By Stephen Burleigh, <a href="http://www.nextstepmag.com" target="_blank">Next Step Magazine</a>No more homework! No more tests! Free at last! Summer is the time for vacations, hanging out with friends, going to parties and sleeping in. Or is it?The importance of summerThere’s no formula for how to spend your summer. Choices abound and may be as close as the local YMCA or in the farthest regions of the planet.Sally Stone Richmond, associate dean of admission at Occidental College (oxy.edu) in Los Angeles, says, “I used to joke that as long as a student was productive, i.e. not watching TV or playing video games, they would be well-received in an admission evaluation. Then I met a student whose paying job was testing games for Nintendo!”Karen Mittelstadt, assistant director of admissions at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (wisc.edu), says that what a student pursues during the summer is evaluated in the admissions process in the same manner as activities during the school year. “What’s most important is whether the student has pursued a leadership role or demonstrates a depth of experience in an area of interest,” she says.OptionSummer schoolThe first choice for many students may be summer school. Mittelstadt says that at Wisconsin, a summer college course is looked upon at least as favorably, if not more so, than other choices because it demonstrates a commitment to academic challenges beyond requirements.College credit courses are available at local community colleges, four-year institutions and residential programs on distant campuses.There are several reasons to take a summer school course. You may want to:• Retake a course in which you did poorly. • Get a high school requirement out of the way to allow time in your school schedule to take another course. • Satisfy a college admission requirement. • Get college credit and satisfy a general education requirement. • Take a course not available at your high school. • Take a course over a shorter, more concentrated time period.Marissa Gunnarson from Cincinnati, Ohio, combined her interest in medicine with a chance to travel by opting for a residential program at Loyola Marymount University (lmu.edu) in Los Angeles. Last summer she attended a 10-day intensive program offered by the National Honors Convocation on Medicine. There, she learned about health care careers and the world of medicine through lectures, labs (she had to dissect a fetal pig) and field trips to hospitals and clinics.“It helps to find a summer program to experience a career before you get to college and have to declare a major,” she says.The highlight for her was meeting new people from a cross section of America, some of whom have become close friends.OptionStudy abroadA summer abroad can be a great way to break out of your comfort zone and expand your horizons while experiencing other cultures. Travel abroad can be expensive and challenging. If your passion is to travel abroad, first identify what kind of experience you’re looking for: service, adventure, skill training or academic.Before you commit to a program, ask:• The cost • The time commitment • The location • The purpose of the trip • The degree of difficulty • How much preparation you need (physically and academically) • How previous participants felt about their experienceLos Angeles senior Kelsey Berglund found her calling in Costa Rica while participating in a service abroad program led by Global Works, a company that specializes in language and cultural immersion experiences.During her three-week stay in the village of San Antonio, she lived with a family and worked with residents to alleviate drainage issues in their pueblo. After rising each day at 6 a.m., she and the members of her group dug trenches, hauled buckets of water from the stream, mixed the cement and poured the new spillway. After dinner, she taught English to local children.“My experience abroad inspired me to want to major in international relations. It helped me focus on which college programs were right for me,” Berglund says.OptionWorkStudents who need or choose to work during their summers are not necessarily at a disadvantage in the college admission process to peers who volunteer or can afford expensive immersion programs.Mittelstadt and Richmond both say that students who work, whether to earn money or to gain career experience, receive equal consideration to students who can donate time.“Holding down a job during the summer or school year reveals duty, skill development, mentorship opportunities and responsibility,” Richmond says. “Not to mention, it offers great money management lessons!”“The summer is a terrific time to commit to longer-term projects, activities, internships or jobs that the school year doesn’t allow,” says Richmond.It may also be a time to act on a dream, to challenge yourself in an area of interest or in a part of the world you’ve only fantasized about.Whether your interests are academic, service, travel, adventure, skill training or employment, there’s a fit for you. All that’s required is a little self-reflection, the patience to do some research, and the willingness to take a risk.Remember that you are defined by your life experiences. Summer activities offer you the opportunity to become the author of your own narrative. That’s important not only for college admission but throughout your life.