By Brian Burnsed

After running a 12-year marathon, many high school seniors cross a long-awaited finish line with both a diploma and a college acceptance letter in hand. And between that race and the next lay three warm summer months, often devoid of responsibility.

How should students fill that time? Should they rest up for the oncoming academic rigors of college, keep their minds active by revisiting old study materials, work, or travel? A little of each, experts say. Overall, the worst thing that students can do is allow the malaise of so-called "senioritis" that plagues so many in the spring to stretch into the summer and subsequently the fall. Then, the consequences of lethargy could be dire -- and expensive. Instead, students should use the five tips below to successfully manage the summer before their freshman year of college.

1. Don't stop reading:

Experts universally agree that students must, above anything else, make sure they read during the summer. Some schools, like Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., and Kansas State University , have summer reading programs. Even if such a program isn't in place, experts say, be sure to keep your mind engaged by reading carefully, not merely cruising through a modern page-turner.

"Practice reading like a college student," says Brandon Miller, assistant vice president for student success at Baylor University . "Take notes for yourself. It will help give you feedback on how you're comprehending the reading material versus just thinking, 'I'm going to highlight it. Look, I'm studying.'"

2. Recharge your batteries:

Students can read and relax simultaneously -- and they should, experts say. Though it's important for students to keep their minds and bodies active during the summer lull, making time to relax is paramount before they're greeted by months of what is likely the most difficult coursework and demanding tests they've ever faced. "If you want to be competitive, downtime to recharge yourself is as critical as peak performance," says management consultant Nick Vaidya. "It is hard to get one without the other."

3. Try something new:

Students who may feel daunted by jumping into a new environment this fall should take the plunge a little early, experts say. Students could volunteer or immerse themselves in a program overseas so that they can grow comfortable with adapting to new environments and activities. Josh Irons, director of product marketing at, touts the benefits of foreign language immersion programs in which students live in another country for a few weeks in hopes of learning a new language through osmosis. Some programs -- including trips to Brazil and Costa Rica -- offered by organizations such as Global Semesters and schools like New York University don't start until late July or early August, so interested students can still sign up.

"These opportunities can often ease the transition, especially for students that haven't spent much time away from home in an unfamiliar environment," Irons says. "Participants have to find common ground with others that may come from very different backgrounds so that they can work together to be successful-a situation they are likely to encounter in college."

4. Earn some cash:

The cafeteria food may seem enticing at first, especially given that most freshmen's parents shoulder the cost, but many students will spend more on dining out than they think, college officials say. And other expenses, such as tickets to events and shopping, can add up quickly. While students are still under their parents' roofs, they should get a part-time summer job that allows them to stockpile some cash in advance of the semester.

5. Go to orientation:

Some schools require students to attend orientations that last a week or more. Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., for instance, has a monthlong Autumn Term for freshmen that couples orientation with a reading-intensive course before the traditional fall semester starts. On the other end of the spectrum, many large state institutions make their one- or two-day orientations optional.

Though it's not a requirement, college officials agree students should sacrifice their free time and take part so that they can familiarize themselves with the campus and meet their new classmates. "If they have an orientation, go to it," says Greg Eiselein, an English professor at Kansas State University and co-director of the school's program that helps freshmen transition to college life. "All of the research shows that if a student attends orientation, they'll do better in college."

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5 Tips to Use the Summer Before College Wisely