How to Make Winter Break Productive

Last updated: Dec 25, 2019

If you’re a high school senior, winter break offers a wonderfully structure-free, stress-free window of time. But how does a college-bound high school student turn two solid weeks into anything but an extended nap punctuated by cookies and some couch time with the grandparents? We have useful suggestions for making the most of your time off, no matter where you are in the college application process: If you’re a senior already accepted by your college of choice, or you’re a senior nervously awaiting an answer from a college (any college!), or you’re a senior procrastinating until the last minute to get that application submitted, we know how to make winter break productive, with plenty of time left over for marathon meet-ups with the holiday cookie jar.

A high school senior works on her college to-do during winter break

If You Already Have an Acceptance Letter

Congratulations! You were an early decision or early action applicant and your favorite college has already graced your inbox with the holiday gift of a yes email. Enjoy a sigh of relief and a well-deserved celebration. And then get yourself focused again on a few follow-up items for your final winter break as a high schooler.

Write Letters of Appreciation

More than a thank-you note (which you hopefully sent off to your reference-letter writers around the same time you submitted your college application), this is a short letter to your mentors, relatives, favorite teachers, coaches, and circle of most meaningful friends letting them know how grateful you are for their support and specifics about what they mean to you. The timing is key with this, making the connection between their encouragement and your acceptance at your top-choice college. Email is fine, but there is something moving about such a letter in your own handwriting.

Hunt Down Scholarships

Getting into college is the first hurdle. Paying for it comes next. Do your parents and yourself a favor by exhausting every possibility for free money. Starting your scholarship search sooner rather than later (winter break is not too soon) leaves you time to budget, save, and apply for loans, if necessary. In addition to national and regional scholarships, your college also offers scholarships. The USF Foundation, for instance, awards more than $7 million to students each year.

Create a High School Bucket List

If you have never performed on stage, add “audition for a play” to your list of must-do experiences before you graduate. Likewise, if you have never been on a date or pulled a harmless senior prank (stress the harmless) or shown up for a pep rally, scribble it down on your high school bucket list and make it happen. Drafting a group bucket list with your friends is double the fun. And don’t forget to add charitable work or volunteer projects, making your bucket list beneficial to others, too. This might seem frivolous, but a bucket list provides balance to a high-stakes period of your life, reminding you of what’s important to you. Plus, a little silliness and adventure can feel like a giant weight has been lifted when you’ve been working hard for a goal.

If You Are Waiting to Hear

The key to bearing the wait until schools get back to you after the break (or maybe not until spring break) is keeping your priorities in order. And your top priority is getting into college. If you’re truly a basket case over break, you can add some safety schools to your list and send off additional applications, just in case. If you nailed your end-of-term finals and elevated your GPA, you can send off a quick, enthusiastic email to your admissions officers to let them know you are taking your senior year seriously, with the grades to prove it. In short, anxiety is incompatible with action, so get started on stress-relieving tasks this winter break.

Get Organized

You don’t have go full Marie Kondo, but you will not regret using your winter break to free yourself of clutter, finish off your college application to-do list, and finalize your plans for senior year.

  • Recycle admissions materials for schools where you did not and will not apply.
  • Make sure you have submitted all the documents your college applications require.
  • Be aware of the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), its deadlines, and documentation.
  • Send thank-you notes to those who wrote letters of recommendation for you.
  • Prep your backpack, bedroom, and mindset for a strong finish to your high school career.

Clean Up Your Social Media

You’re still in the running at your top schools, but because nothing is certain, you need to give yourself the best odds. We suggest you take some time over winter break to scour your social media accounts and make them presentable. Why post, like, or archive sketchy or inappropriate social media content if it could give admissions officers reason to question your suitability?

Get Serious About Earning College Credits  

Yes, May AP exam day is a long way away, but winter break offers an opportunity to get your notebooks organized and to brush up on topics you might not have mastered during fall term. It’s worthwhile to get a jump on studying because earning AP credits can save you thousands of dollars in tuition. Also, now is a good time to look into other ways to earn budget-saving college credits, including the CLEP examination program and dual enrollment courses for spring term. Motivate yourself by registering over break.

Two high school students work on a laptop together

If You Haven’t Applied Just Yet

It’s not too late. You might feel like you are the only one who is applying regular decision, which typically has a deadline of Jan. 1 or Jan. 15, or rolling admission, which is ongoing through May, but most seniors (yes, most seniors) apply regular decision or rolling. Over winter break, you don’t need to panic, but you do need to get honest about procrastinating. It’s time to get this college application thing done and done well.

Write a Really Great Essay

Take the essay prompt and run with it. Do the essay as the first task of the winter break if you’re terrified of tackling it. Avoiding it will not make it easier. Be honest, be creative, be personal, be specific, be grammatically accurate, and be sure to find a skilled adult to proofread it for you.

Complete Your Applications and Hit Send

If your top colleges have January deadlines, you have 15 days, give or take, without school to get your applications done – consider this the gift of the year! If you’re stuck or can’t get motivated to start, stick to a checklist and stay focused, even if you make yourself work at applications for just an hour or two a day.   

Study for the SAT One Last Time

If your SAT result underwhelmed you, you have one last opportunity to study and bump up your score. There is a March SAT test date, allowing you to submit your scores in time to apply to colleges with rolling admissions or to tip the scales at schools where you are waitlisted or deferred. If free SAT study apps leave you needing more, consider registering for USF’s SAT Blitz course, online or on campus.

Winter break may seem like limited time to accomplish important prepping-for-college tasks when there is so much napping and cookie-eating to do, but if you prioritize and follow through, you can make the most of your holiday vacation.  

The USF Office of Admissions is ready with advice and answers to your college application questions. Contact us online, or reach us by phone at 813-974-3350.