There is no such thing as a program designed to torture high-school students with the goal of giving them a miserable summer. If you go with an open mind, no matter where you go or what you end up doing, there will be something to take from it or something to learn. Here are two big thematic categories for summer programs:

Chasing your passion: Are you going to chase an existing passion or delve more deeply into an existing skill?

Trying something new: Are you going to try something new, try on a different life for size, or just do something you've never done before?

Chasing Your Passion

In the first category, you take an existing passion or skill and push it further by immersing yourself in it completely. You may have lots of existing passions, or you may have only one or two. If you can't think of any, that doesn't mean that they're not there.

Think about your hobbies and the kind of elective classes that you've enjoyed at school. If you were designing your own school, what would every student be allowed to do or be required to do? What are some non-academic activities that you enjoy that are based upon a particular talent or body of knowledge? Start paying attention to the things that make you happy, the accomplishments of which you are most proud, and the activities you'd rather be doing when you're doing the ones you don't like. When it comes time to design a summer plan, this is a good place to start.

You can dedicate your summers to things that you love. The key is to make sure that you are actively involved. Use the summer as an opportunity to take your skill or passion further than you could during the school year or further than you ever believed that you could at any time of the year. Total concentration or a complete focus brings its own unique intellectual rewards.

New Territory

The second route is to try something new and different. You are challenging yourself by engaging in an activity that you've never done before. You are test-driving hobbies, potential careers, or just things that you've always thought looked fun. This approach is so wide open that it helps to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Physical: What is my physical comfort level? Do I want to live in a tent, in a dorm, in a house? Do I want to eat foods I've never heard of, or do I want three square meals from a cafeteria? Is part of the adventure to test myself physically?
  • Cultural: What makes it an adventure? Are the exchange students at school fascinating, or just plain weird? Do you secretly like to observe different groups of students at school, like a cultural anthropologist, fascinated by what makes them them? Are you comfortable with a wide range of people in a diverse set of situations?
  • Intellectual: You could spend your summer playing chamber music, designing clothes, learning to draw nature, counting seaweed species in tidal areas, or cataloging pottery in a museum. Is it an intellectual adventure that you're after? Will your summer be made special by delving deeply into a subject or an indoor skill, rather than an exotic locale or activity?

Just Engage

This is really the number-one golden rule. Do something. Do it with an open mind and a free spirit. Don't hold back or play it safe. Give yourself to the experience. Volunteer, ask questions, forge relationships. This is how we learn and what makes the difference between an interesting summer activity and an experience that will change your life.