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Seventeen-year-old Laura Burke prepared a banana split at Kimball Farms in Westford, where she works part time.
Seventeen-year-old Laura Burke prepared a banana split at Kimball Farms in Westford, where she works part time. (Jon Chase for The Boston Globe)

Summer jobs regain some luster

As tradition fades, colleges notice teenagers who work

MEDFORD -- High school senior Stacy Jones thought about studying Chinese or Arabic this summer, but settled on something likely to look far more exotic on her application to Tufts University and other elite colleges.

She is scrubbing desks and mopping floors. Forty hours a week. For $7.25 an hour.

The tradition of the summer job is fading away. Only 49 percent of American teenagers ages 16 to 19 were working -- or even seeking a job -- last month, down from 60 percent in June 2000, according to the US Labor Department.

Instead, many college-bound young people are in summer school, doing volunteer work, or on a trip to the Third World -- sometimes more to spice up their college applications than out of genuine interest, admissions officers say.

Admissions deans are loath to suggest that certain types of experiences are better than others, and say they do not hold a lack of paid work against applicants. Still, deans at several elite schools said they are taking more notice when students have unglamorous jobs.

Only about a quarter of Tufts applicants these days have ever held down a steady job, estimates Lee Coffin , dean of undergraduate admissions. Work experience is scarce even among students from middle- and lower-income backgrounds, he said.

"The people who typically would've worked a fish and chips stand or scooped ice cream are gone," Coffin said. "When we read an [application] folder with work experience we usually comment on it in a very favorable way. If he works 20 hours a week at Stop & Shop, we'll say, 'That's really refreshing and old-fashioned. Good for him.' "

The most important thing is that teenagers do something productive and meaningful, admissions officers said. But they do not give as much credit to a fancy summer activity if it seems more like padding than passion. And in an age of high anxiety over competition to get into college, that is more and more common.

"We see essays that say 'I spent two weeks in a Chinese orphanage and it changed my life,' " said Debra Shaver , director of admission at Smith College. "But where is the pattern showing interest in community service?"

Summer travel and study can make students more worldly or civic-minded, but often fail to teach how to persevere through boredom, take orders, or work with people from different backgrounds, admissions deans say.

Shaver was happy that her teenage son got a job in a hospital kitchen, learning that he could not just call in sick on days he did not feel like getting out of bed.

Many deans look back fondly on the menial jobs they sweated through when they were teens. Coffin worked at McDonald's, where he had no choice but to keep flipping burgers in the hot kitchen, even when a bus full of senior citizens showed up with special orders. He became friendly with peers he'd never met in his honors classes, students not bound for college.

John Mahoney , Boston College's director of undergraduate admission , worked as a stock boy in a discount men's clothing shop, trying to explain the return policy to irate customers without driving them away from the store permanently.

Mahoney also believes that it can be therapeutic for some stressed-out students to "get a breather," by doing something in the summer that isn't intellectually challenging.

Laura Burke , 17, enjoys her part-time job scooping ice cream at Kimball Farm in Westford, despite all the running around, because it's a fun social scene. "It's not something to dread," said the Lawrence Academy student.

Jones, the Cleveland high school student who was visiting Tufts last week, is working for her high school's custodial staff. She shows up at 7 a.m., puts up with repetitive work and no air conditioning, and has new respect for the hard work the janitors do.

The 17-year-old needed the pay to cover her car insurance. She wanted steady daytime hours so she could socialize at night. (If she had gone for the Chinese or Arabic classes at a nearby university, she still would have had to hold down a job.)

"I wanted to have a summer and to be able to go out with my friends," she said.

Jones worried a bit that colleges are not "looking for custodians," but decided, "it might show I'm willing to go out and do something."

In contrast, many of the other prospective students gathered at Tufts for an admissions information session are spending their summers with travel, sports, and volunteer work.

Lily Gordon has not been able to work during her high school summers because of the grueling practice schedule for basketball and volleyball at her Los Angeles private school, she said, although she did intern last summer, part-time and unpaid, at an event planning agency.

This summer, Gordon, 17, filled in for a week and a half while her father's assistant was away. Though her dad is a Hollywood producer responsible for "Field of Dreams" and "Die Hard," she found the office work a drag. "I'd wake up and think, 'Oh gosh, not again,' " she said.

Lynda Gordon, Lily's mother, agreed that her daughter had no time for a steady job, but found it a shame. She had allowed an older daughter not to work in the summers because her high school was so academically stressful. That daughter is now 31 and just settling into a full-time job as a social worker.

"It took her a while to realize that you work very hard, for very little money, in the beginning," Lynda Gordon said.

Students who are not willing to juggle a paid job and community service often figure the resume boost of volunteering outweighs the toll it takes on their wallet, or rather, their parents' wallets. Eric McCurry , 16, has two volunteer jobs this summer, as a first responder with an ambulance service and an office worker at the Alzheimer's Association. That will help him earn a special diploma his New York state public high school awards to graduates who do enough community service.

But his hours are decidedly sporadic. Otherwise, he hangs out with friends and goes to the pool, he said. He assumes that a job would help his college application too, but did not want to be too busy during his last summer before finishing high school.

McCurry's mother, Karen, tried to get him to get a job. After all, she and her husband have five children to send to college.

"I kind of just said I would look into it," McCurry said. "But nothing ever came of it."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@

Teenage workforce