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By Brian Witte / Varsity Tutors
July 14, 2015

As many college students know firsthand, the academic year at American universities is less straightforward than it may initially seem. It is organized by semesters that do not, as their name implies, cover exactly half of the year. Instead, there are breaks in midwinter and in the spring that are one or more weeks in length. For many students, there is an even longer vacation in the middle of the calendar year — the summer. Whatever the origin of this pattern, it is not an accurate reflection of how the post-college world functions. Beyond setting unrealistic expectations about vacation time (which is far shorter in the workplace), summer break can actually have a harmful effect on college students. How? In short, hard-won academic skills atrophy in a three-month stew of sleeping in until noon and watching endless movies and television episodes. Even for those students who are able to participate in an academic extracurricular (i.e. a shadowing experience), the summer can prompt a fall-off in their engagement with higher-level thinking.

When faced with this dilemma, some individuals point to the success of summer reading programs. A summer reading program can be an excellent way to utilize academic skills while still taking a break from regular coursework. Many colleges and universities now offer guided programs or book lists for their students. Even if a particular school does not, institutions like the University of Notre Dame, Harvard University, and the University of California, Berkeley publish their lists of suggested books. The University of Notre Dame also includes films as a form of storytelling.

The importance of summer reading programs has long been established, starting with Barbara Heyns’ seminal study in 1978. The study found that students who participated in a summer reading program dramatically improved or maintained their reading skills. Multiple studies in the years since have confirmed that initial finding.

College students, of course, are no longer children. They are, however, human, and most humans are creatures of habit. Summer reading programs offer a structured means of continuing a pattern of learning during the summer months. That continuity can smooth the transition from summer to the fall semester. Rather than requiring several weeks to re-adapt to school and its tasks, the summer reader will face only a change in intensity, rather than in type of activity. These weeks of additional engagement can be critical, with an average semester being only 15 weeks long.

But the issue of summer reading at the college level is complex. Before you decide for yourself, read on for more information:

An issue of balance

Summer reading programs have undeniable benefits, but are these benefits worth the costs of following such programs? True downtime is an increasingly precious luxury in our busy world, and summer is an ideal opportunity to reconnect with family and friends. Students can create lasting memories during summer vacation, memories that may be more challenging (in terms of time) to create after college graduation. From a purely practical perspective, there is also value in a refractory period — the mind needs time to rest and assimilate the academic year’s content.

In addition, the myth of the slow summer devoid of mental stimulation is often just that — a myth. Many students devote their summers to career-building internships, volunteer activities that expand their academic and social horizons, or to employment. In these instances, a summer reading list may be just one more demand in an already-strained schedule.

A change of pace

With the advent of online learning tools like MOOCs (or Massive Open Online Courses), there are many ways to ensure that college students’ reading skills stay sharp. Some individuals believe that we are entering a post-print age. There is merit, then, in turning to online courses to remain engaged, and some of the best teachers in the world now teach online. The problem with online courses is that they are much like the classes most students take during the school year, but with less human interaction. A summer reading program provides not just intellectual engagement, but a change of pace too. The work of parsing print is very different from listening to an instructor or attempting to memorize class notes. Reading is self-directed, even when supplemented with a list of questions. The individual nature of reading prompts an internal dialogue between the reader and the text that is different from any other form of communication.

A happy medium

While a comprehensive summer reading list may not be practical for all college students, a shorter list of several applicable books is a great choice for many people. This reading list can be supplemented with a discussion group for maximum benefit, whether in person or on a forum like Goodreads. At the end of the day, sitting down with an interesting book, turning off all electronic devices, and just reading can provide a real and lasting benefit to any college student.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

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