers for recommendations, outlining essay topics, and compiling information about activities that will be included on the applications.

Starting these activities early will make the application process much easier once the deadlines start looming.

Participate in a summer program at a college or university

College-prep and secondary school programs are a fantastic way to try out college life, both academically and personally. And they always look great on a college application.

Many colleges and universities offer multi-week academic programs designed to be academically rigorous and offer a glimpse of what college life is really like.

Some programs focus on specific areas of study, such as STEM classes or the arts. Others tend to have a broader liberal arts focus that can allow students to explore different academic interests.

While these summer programs often don’t give participants an advantage towards getting into any particular school, they boost their college application at every school by demonstrating academic achievements and the ability to succeed at the college level. Moreover, successful participation in a summer program at a local college can demonstrate sufficient emotional maturity to handle the college experience.

And many of these programs incorporate specific activities designed to help high schoolers navigate the application process in the upcoming year.

Students will have the opportunity to speak with college admissions officers about putting together a fantastic application. Participants can start admission essays with the help of college professors and admissions officers, and may even get the chance to practice admissions interviews with peers and advisors.

These activities give both students and parents a glimpse into what a successful application requires and practical tips for making the application—and the applicant—stand out from the competition.

Of course, the best way to ensure that a college application gets the attention of the admissions office is to get the best possible grades during the school year. Actively participating in a variety of extracurricular activities during the school year is also very important. But adding summer academic programs, college classes, and other focused summer activities to an already powerful college application will help bring that application to the very top of the pile.