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  • Writer's pictureJenny Deren

13 Productive Winter Break Activities for High School Students

Congratulations on a well-deserved holiday break from school! During the next couple of weeks, make rest and relaxation your top priority. Take a true break: sleep in, visit with family and friends, go for a run, watch a movie. Do whatever you do to recharge your battery and avoid burnout. 


Please take a break! You deserve it!


Now, after you’ve slept off mid-terms and finished the Christmas cookies, consider spending a few hours on those tasks that are hard to get to amidst classes and homework and after-school activities. If you’re curious about anthropology but don’t see it in your high school course catalog…if you have a lawn-mowing and snow shoveling business but haven’t found the time to market your services…if you’ve been putting off college or scholarship search tasks because you’ve been too busy…then winter break can be a low-stress time to explore and deepen interests, make progress on independent projects, and get a jump start on college planning.


Below are 13 productive activities for high school students to maximize their free time during winter break, while still getting the rest they need. 


A couple of notes: While #1 is high priority for current 12th graders, #'s 2-13 are in no particular order and are options for anyone. Finally, this list offers a variety of possibilities, from which you may choose a few relevant activities. Under no circumstances should you attempt to do everything. I repeat: every student's first priority should be rest and relaxation!


Without further ado, here are 13 productive winter break activities:


1. Finish college applications, including need-based financial aid forms. (12th graders only)


This may go without saying, but if you’re a current high school senior and you have college applications due in January or February, then you should spend at least part of your winter break finishing up your essays and other application-related tasks! 


Furthermore, if you are applying for need-based financial aid, you should plan to complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and, if applicable, your College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile as soon as possible in order to maximize your financial aid award and eligibility. The CSS Profile is available now, and you can find participating colleges and universities here. The 2024-25 FAFSA will open by December 31st, but here are some important FAFSA-preparation tasks that you can work on in the meantime.


2. Plan ahead for summer break.


I know, I know. It’s December, and summer is so far away! But did you know that applications and registration for summer enrichment programs often open in the fall, and that some early summer program application deadlines have already passed? Not to worry. The majority of summer programs accept applications into the winter and spring, so your holiday break is a great time to consider your summer plans and identify programs that will enable you to explore an interest or gain experience that’s unavailable to you at your high school. For example, if you aspire to be a healthcare professional, you might enjoy a program that will expose you to different health professions, train you in skills you’ll need to excel in that field, or help you decide whether you want to study nursing or biotechnology (or something else!) in college. If you want to know more about summer programs, check out this curated, cost-conscious list of academic enrichment programs from the generous folks at College Matchpoint. 


Even if you don’t plan to attend an enrichment program, now is a great time to consider other ways to stay busy and build experience next summer. If you hope to work during the summer, what kind of job would enable you to use your strengths and learn new skills? Which employers in your area hire high school students? Will you need a resume? References? It might be too early to apply, but having your ducks in a row now will certainly save you time later and, perhaps, land you a more interesting and interest-related job than you might find otherwise. And – who knows – if you inquire now, you might even get the job before the job ad is posted! The same can be true for summer research, community service, and volunteer opportunities. 


Don’t see employers that hire teenagers for jobs you want to do? Can’t find a volunteer organization that provides the kind of service you want to provide? Even better! You have a chance to create your own business or community service project – and you’ll certainly want to start planning that now so it’s ready to go when you wrap up classes for the summer!


3. Job shadow.


Winter break is short, but it’s just long enough to carve out a few hours to observe a professional doing a job that you think you might want to do (unless, of course, you hope to be a teacher or school administrator, in which case you’ll be out of luck!). Make a list of jobs that interest you, and search for local businesses that do that kind of work. If you have personal or family connections, use them! Go to Uncle Tim’s accounting office and see what he does all day. Ask Cousin Becky if you can help her on the farm. If you don’t know anyone, and if no one you know knows anyone, then try calling or emailing local businesses and professionals. Explain that you’re a high school student who is interested in their line of work, and ask if you can shadow them. 


If job shadowing is out of the question (for example, if the jobs you’re interested in are security- or privacy-sensitive), then ask for an informational interview. This is an opportunity for you to ask questions about the job. What does a typical day look like? What does the person like and dislike about their work? What educational path did they take to get to this job? What advice do they have for someone who aspires to do what they do? And whatever else you want to know in order to feed and inform your interest in pursuing this line of work after high school. Don’t forget to take notes during or after your shadowing or interview experience so that you can refer to them later during the college search and application process. (And, of course, remember to say “thank you!” and to send a thank you note!).


4. Take an open online course.


Curious about an academic subject not offered at your high school? Explore it online in your PJs during winter break in an open online course – many of which are free! While you probably won’t be earning high school or college credit, you’ll be learning more about a topic of genuine interest to you, gauging your commitment to further study, and building academic or professional skills that will prepare you for rigorous high school and college coursework. 


Free and paid professor- and expert-led courses are offered by Coursera, Udemy, FutureLearn, and edX. Or, check out Class Central for a searchable database of courses offered by those services and more.


5. Read!


Reading is a great way to build knowledge, but did you know that it also provides significant benefits for mental and emotional health? Whether you’re into sci-fi novels, historical fiction, or the newspaper (print or digital), reading can improve your ability to concentrate, increase your creativity and innovative thinking, expand your vocabulary, relieve stress and anxiety, and even improve your mood. Moreover, research shows particular benefits for pleasure reading – when readers are reading for fun rather than for a school assignment. So head to the library, bookshop, or Kindle store, and pick out something to read in whatever genre keeps you turning the pages. Not only will you be increasing your ACT score; you’ll also be lowering your stress level, exercising your creativity, and having fun.


6. Work on an independent project.


Writing, painting, woodworking, birdwatching, starting or building a business, researching a topic of special interest to you...the possibilities are endless! If there is something you love doing – especially something not offered at school or in your community – explore it on your own or with the help of a friend or mentor. Winter break is a great time to dive into independent projects and pursuits that feed your curiosity, make you happy, and enable you to explore and demonstrate your interests at the same time. While it’s important to join and engage in school-based clubs and activities, pursuing interests on your own is also a productive way to build skills and show initiative. Without classes or homework to worry about, you’ll have plenty of time during winter break to begin, continue, or even complete that editorial, independent film, metal-and-wood coat rack, marketing campaign, or whatever it is that you’ve been planning to do but haven’t gotten to yet since school started in August.


7. Submit your work to contests and competitions.


Depending on the nature of your strengths and interests, consider submitting your work to high school student contests or participating in relevant competitions. For example, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards accepts submissions in a variety of categories from teen visual artists and writers. Check out Teen Life’s list of 30 Competitions for High School Students for more options in Arts, Business, STEM, and Writing. Some contests invite individual submissions, while others are open to small groups of students working in teams. If you see a team event that piques your interest, consider using your winter break to recruit like-minded students to join you, or to work together on a competition project. Be sure to consult the guidelines for each contest or competition you enter, as rules differ for things such as how many entries may be submitted, how long or large entries may be, and whether submissions may include work produced in school or only independent, outside-of-school projects.


8. Study for standardized tests.


Whether you’re working your way through Khan Academy’s free test prep resources, meeting your tutor, or participating in a class or study group, winter break is an excellent time to review common standardized test questions, practice questions in your unique problem areas, or take diagnostic tests to determine which one – SAT or ACT – is right for you. 


Even though many colleges and universities are continuing to extend their “test optional” admission policies (some permanently), applying with a strong standardized test score is still an advantage. Furthermore, some schools still require applicants to share an SAT or ACT score as part of the application process. Unless you know with certainty that you will not apply to one of these “test required” schools, or unless you know for a fact that your score will be so low that you will definitely apply “test optional,” you should prepare for and take either the SAT or ACT. Beyond the context of college applications, SAT and ACT scores are sometimes required or useful for obtaining scholarships. So, even if you don’t think you’ll need a score for college admissions, consider whether you’ll want one to increase your chances of merit-based financial aid or for outside scholarship opportunities.


9. Research colleges and universities.


Especially if you are a current 11th grader, winter break is a great time to begin your college search and research process. Start by considering the factors that will make a college or university appealing to you, such as size, location, academic and social offerings, campus life, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), and other important attributes that will keep you happy and healthy. Then make a list of schools that fit your criteria. Finally, research each school individually and keep notes on what you find. For each school, list such things as academic majors and programs of interest to you, extracurricular activities you would join, likes or dislikes about campus housing, dining, social life, on- and off-campus opportunities, and other factors that are important to you in your college education and experience. Your notes will come in handy as you decide which schools to apply to and then when you are writing application essays about why you want to study there. Check out my blog articles on finding “right fit” schools for you and understanding yourself as a college applicant for more details and suggestions about this important part of the college planning and application process.


Winter break can also be a good time to visit college and university campuses – especially if you are traveling and find yourself near a school that interests you. However, college students are generally away from campus during winter break, and you’ll miss the opportunity to observe and talk to them if you visit during this time. You also won’t be able to sit in on classes, eat in the dining hall, or experience other aspects of day-to-day operations when school is in session. If possible, use winter break to identify and research (from home) the colleges and universities you’d like to see in person, and then plan your campus visits during your spring break, when students are more likely to be there.


10. Apply for scholarships.


This is a productive task for current 12th graders who have completed their college applications. I emphasize “completed their college applications” because – apart from need-based financial aid (for which one will submit the FAFSA and, in some cases, the CSS Profile) – the largest “scholarships” are typically merit-based awards offered directly by colleges and universities to admitted students. For this reason, high school students who will not qualify for significant need-based financial aid are best advised to prioritize their college applications, since these are what admission and financial aid officers consider when making decisions about institutional, merit-based scholarships (also known as “discounts”). Notable exceptions are schools that do not offer merit-based aid, including many of the most selective colleges and universities.


For 12th graders who have completed both college applications and need-based financial aid forms, and for younger high school students, applying for non-institutional scholarships is an excellent winter break task. Among these outside scholarships, larger, national scholarships generally award the most money. However, smaller, more local scholarships may provide students the best chance of earning an award – especially lesser-known scholarship opportunities and those reserved for students with a unique or unusual talent, interest, or experience, since fewer students are likely to apply. 


Free scholarship search engines include the College Board’s Scholarship Directory, Fastweb, Scholarships.com, and Going Merry. Remember that legitimate scholarships and scholarship search engines will never ask you to pay for them. Nor will they ask you for bank account information or for personal information beyond your name, address, grade level, and current high school and graduation year. For local scholarships, check with your school counselor, local college access or community-based organization, city or state government office, or local organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce.


11. Volunteer.


Consider spending winter break using your interests and strengths to help others! Whether you’re shoveling your neighbor’s sidewalk, boxing up gift donations at your church or community center, or organizing a holiday food drive for families in need – giving back is always a productive and fulfilling use of your time. Consider answering a call for volunteers, but don’t discount opportunities to take initiative on any gaps or needs you observe in your neighborhood or community. You don’t need to be logging hours in an “official” community service organization in order to put your talents and resources to work for others!


12. Reflect.


If you keep a journal, then you might have this covered already. But if you don’t, consider jotting down a few notes about your first semester (academic, extracurricular, personal, or social) – or anything else that’s on your mind. If you’re not sure what to write, consider questions like these:

  • What is your favorite class right now, and why? 

  • What is your least favorite, and why?

  • What is going well so far this school year, and where do you see room for improvement?

  • Describe one experience or memory from the past three months that stands out to you. 

  • What was the funniest thing that happened during the first semester? 

  • What was most challenging? How did you work through that challenge, and what was the outcome?

  • Which activity are you most (or least) excited to return to after break, and why? 

  • What do you hope to do or learn next semester that you haven’t had the chance to do or learn yet?

You can write short phrases in bullet points, or you can write long paragraphs in complete sentences. Either way, try to be as specific as possible. Routine self-reflection will help you grow as a person by fostering mindfulness and goal-setting. But it can also be a source of ideas, inspiration, and essay material as you begin considering your next steps after high school or embarking on the college search and application process.


13. REST.


If you do none of the above, that’s ok! But please don’t short change yourself on rest and relaxation. Nothing is more important than your health and happiness, and there’s nothing wrong with taking it easy if that’s what you need to recharge and regroup for the rest of the school year.


Happy holidays, and warmest wishes for continued success in the new year!


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