When finals are over and campus is far behind you, next school year is the last thing you want to think about. It’s easy to forget it exists when you’re basking in the sun and the freedom of not having anything due. But unless you’ve graduated, next semester is still there, and ignoring it altogether just sets you up for an unpleasant reality check come September.
Most research done on summertime learning loss–the phenomenon where students perform worse at the beginning of a school year than they did at the end of the previous year–has focused on elementary or middle school students, but there’s no reason to think learning loss doesn’t apply to college students too. If your summer consists entirely of watching TV and sleeping in late, the qualities that stand you in good stead at school, like concentration and critical thinking, are probably weakening. Your mind needs to be exercised or it will be harder to use it effectively once college starts again.
Fortunately, you don’t have to study intensively all summer in order to stay sharp. Below are five activities, most of them easy to incorporate into your daily routine, that are excellent for keeping your mind engaged.
As counterintuitive as it sounds when the goal is staying mentally active, I’ve found that maintaining good habits works best when you take a little break from what you do at school. You don’t want to let your mind and your self-discipline atrophy completely over the summer, but you also need to give yourself some time off so that you’re not still burned out from last year when school starts again. Try to spend your leisure time on things that you really enjoy instead of just things that you do because there’s nothing else better to do. Do something you can’t do at college, like hanging out with friends who don’t go to your school or spending time outside instead of being hunched over a desk. After it’s relaxed, your mind will have more energy and motivation for activities that are more specifically focused on working your intellect.
Sure, there are plenty of jobs that don’t require much thought, like washing dishes or making copies, but simply having to be at work at a certain time every day exercises your self-discipline. And you never know; your job might be something mentally stimulating, like taking orders at a restaurant (where every table is different) or writing product descriptions (where you have to figure out how to frame information in an appealing way). At a minimum, being expected to stay alert and accomplish things reinforces the habits of meeting expectations and fulfilling responsibilities that you’ve (hopefully) developed at school.
Saying that learning something helps you stay in the routine of learning sounds painfully obvious, but it’s also true. Learning over the summer doesn’t have to be a major investment of time, money and brainpower like summer school (although summer school would certainly get the job done). There are plenty of other ways to learn. You can probably find an organization or business in your hometown that offers recreational arts-and-crafts classes in painting or throwing pottery or even cake decorating. I found a local music studio that accepted me as a temporary voice student. If you’ve always wanted to learn a new skill, summer vacation might be your opportunity.
You can also learn on your own. Pick some topic that genuinely interests you, be it African history or Wagnerian opera or the science of weather prediction, and make a point of finding some in-depth information on it. Libraries are always a good resource, and there’s probably a credible site devoted to the topic somewhere on the internet.
Because reading and writing are integral parts of almost every college class, it’s a good idea to continue doing them on a part-time basis over the summer. It prevents you from going through a period of readjustment, however short, when you get back to college. Summer is an ideal time for reading a long or nonacademic book you don’t have time for during the school year. Even a light book will help you, but to get the most benefit, you should choose a thought-provoking book that makes you learn something (which doesn’t mean it has to be nonfiction).
A low-stress way to maintain your writing skills is keeping a journal. I’m not talking about a diary in which you detail the minutia of your days. A journal, as I’m defining it, is a place where you can write on any external topic that catches your attention. Journal entries can be to-do lists, quotes from a favorite book or song, ideas for making the world a better place, acrostic poetry or your response to the most recent movie you’ve seen. When the subject isn’t only what happened during your day, you have more freedom to focus on how you’re writing and on improving it.
Solving puzzles is an excellent way to simultaneously take a break from academic disciplines and still exercise your mind. In fact, puzzles test parts of your mind that your academic work probably doesn’t engage often. Jigsaw puzzles improve your eye for details, and there are even three-dimensional puzzles as an extra challenge for your spatial visualization abilities. Newspapers often print Sudoku puzzles or rearrange-the-letters puzzles as well as their standard crossword puzzles (which have the added advantage of requiring you to know facts from a wide variety of fields). If you don’t get the newspaper, there are books of such puzzles available separately. Books of logic puzzles also exist, and while they’re usually designed for middle or high school students, the higher-level ones can be difficult even for adults.
If you give these activities a try, they’ll probably make your transition back to school easier. And even if they don’t, they’re still fun ways to spend your break.