One day before the end of elementary school, on a carpet that smelled of leftover pizza and lint, my fifth-grade class reminisced on the nature of grade school and shared our summer plans.
Sixth grade was on the horizon, after all, and everyone had ambitions to fulfill. We were going to hang out with our friends at the movies, camp for two weeks in the rugged rocks of Yellowstone, pack a bag for the summer and water ski in the Maldives. We looked forward to paddling in Crystal Cove’s periwinkle waves, binging a thousand hours of our favorite TV shows, staining our tongues red with shaved ice, and going cross-eyed from video games.
We were determined to have the best summer of our lives. At 11, there were few things to stop us.
But some five years later, one day after the end of freshman year and through an impersonal Zoom call, a student group I recently joined put our schedules together and compared summer plans.
We were attempting to find a day and time over break when all of us could meet virtually — not an unreasonable job, but one that was proving to be practically impossible. Just like in the summer before middle school, all of my classmates had other obligations to fulfill before autumn, only this time, the list of commitments was starkly different from fifth grade.
I sat and listened as my peers rattled off their engagements: three hours of lab research every Tuesday at a local college, four hours a day at an intensive science summer program, four days a week spent conquering chemistry in summer school, and we certainly couldn’t meet on the weekends. That was set aside for seniors drudging their way through college applications. Mondays were impossible due to one junior’s tutoring sessions, and if someone was free on Thursday, there was always another person busy in that time frame.
We sorted it out eventually, but I thought it unusual that at the time, none of us mentioned vacations or plans to go anywhere. There was no talk of indulgent hours spent in front of TV screens, getaways, or the long hours of lounging we all used to associate with the end of school. It was all work, work, work.
This is a large assumption to make from such a small sample size. It definitely cannot account for the experiences of every American youth out there. But our group’s inability to sync up feels symptomatic of a broader trend: as my classmates and I get older and grow more conscious of our futures, for us, summer is not so much a time to relax as it is a time to get ahead.
College is on the horizon, after all, and everyone has ambitions to fulfill.
Here is the thing: like many other colleges, Stanford University asks its applicants to summarize their last two summers in 50 words, and as I scrolled through a Reddit page of accepted responses, I found myself stunned at how jam-packed some of these high schoolers kept their summer schedules. They boasted nonprofit organizations and 7% acceptance rate summer schools and quote-unquote passion projects — oh my.
It felt to me like these kids (including some from my high school) just did everything in the three months before the fall. Maybe they did, or at least, they wanted to.
In comparison, the hours I spent watching reality TV in my post-freshman year bliss felt lackluster. I started thinking about everything I could be doing, everything that I wasn’t doing, everything that everyone around me was doing that made them ultimately superior. I felt awful for wasting my time, though summer break was meant exactly for that. How did I, and many of my classmates, get to this point?
After an admissions season in which high schoolers faced plummeting acceptance rates from America’s elite colleges, teens have begun feeling unprecedented pressure to stand out from the crowd. And increasingly, the American admissions system revolves around the vague, nebulous concept of holistic evaluation. Trying to fit yourself into the mold of a perfect applicant is equivalent to throwing darts blindfolded and hoping that you didn’t miss your mark. And yet there is a silent consensus that all Ivy League hopefuls should enrich themselves over long breaks. Doing nothing and having fun just doesn’t cut it anymore.
So busy summers are now demanded, along with heavy course loads, an overabundance of AP classes, and excellent SAT scores. The time high schoolers used to spend on recharging their batteries and enjoying their youth, we now dedicate to accumulating ever more prestigious lines on our resumes. Otherwise, years in the future, we might risk giving off the impression that we are lazy, unmotivated, or simply lacking in work ethic.
Regardless of how fair colleges’ expectations are, it’s enough to make any teen anxious. Still, it would be unfair to attribute my peers’ overloaded schedules solely to a pragmatic view of college applications. There are other valid explanations as well.
For instance, if there’s one thing quarantine has taught us, it’s to keep ourselves busy before cabin fever grows extreme. The past school year, I dedicated my spare time to a district internship and my school newspaper, both of which I genuinely enjoyed. Imagine spending nine months of the year overrun with assignments and things to do, only to then be told to relax for three months — three straight months?
It’s the equivalent of having a carpet yanked violently out from under you.
Online learning only made the transition to summer break more confusing, as distance learning blurred the proper boundary between home and the classroom. It feels wrong each time I wake up and don’t log in to my online classes. Every afternoon, I check Google Classroom by instinct, just waiting for an assignment that will never be posted.
It’s no wonder that my classmates are so quick to occupy themselves. I was exhausted by the time freshman year ended. Now I find myself missing how studying and extracurriculars used to eat up my spare hours, while also allowing me to participate in activities I was passionate about.
Now summer has arrived, and without those groups and organizations and a constant stream of assignments, I’m left floundering. I’ll be honest: I had fun watching five straight hours of HBO, but I also miss journalism class, and I long for the structure that came with school, even if I did burn myself out once or twice throughout the school year. I know some friends who feel similarly. For them, keeping occupied is a way of filling that productivity void.
Whether today’s teenagers are overly college-minded or just longing to kill boredom, my plans for the summer aren’t exactly concrete yet. Ideally, I should cram for the PSAT, launch myself leaps and bounds ahead in Precalculus, and excel in an upcoming arts program. At the same time, it’s also only been about two weeks since I took my last stress-inducing exam in Algebra II, and less time has passed than that since the school year officially ended.
So how should teenagers spend their summer? I don’t know. I’m likely overthinking it all. Maybe it’ll be all right if I end up slacking off this summer, if I’m not productive every second of every minute of every day.
But it’s impossible not to be conflicted: some adults have told me that these four years of high school are meant to be the most carefree ones of my life, while others encourage me to be diligent, work hard, and lay the foundation for future success, even if that means sacrificing a few months of fun.
As of now, I don’t know which mindset will turn out to be the correct one. Two things are for sure, though — this summer won’t last forever, and neither will adolescence.