School is out in one month, which means many parents and students are making plans for the summer. Unfortunately, if recent trends continue, fewer agendas will include trying to land a job, partly because of efforts more directed at resumé enhancement. Lost in that process will be the lessons that come from entry-level experiences.
Last week, Erika Christakis, a Harvard College administrator, addressed this subject for Time's website, where she wrote that in July 2010, fewer than half of American young people between the ages of 16 and 24 were employed. While perhaps some of those jobs had been claimed by older workers in a bad economy, she lamented that "it was once common to see teenagers mowing lawns, waiting tables, digging ditches, and bagging groceries for modest wages in the long summer months."
But now, Christakis argued, the detachment from summer jobs is making American kids ill-equipped for entry-level work, and she then summarized some of the complex reasons for their lack of familiarity with work norms. On her own campus, she said, an increasing number of applicants feel pressured to augment their resumés with unpaid internships, rather than earn a buck with a more traditional — and unskilled — summer job.
Her words resonated with me, a onetime maintenance man at McDonald's, truck driver for Mount Lake Pool & Patio, delivery man for Grau's Florist, dishwasher at Phillip Arthur Ice Cream Parlor, painter of street address numbers on curbs, and seasonal raker of leaves and shoveler of snow.
But more important than my old credentials is something that appears on my current curriculum vitae: father of three sons almost eligible for such employment. Like my parental peers, I want their future applications to shine. But Christakis got me thinking, what if what we think college admission's officers want to see is wrong?
With that hope in mind, I turned to my two alma maters — Lehigh and Penn — where I was pleasantly surprised to find encouraging words from both directors of admissions.
By e-mail, I asked Bruce Bunnick and Quenby Jackson Mott how they view college applicants who work at what were once considered conventional summer jobs. I asked whether a student with a sound academic record, strong extracurricular activities, and other important attributes would be diminished if he or she had spent the summer months doing some rather rote activity for money.
Bunnick put the significance of summer experience into perspective, saying Lehigh and other selective universities employ a "holistic" evaluation that takes several factors — academic record, the essay, letters of recommendation — into account. Summer experience is certainly one of those factors, and Bunnick said he looks forward to meeting students who can describe the value of that experience — whether it occurred on Wall Street or at Wal-Mart — in a compelling way.
"I honestly don't think it matters much whether or not the student saved the world or literally rolled up his or her sleeves to perform a menial summer job," Bunnick told me. "It's a great thing for a student to engage in summer work where they can convey exactly what the experience meant to them in their college application, whether the message is 'I rubbed elbows with Wall Street tycoons' or 'I flipped burgers, but it gave my outlook on hard work a deeper meaning.'
"I believe the perception of intentionally finding the best job (sometimes this happens through carefully coordinated connections …) among parents and the reality of how it impacts an admissions decision are completely different."
I found it telling that Bunnick's final observation — the emphasis applicants and their parents place on securing a lofty summer experience — was reinforced by Penn's Mott.
In fact, the latter was even more direct, saying that while Penn's admissions team "loves summer jobs and students who work part-time during the school year," it meets fewer applicants with such experiences, despite their clear benefits.
Working the grill, waiting tables, scooping ice cream, and folding T-shirts "all require the employee to show up on time, be a team member, have a good work ethic, be service-oriented, learn how to take critical (and positive) feedback from a manager, manage a paycheck and what goes into it — what it means to work for a wage," Mott said. "All of these intangible skills will serve a student well in college."
Which sounds to me like many parents have misread the application process. I commented to Mott that if college admissions officers appreciated the value of summer work, the current situation just might improve. Her response was telling:
"We do, but because they are a dwindling number and the media likes to write about the rare birds, those who have spent their summers working, saving for college, contributing to the family finances, and or paying for the auto insurance (maybe even the car too) don't get written about."
That just changed.