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Summers are for vacation, right? Haha, WRONG. Summers are for internships, volunteering, taking classes at the local community college, and a number of other things meant to give your college application an extra boost so that you can stand out from the rest of the qualified applicants. Maybe you’ll have time for a quick two-week vacation at the end of the summer, or a few weekend trips here and there. But don’t let the warm sunshine fool you; summer isn’t for fun! That’s just what people tell you to make sure that they end up with a better resume and can outcompete you.

If you read the above paragraph and thought it was pretty accurate, I don’t blame you. That’s the mindset I had for years throughout high school, and even to some extent now in college. Beginning in freshman year of high school, I would start worrying about my summer plans as early as January or February, and panic if I didn’t have something figured out by April. Since I was considering a career in medicine or scientific research, I convinced myself that the only two acceptable options for the summer were volunteering at a hospital or interning at a research lab. Summer was my chance to accumulate as much “hands-on” experience as possible for my future career; doing anything else seemed like a waste of three months of valuable free time.

So for the first two summers during high school, that’s exactly what I did; I volunteered at my local hospital twice a week, and spent some time observing grad students in a molecular biology research lab. By junior year, I felt that I was ready to apply to a full internship, so I began drafting a cover letter, filling out applications, and putting together my first official resume. I didn’t even realize I had tunnel vision, that is, until I spoke to my biology teacher.

When I asked her to write a reference letter on my behalf for internships, she agreed, but first asked me why I wanted to be a doctor. Seemed like a simple enough question, right? But the truth was, when I really thought about it, I couldn’t come up with a good answer. Even after two summers of “hands-on experience” in a medical setting, I couldn’t formulate a coherent response as to why I would want to work there someday. My teacher noticed this and was concerned by my lack of a response, but more importantly, I began to worry about what I thought I had been doing right.

Up until that point, my goal was to accumulate as much experience as possible so that when the time came to apply to college, I would have a list of evidence showing how committed I was to a scientific and/or medical career. I never really stopped and considered that they might also ask why I wanted such a career, beyond the fact that I liked science and learning about the human body. But suddenly those seemed like vague and weak reasons as to why I wanted to devote my whole life to a certain career, not to mention the fact that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do research or work as a doctor in the first place. I still went ahead with the applications, but now I gave more thought as to why I was applying to them beyond the superficial reason of having something to do for the summer. I wasn’t able to come up with much, and that probably reflected in my applications as I ultimately ended up being rejected from all the research internships I applied for.

I was disheartened at first, but soon realized that this was a blessing in disguise. I was now free to explore my other interests over the summer. Of course, I still wanted to do something constructive, so I emailed several places asking if there were any spots left for internships. I ended up working with an ornithology collection curator, helping to manage and add new specimens to the collection. Birds had fascinated me for years, and now I could devote an entire summer to learning about the anatomy of birds and the process of preserving animal specimens. I even got the chance to see rare specimens of birds that had gone extinct more than a century ago. This internship also gave me access to the natural history museum that housed the collection, which allowed me to explore areas of the scientific world I wasn’t as familiar with.

I enjoyed the internship so much that I returned the following summer, in addition to beginning volunteering at a nearby science museum. Looking back, even though I wasn’t exactly thrilled at my rejections, they opened the door for me to round out my interest in science, which eventually developed into a passion that I am now fully devoted to. I’ve since found my way back to the world of medical research, but this time I’m pursuing it full time with conviction, knowing exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing and enjoying each step of the process.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my summers in high school, it’s that you shouldn’t limit yourself to strictly professional experiences directly relating to one possible career choice. In fact, what you do over the summer doesn’t have to (and ideally, shouldn’t have to) feel like work at all. Regardless of what you choose to do over the summer, you’ll gain valuable skills, both professional and practical, and discover things about yourself that will guide you towards a suitable career.

For example, as a volunteer at a science museum the summer before I went off to college, my main job was to interact with visitors through a variety of means, including presenting heart specimens, doing puzzles, and answering questions. To me, this was nothing more than sharing my love of science with others, but I realized somewhere along the way that I actually really enjoyed this and would like to incorporate something similar into my future career. Upon this realization, I gained a new focus in my interactions with each visitor, and sought to improve my public speaking skills each time I presented to an audience. I don’t plan on ever working in a museum full time, but the time I did spend in one taught me relevant skills that I will be able to use as I pursue medicine.

Don’t do something just for the sake of doing it; spend your time over the summer doing something you truly enjoy, whether that’s being a sports camp counselor, working at a local restaurant, or interning with a business firm. Some of you have probably known this all along, in which case you are much better off than I was in high school. Now that I am on the other side of college admissions, I truly believe that admissions officers care more about how your summer experiences speak to who you are as a person and your interests rather than being a means to amass professional experience.

It’s more often the case than not that what you do will line up in some way with your future career goals, but that is by no means the rule. So when the next summer approaches and you’re considering how to spend it, don’t stress yourself out. If you want to take that month long trek across Asia or go on a road trip with your family, by all means, go for it. Internships and volunteering can be valuable, but they’re not necessarily a priority. And if you do choose to dabble in the professional world, just remember, follow your passions, not the neon sign flashing “college application booster!”

June Xia

June is a junior at Cornell University studying biology. She attended public high school in the Philly suburbs, where she ate lots of water ice and hoagies. June enjoys watching TV, playing candy crush, and reading the New York Times. Writing poetry and knitting kept her sane during admissions season, plus a lot of chocolate and hugs; she made it out alive, and is all the more introspective and aware thanks to the experience.