The Truth About Summer Jobs By Manya Chylinski
Sorry. If you’re thinking about applying to college in the next year or so, summer isn’t the time to slack off. In fact, those long sultry days between June and September are the perfect time to boost your application. For some students, that might mean taking a summer course in Shakespearean comedy, enrolling in a French immersion program, or picking up a few extra credits in advanced math. Still others might have the luxury of travel or doing volunteer work full-time.
But if you’re like most students, you’ve got to earn some money to help finance your education. And that means you need a summer job.
Many students worry that working full-time at the local pizza shop or doing clerical work won’t impress admissions reps and could even hurt their chance of being admitted to their top-choice school. Good news: a summer job, whether it is volunteer or paid, glamorous or practical, will add a great deal to your college application. Schools are looking for the big picture of who you are—they want clues about your character and insight to predict how successful you’ll be in your college career. Any work experience helps illustrate that.
Do put some thought into what type of summer job you’re most interested in, and why. But keep in mind that even if you end up with a job you consider less than glamorous, the experience is valuable. For starters, you’ll be learning things—about yourself and about the work world—and that’s what admissions committees most want to see.
Regardless of what your job is, your work experience tells schools some basic things about you. Schools will see that you use your time in productive ways, you’re able to take direction, and you are reliable. Depending on your job and its responsibilities, they may also learn whether or not you are entrepreneurial, how well you work with the public, or how effectively you deal with stressful or unusual situations. And whether that experience is paid or unpaid is irrelevant. ”We weigh work experience the same, whether it is a volunteer or paid position,” says Maureen Dischino, Director of Admissions at Wentworth Institute of Technology. “What is important is understanding more about the students.”
In order to help a school understand more about you as a student, you should give them an idea of why you worked at a particular job—for example, if you need to work to pay for school or help the family finances; if you selected a job because you’re interested in a particular industry or to follow a particular passion. You will always win, both in the application process and in life, if you choose a job that has meaning for you. When you’re doing something you truly enjoy or working at a job for a very specific personal reason, that passion will shine through on your application.
Don’t take a job or volunteer opportunity just because you think it will impress an admissions committee. Believe it or not, they can tell. “At the end of the day, any good admissions process will uncover that a student is doing something that matters to him or her,” says Ken Himmelman, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Bennington College in Vermont, “and that is more important than doing something because you think others might be impressed by it.”
Of course, if you are applying to a specific and highly competitive program, work experience in that field can make a difference. For example, for accelerated medical programs, schools will be looking for work experience in the health care field. At highly competitive schools, admissions departments may look for work experience that’s related to a particular area of study you’ve chosen—for example, you should have experience working with children if you’re applying to an education program. In these instances, schools are looking for something to predict whether you will succeed in a specific program, and work experience is an important way to help them evaluate this.
If you feel that your summer job falls short on real-world value, there is a way to get some short-term experience that can help your application. Both job shadowing or short-term internships can help you gain understanding of a particular job or industry without requiring an extended full-time commitment. “Exposure to the working world is always good experience,” says Dischino. “For schools with a hands-on learning approach, like here at Wentworth, practical experience helps us understand more about how a student will fit into our programs.”
If you’re interested in finding a job, short-term internship, or job shadowing opportunity but have no idea where to start, talk with your counselor, your parents, or an adult whose advice you trust. They can help you think about the skills you have and how to highlight them effectively, what skills you should work on, and what types of work opportunities might be right for you. Another approach would be to talk to the admissions staff at a local college or at one of your target schools. Admissions counselors talk to many high school students and can answer your questions about how important work experience is for the programs you’re interested in.
Whatever job experiences you have, they can’t help your application if the school’s admissions reps don’t know about them. If there isn’t space on the application to include work experience, you have a few options. You can use your essay to describe something specific you learned at your job, or perhaps tell a story about something funny or significant that happened on the job. Getting a reference from your boss can be a good idea, as long as he or she can offer substantive information about you as a person and an employee. Some admissions counselors even recommend creating a resume to highlight work experiences, special activities, or unusual classes you’ve taken. Before you include anything extra with your application, though, check with the school. Some schools will not accept additional items in the application, and those that do are usually very specific about what they will look at.
One final tip: don’t load up on jobs or extracurricular activities just to boost your application. If your academic performance suffers because you’re too busy with other things, that can be worse than having no work experience at all. And most schools are not impressed by overextended students—in fact, some are even turned off by a too-full summer. Find a balance between academics, employment or volunteer activities, and your personal life. Most schools like to see that you did one or two things and did them well, that you learned a lot about one specific industry, that you grew as a person, or that you worked diligently at a job that needed to get done, no matter how unglamorous it might have been.
The bottom line? Summer job: Good. Life and work skills you learned on the job: Better. Using your work experiences to share with a school who you are and where your talents lie: Best.