Summer school used to be a punishment for wild kids who couldn’t eke out decent grades during the school year. But we’re big kids now, and we know that learning doesn’t stop once you’re handed a diploma. In fact, if you’re like me, you probably wish you could get a refresher course in all the things you’ve forgotten since graduation. And since you have a few months now when life is a little less hectic, why not use the time to improve yourself by developing a new skill, mastering an interest that’s caught your fancy, or just learning something you’ve always wanted to know?
WHY: Because you want to brag that you went to an Ivy...sorta.
HOW: If you’re a self-motivated learner and don’t need the college credit or feedback from a professor, you should take a look at the free courses, called MOOCs (for massive open online courses) that many universities are sharing online. Through sites like edX and apps like iTunes U, you can access hundreds of classes from previous semesters—for free. What’s amazing is that you still get access to all the same lectures, reading materials, assignments, and quizzes that actual paying students did.
For example, this summer, gratis, you could flirt with the Ivy League by studying Roman architecture courtesy of Yale. If you loved Moneyball, Notre Dame offers Math in Sport, which shows how data improves athletic performance, and even teaches a few tricks to help your next fantasy football draft. For something more practical, check out Personal Finance 101 from Ohio State University.
WHY: You can’t even remember eighth-grade biology.
HOW: The Education section of the iTunes Podcast library is a great place to find some valuable materials you can put to work this summer. The great thing about podcasts is that they’re easy to incorporate into your life without making too many changes. Instead of listening to music on your way to work or at the gym, you can slowly make your way through an educational podcast and learn something new.
Whether you’re looking to refresh your understanding of history via a podcast such as BackStory or BBC Radio 4’s History of the World in 100 Objects, there are great offerings in every category.
WHY: To build a relationship with a new friend (and maybe learn how to rebuild an engine).
HOW: If you’re looking to pick up a skill like woodworking, flooring, or car repair, or an even more bookish specialty skill such as analytics, there might not be traditional classes available where you live. But I bet you know (or can find) a person who’s working in the area you want to tackle.
Turn to your network and locate someone who can take some time to show you the ropes while you help them do their job. Ever wondered if you have what it takes to be a chef? Offer to spend a few hours a week cutting onions for a neighborhood cook in exchange for some on-the-job lessons. If you know someone who works on cars, offer to hold a wrench every Sunday while you pick up the know-how to work on your own.
Helping someone out while you learn is an easy way to get up to speed without the pressure—or cost—of a class.
WHY: Chicks dig a guy who can speak another language. And your boss probably won’t mind, either.
HOW: Language-immersion classes are usually held over the summer. According to the Foreign Service Institute, dedicated learners can become fluent in languages similar to English (like French and Italian) in just 22–23 weeks. While that’s more than a summer, by September you could be halfway there.
One of my favorite new ways to learn a language is through an app called Duolingo, which turns the act of learning to read, speak, and listen to a new language into a game. Duolingo grades performance as you go, giving you instant feedback and even counting your streak for every day in a row you do it. And just like with a real video game, you have a heart meter on-screen—get an answer wrong and you lose a heart. Once all your hearts are gone, you have to hit the reset button and restart.
Obviously, online tools aren’t all you’ll need to become fluent; so for languages commonly spoken in the U.S., like Spanish, Russian, and French, look on Craigslist for a tutor who can help speed your learning by giving you a chance to regularly converse with a native speaker.
WHY: Chicks dig (even more) a guy who can sniff out a good bottle of wine.
HOW: Having a deep knowledge of wine history and a good understanding of the tastes and traits of a broad range of wines can really impress a date next time you’re asked to pick a perfect bottle off a list.
For lessons, start local. Check nearby wine stores to see if any offer classes or can recommend some in your area. While wine has a fascinating history, to learn about the different varietals you’ll need to do a lot of tasting—not something you can do in an online class.
Once you do know a thing or two, check out the International Wine Guild. With diploma-awarding classes in more than a half-dozen states, this organization could be your ticket to a job in the industry.
WHY: Why the hell not?
HOW: You shouldn’t limit your horizons when picking your summer school activity. Everything is within your grasp—it’s just a matter of finding the right thrill to investigate and the right place to do it.
For example: If you were mesmerized by the WWII thriller Fury, why not look into—no kidding—learning to drive a tank? It just so happens that a company aptly named Drive a Tank (driveatank.com) in Minnesota could hook you up. It’ll put you behind the wheel of one of its half-dozen actual military tanks, then let you get to do what tanks do best—destroying everything in their path. Packages start at just $400 and allow you to crush cars, demolish a mobile home, and learn to arm and fire classic World War II machine guns. Kerpow!
Learning something new is almost always exciting and usually pays off in unpredictable ways. But all too often, enthusiastic learners take on projects that are simply too ambitious. So pick something that fits into your life yet allows you to still keep your day-to-day commitments.
And to help keep you accountable, leverage social media. Share regular updates with your friends, family, and co-workers to keep them up to date on your progress; that way, if you miss a week, someone will notice and reach out with the encouragement to keep you going.