Instead of mall hopping or couch slouching, students should make summer a time of personal growth and university applications

School is out and a long, hot summer awaits most high school students in the UAE. The lucky ones will escape the heat and head to cooler climes for a few weeks of family holidays, but how should they spend the rest of their summer vacation?

For UAE students looking to enroll in US universities, summer is the perfect time to participate in meaningful academic, extracurricular, and professional work that will have a significant impact on their applications.

Particularly for students applying to elite US universities, summers are a critical time and how they are utilized can mean the difference between an acceptance and rejection letter senior year. While most high school students will have already made their summer plans, there is still time for those that have not.

US university admissions committees pay close attention to how applicants spend their time when they are not in the classroom and closely assess as to whether they use this time productively.

While the strength of an applicant’s academic record and standardised test scores remain the two most important criteria for admission, demonstrated leadership and participation in extracurricular activities are often the deciding factor in admission between two candidates with similar academic backgrounds.

US universities want to admit a diverse class of students that will be active in campus athletics, clubs, volunteer efforts, community outreach, independent research, and performing arts.

Unlike other national education systems which emphasize only academics or a single score on a national exam as a criterion for entry, American university applicants are evaluated holistically and expected to have an established track record of participation in extracurricular activities.

So what is considered a productive summer? Fundamentally, it’s about pursuing one of your passions and showing a strong commitment to it. Summer is the perfect time for student athletes to enroll in a recognised sports summer camp in the US, where they can make contact with coaches at universities from which they are interested in applying.

It’s when a high school student interested in majoring in a hard science can pursue research in a lab, a precocious academic overachiever can enroll in university courses for credit at Ivy League institutions, or when a student interested in pursuing business studies can intern at a major multinational corporation located here in Dubai. Anything productive is better than having a gaping hole on your application, where one of these experiences should be.

Why does summer offer such a great opportunity?

Summer offers students the flexibility to be independent in their pursuits and focus on their core interests. By having a productive summer, students will be able to develop valuable leadership skills, demonstrate personal growth and maturity, and potentially develop an excellent topic for their personal statement.

Enrolling in academic enrichment programs, particularly for university credit, is an excellent summer option. Non-credit options are more appropriate for students that are not academic all-stars.

During the school year, students have limited time to explore academic subjects outside of those offered through their respective high schools. Improving English language skills, taking supplementary classes in which the student was struggling with, or exploring new subjects, such as Archaeology, Economics, Robotics, Photography, Sculpture, or Theater are just a few of the available choices. Students can enroll in academic courses offered online or on campus, or participate in travel/study programs offered around the globe.

A taste of summer programmes offered by US universities

Most US universities offer summer programs specifically designed for high school students that develop their analytical and critical thinking skills, while immersing them in a specific discipline for three to eight weeks at a time.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth’s Academic Exploration program offers enrichment courses that provide younger students an introduction to topics not standard to a high school curriculum such as Philosophy, Economic Game Theory, and Astronomy.

Students that have finished their sophomore or junior years of high school are eligible to take up to two summer classes for credit at Johns Hopkins as well. These classes are great, because students are able to experience the full spectrum of campus life before actually enrolling.

They live in the dormitories, use the university’s facilities, take classes with university professors, and get a very good feel for what it would be like to be a student there. Also, if they are able to show that they can successfully complete university level work as a high school student and possibly secure an academic recommendation from one of the professors, this will definitely improve their chances for admission.

Yale University hosts EXPLO, a three-week program for students in the 10th to 12th grades, on their campus. Students have access to Yale’s classrooms, libraries, museums, athletic facilities, and laboratories; they have all of the benefits accorded to full-time students.

Harvard University also runs a popular Summer School program where students can take university level courses and earn credit toward a university degree. I enrolled in Harvard’s Summer School program when I was 16 and it was one of the best experiences I had in high school. There are two sessions offering 300 courses in over 60 subjects and students can choose to enroll in either session or both. Admission to these programs is highly competitive and students must meet admissions deadlines in the spring in order to enroll.

Boston University: In addition to taking undergraduate level courses at Boston University, high school students enrolled in their summer program can participate in independent research internships in Science and Engineering led by a Boston University professor.

Each student customises and designs the internship in advance with their professor and spends forty hours a week for six weeks on their chosen project on Astronomy, Biology, Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Medical Laboratory Research, Physics, or Psychology.

Stanford: In California, the Stanford University Summer Institute High School Program is designed to give students age 13 to 17 an intensive session in specific areas of study such as Artificial Intelligence, Biotechnology, and Business and Entrepreneurship. These are but a few of the options available to the academically motivated student.

Universities are not the only option; how about WWF or Habitat for Humanity?

Academic options are not the only ones available to UAE students. International organizations, such as the World Wildlife Foundation and Habitat for Humanity Global Village, organize special volunteer trips for high school students that allow them to travel, make new friends from around the globe, and also help a worthy cause.

It’s not necessary that UAE students travel abroad to make an impact, however. While it’s common for US high school students to spend the summer volunteering at their local hospital, serving as camp counselors for younger students, or working with well-recognized charity organisations, UAE students are less aware of these opportunities, but they do exist.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi students should look into ways to volunteer and create an impact on their local communities, such as with social and religious groups, or with the numerous established charities that exist in Dubai. Students should pick up the phone, be proactive, and reach out.

Internships or summer jobs

Another excellent summer option is for UAE students to complete unpaid internships or perform some type of paid work. While both experiences show tremendous responsibility and maturity on behalf of the student, the latter demonstrates that he has a better understanding of the considerable financial sacrifice required to attend a US university.

Many admissions officers can view students from wealthy countries like the UAE as entitled, and these types of experiences help to break down any negative preconceived notions that may be there. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are hubs of global industry and students here, particularly Emiratis, have the ability to immerse themselves in internships offered by banks, airlines, hospitality companies, retailers, and real estate developers.

UAE students should view summers as an opportunity for immense personal growth and improvement. Summers spent simply travelling or dune bashing with friends may be enjoyable, but will not contribute to self development or help improve chances for admission.

Ultimately, students should achieve a balance of leisure and productivity over their summers. Even if you enroll in the most demanding summer classes or have a full-time job, there will be plenty of time to head to JBR Beach or travel on the weekends. The best advice I can give is to do what you love and have a great time doing it…..but do it now.

Peter Davos is the Founder and Managing Director of Carian University Advisors, a Dubai-based educational consultancy focused on helping students secure admission to American universities. He holds degrees from Johns Hopkins, Oxford, and Harvard Universities, as well as a post-graduate Certificate in University Counseling from UCLA. More information can be found at

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