To use Churchill’s expression, the summer before senior year isn’t the beginning of the end, but it’s the end of the beginning.

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

Late spring is an exciting time of year not just for high school seniors who are about to graduate but also for juniors who are about to become seniors. After all, they’ve spent about two-thirds of their lives striving toward preeminence in the student population, and senior year offers the opportunity to enjoy a higher status and additional privileges at a time when the finish line and the greatest milestone in their lives now seem attainable. But as we warned in Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College, complacency during senior year can be fatal to your college hopes. Using your time well is essential, and that starts with the summer before senior year. Here are a few suggestions:


If you don’t need the money right now, you soon will. College is expensive in all the ways you know to expect (see An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much) and it also has a way of straining your finances in ways you didn’t anticipate, as we discussed in Beyond Tuition, Fees, and Books: The Other Costs of College. Think not just in terms of the money but also of gaining experience that is especially relevant to your future plans—and your resume.

Community Service

Any summer, but especially the summer before senior year, is an ideal time to amass some of the community service hours that are crucial to your college application. We explained in The Why, When, and How Much of Community Service that a majority of college admissions officers treat community service as an important tie-breaker when deciding between applicants who are otherwise equal. The Coaching Educator considers 500 total hours an important milestone, so the advantage of tackling community service during the months when you’re out of school is obvious. Long-term commitment to one thing or a few things is preferable to a more diffuse pattern of activity, and of course a leadership role, however humble, is highly desirable.

Camps, Combines, and Workshops

For students with interests and aspirations in athletics and the arts, these are opportunities to evaluate skill levels (their own and those of the competition), improve upon their talents, gather information about opportunities, do some networking, and get noticed by the people whose attention they need to attract.

Test Preparation

Preparing for the SAT and ACT while actually attending school is a significant challenge, which of course is part of the game. If you’ve already taken it at the usual time during junior year and weren’t fully satisfied with the outcome, a summer retake might be a good idea, and summer practice definitely is if you plan to test again. The summer before senior year is the perfect time to lay a foundation for that next attempt in the fall. Be systematic: Set aside definite blocks of time for study and practice tests, and keep learning how to think in the way you’ll need to think to be ultimately successful on the test.


The summer before senior year can and should be a time of pleasurable intellectual improvement. It’s important to spend as much time as possible reading outside the high school curriculum and outside the triviality that passes for reading material in the internet age. We reported with some distress in Remedial Nation: The Ghastly State of College Preparedness that most high school students who read for pleasure choose material written at middle school level—at most. While college humanities and social science curricula have been dumbed down considerably, they still can be a shock to the system of high school graduates who haven’t challenged themselves. We recommend that you spend the summer before senior year reading about something that truly interests you but on a level suitable for an educated adult. If you know enough about your college plans to be able to read ahead into the collegiate curriculum, so much the better.

Taking Classes

The rigor of an applicant’s high school course-work is a major factor in the decision-making of admissions officers and appears to be gaining ground on test scores in that regard (see The New Fashion: Test-Optional Admissions). The summer before senior year can be an opportune time to make up a course in which you under-performed or take a new course that you might otherwise not have the opportunity to take. It can also be a good time to get heavily immersed in a foreign language. Your own high school’s summer school program is a possibility, as are online programs and community colleges.

College Visits—Maybe

Many families like to visit colleges during summer vacation, treating them as part of the family outing. This can be pleasant as a sightseeing experience, but we strongly recommend that you treat a college visit as the serious intelligence-gathering mission we described in How to Get the Most Out of a College Visit. The problem with a summer visit is that college life during the summer is not at all representative of what an institution is like the rest of the time. Most of the students are away, and since most students don’t attend summer school, the students on  hand during the summer tend not to be typical. Most student activities are suspended during the summer. Most faculty members are away, as are some administrators. Spaces that normally are crowded are relatively empty, including the business district near the campus. Dining options may be different. Visiting colleges during the summer can enable you to look things over in a leisurely way, and it’s true that some people on campus will have more time for you then, but we advise against making such a visit decisive in your selection of a college.


While it’s essential that you use your time responsibly during the summer before senior year, rest and recreation are essential. Your senior year will be far less enjoyable and less productive if you’re already feeling frazzled when school starts. And after all, this is when the preliminaries come to an end and the year of big, life-altering decisions arrives. Then, once senior year is over and college itself is on the horizon, life will never be quite the same again. The summer before senior year, if handled wisely, can help set you up for the next phase.

The college admissions process seems to get more and more complicated, with far too many tasks and deadlines and moving parts. The Coaching Educator can provide direction, support, and peace of mind with our proven methods of helping students stay on target, on task, and on time as they seek admission to the college of their choice and pursue the means of paying for it.

To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Photo: Lawrence Schiller, National Geographic Society

Recommended Reading (for the Summer Before Senior Year!) About College Admissions 

Carroll, Rebecca M., and Paul Culp. “The Importance of Reading” on The College Light Bulb, audio podcast, The Coaching Educator, accessed 8 March 2019, http://tce.local/podcasts/

Culp, Paul. “An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much, The Coaching Educator, 6 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/06/an-arm-and-a-leg-and-your-first-born-child-why-college-costs-so-much/

Culp, Paul. “Beyond Tuition, Fees, and Books: The Other Costs of College,” The Coaching Educator, 7 June 2018, http://tce.local/2018/06/07/beyond-tuition-fees-and-books-the-other-costs-of-college/

Culp, Paul. “Getting to Grips With Test Anxiety,” The Coaching Educator, 28 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/28/getting-to-grips-with-test-anxiety/

Culp, Paul. “How to Get the Most Out of a College Visit,” The Coaching Educator, 8 February 2019, http://tce.local/2019/02/08/how-to-get-the-most-out-of-a-college-visit/

Culp, Paul. “If You Didn’t ACT But Just SAT There: The Difference Between the Two Tests,” The Coaching Educator, 27 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/27/if-you-didnt-act-but-just-sat-there-the-difference-between-the-two-tests/

Culp, Paul. “Remedial Nation: The Ghastly State of College Preparedness,” The Coaching Educator, 19 January 2019, http://tce.local/2019/01/19/remedial-nation-the-ghastly-state-of-college-preparedness/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College,” The Coaching Educator, 31 August 2018, http://tce.local/2018/08/31/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-college/

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