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Ask the College Counselor: Summer camp or internship?

Q:  I have gone to the same summer camp upstate since I was 9 years old.  Every year, I see some of the same people, and we've become like family.  Last summer, I was a junior counselor, and this year they want me to come back as a full counselor, working as a tennis coach (I am on my school's tennis team).  My dad says because I am going into my senior year, I should do an internship this summer.  He could arrange something with a friend's law firm, and says this would look more impressive to colleges than working at a summer camp.  But it's also my last summer in high school, and I want to spend it with my camp friends.  What should I do?

A:  A lot of high school students -- and their parents -- seem to get caught in the "what looks best?" dilemma.  "What looks best for college?"  This course or that course?  Debate or Model UN?  In your case, a job at your summer camp or at a law firm?

Let's apply other questions:  "What is best for ME?  Which choice will make me happier?  Which choice will allow me to shine?"

It's clear from what you have written what your choice should be.  You have a history and an emotional tie to the camp.  The camp management likes and respects you -- demonstrated in their offer of increased responsibility this year.  And the position involves something in which you already excel:  tennis.  When a college admissions committee looks at your application, they will see a pattern of commitment, both to your place of employment and to the sport you love.  Just be sure that this pattern of commitment is made clear in your application.

An internship in one's chosen professional area is a staple of many college programs, but now it seems as if families of high school students think it's a requirement. Not so.  First of all, many places require interns to be college students and over the age of 18.  A summer placement for a student under the age of 18 in a law firm or a medical office will probably not involve any professional duties.  Often interns are observers, or they make photocopies, or they answer the phones.  There are exceptions, of course;  the student who is crazy about art, and gets to share this with kids as a docent at a children's museum, for example, is going to have a terrific and meaningful experience.

But you speak of something that can be arranged by your father with a friend.  Do you have an interest in the law that might be increased by spending several weeks observing the day-to-day events in a law office?  Perhaps, if you were involved in student government, or volunteered with your local member of Congress, this kind of summer activity would seem part of a natural progression.  But it does not sound like that.  This isn't even something you are pursuing yourself, out of interest.  It's something being engineered by your father, to help you "look good" for college.

Colleges can spot that.  Admissions officers are not naive.  They can see when a relatively short-term activity, often unrelated to anything else in a student's application, has been added for the sake of appearance rather than as a result of true passion or commitment.  And that's the key:  passion.  If an applicant's true passion for an activity -- whether it's nurturing young children,  playing a sport,  spending hours behind a microscope, or writing poetry -- comes through, that's what is going to impress.

Do what you love.  Enjoy your summer!

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