On weekdays this summer, Alonso Diaz gets out of bed before dawn. He arrives at the medical center at the University of Texas, San Antonio, at around 7 a.m., where he works on a clinical study aimed at proving the effectiveness of a new drug called SAHA, which may be used to treat cancer patients. Diaz is not a surgeon or a college professor; he is not even a college graduate. He will be a senior in high school in the fall.
An honors student at Canisius High School with an interest in medicine, Diaz wants to become a doctor. He said that an opportunity like the one he has in Texas is "something that you remember your whole life." But he suggested that, like many other high school students, he is feeling pressure to impress colleges with a sterling resume. "To get into the best universities, you have to build your resume over the summer," he said. "It's such a competitive system that you just have to do something impressive to stand out."
For students with their sights set on a dream school, the summer, once marked by late nights and long days at the beach, has become a void that is filled with study abroad, elite internships, and far-flung volunteer work. Students like Diaz are doing more during time off from school to bolster their high school records, trying to get a competitive edge at a time when admission to the nation's top universities has become more exclusive than ever before.
At Harvard College this year, the acceptance rate dropped to 9 percent, down from 10.3 percent last year. Columbia received 18,081 applications and admitted a mere 2,508 of them, bringing its acceptance rate down to a rock-bottom 8.9 percent. The so-called "little three" -- Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyan -- each boasted an unprecedented number of applicants this year.
Carly Butler, a junior at Orchard Park High School, said that the pressure for students to perform has moved beyond the classroom. "Colleges don't just look at your grades anymore," she said. "It's a combination of SATs, after-school activities, and community service. You could still have decent grades and not get into the college of your choice."
Ian Toner, who will be a senior at Canisius High School in the fall, is spending a week in Laredo, Texas, a fast-growing city with a dry climate and an abundance of low-income neighborhoods. During his stay, he will work with Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit group that builds houses for families in impoverished regions of the United States.
"We take so much for granted, it's nice to leave our comfort zones and give back," said Toner of his motivation to take the trip to Texas. But he added: "It's important to volunteer over the summer because it shows colleges that you're willing to commit yourself to charitable activities even when you're not at school."
Steve Brenner who will be a senior at Canisius in the fall, works as a waiter and chef at NovelTea, an independent bookstore/restaurant. "I can learn how to relate to people better through working with customers, and I think colleges will appreciate it more than if i had chosen to work at a chain store."
To be sure, summer internships and volunteer work for high school students are nothing new. For years, both private and public schools have required students to volunteer in the community over the summer and during the school year. But in recent years, guidance counselors have stressed that internships and community service can make the difference between acceptance and rejection at a first-choice university.
"Teachers and counselors are putting the pressure on us to build up our resumes so we can get them ready for college," said Caroline Ganson of Orchard Park High School. "It seems as though no matter what you do, you should always be doing more."
Patricia Armstrong, director of admissions at the University at Buffalo, feels that work and volunteer experience are important factors in any student's application. "It sets them apart from others, particularly if they do something academically geared." Kevin Reed, assistant director of admissions at Geneseo, said: "Any extracurricular activities like community service and internships a student does over the summer can help set a borderline student apart from the rest of the applicants."
The increased expectations have left students with mixed emotions.
"Summer has used to be a time to relax. Now, at least for a lot of people, it's turned into a resume building opportunity," said Adam Nugent, who will be a senior at Canisius and is volunteering at Roswell Park Cancer institute this summer. "The summer has changed drastically for me," he added. "I'm expected to work two or three times a week at Roswell on top of another job at a restaurant. It's crazy."
But some students believe that the added pressure has forced them to embrace new experiences. "I think that staying busy is a good thing, because it forces you to start focusing on your career," said Diaz.
"I would much rather be overbooked than do nothing at all this summer," said Jack Collins, who will be a junior at the Nichols School next year. Collins is playing summer league basketball and is working as a camp counselor.
Caitie Ostrowski Martin of Nardin and Allison Sirica of Orchard Park High School contributed reporting to this story.