Summer Programs

Every winter students and parents approach me with the same question: What is the most effective use of my summer? Which programs do the colleges favor? How do I choose a summer program?
There are a number of important things that students and parents need to know before investing much time and money in one of these programs.

First, the number of summer programs directed to students who are still in secondary school has ballooned dramatically over the last generation. Colleges and universities learned that it was in their economic interest to offer many options over the summer for both college students and high school students so that the school did not suffer from a huge drop in facility use and income over a 3-month period. I mention this first, as one of the main driving forces for many summer programs is to generate money for the school.

In order to attract students for these programs schools have been resourceful in providing summer programs that cover virtually every kind of academic and extracurricular interest that someone might have. A student who is interested in high-level research can find wonderful options. A student who wants to learn how to become a professional writer can find great programs. A student who wants to take a course in any academic field can find options somewhere. In addition, there are programs that focus on leadership. There are programs that focus on business. There are programs that promote service. And then there are the large number of sports camps and other programs that are not tied to the academic mission of the college or to the academic experience of the students. The latter programs are more like summer camp than an academic experience.

Many international students and parents look at some of the summer programs that are offered around the US as great ways of getting a significant advantage in the admission process. Their thinking tends to go something along these lines– if a student enrolls in a summer program at an elite college or university and does well in the course, then this will look great when applying to that particular school as well as to any other college or university. On the face of it, this seems to make sense. After all, the student will receive a grade (or, in some cases, a written assessment) from the school in question. Many schools offer full credit on an official transcript for completing a summer program course. If tests like the SAT or ACT are supposed to predict how a student will do in course work at a college or university, shouldn’t an actual course at the school itself with a high grade predict even more accurately how a student will do?

The purpose of many summer programs is not, nor has it ever been, primarily to offer an advantage to students who have the resources to take these expensive courses. The primarily purpose is to offer a good program that also brings in a significant amount of money to the college or university. I know of no college or university that has ever said in clear terms that enrolling in summer program will be a significant advantage in the admission process. If a college or university did come out in public and say that summer programs would be an advantage to applicants this would generate a huge backlash from many educators. There are untold numbers of students who do not have the money, the time or the freedom to enroll in summer programs. Some students need to earn money over the summer and so must work jobs. Some need to help the family—taking care of younger siblings in lieu of daycare. Or some may be doing activities at home or somewhere else that involve service or something else that precludes a student from taking a summer program. Giving students who take a summer course an advantage in admission would create yet another wedge between the haves and have not’s when it comes to access to elite schools.

Therefore the question is – are there any summer programs that will provide a student with a ‘bump’ in the admission process? Counselors need to do their research but there are a few programs that are worth looking into. Here are some of the programs that I took note of while working as an admission officer:

  • The Research Science Institute (RSI)
  • MIT Launch
  • The International Summer School for Young Physicists
  • Stanford University Math Camp
  • Programs in Math for Young Scientists (PROMYS)
  • Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program (SIMR)

I hope it does not come across that I am anti-summer programs. I think these programs provide wonderful experiences for the students. They provide an opportunity for social experiences where students meet other students who they bond with, they get a sense of college life by living in a dorm, and they get a sense of how college courses work. All this is positive and helpful. But there may be other options that students could do over the summer that would actually help in the admission process more than the summer programs offered by universities and colleges. Perhaps a student can enroll in a MOOC – MIT offers a robust set of options. Or, students may help themselves in life and in admission by doing something they love to do over the summer. A student may learn a lot more about business by working a job than by taking a summer course. A student may learn about global development by doing service rather than taking a summer course. There are many options that can provide as much or more learning than a summer program would provide. Summer courses can be great but I hope that parents and students will know to take them for the right reasons.

Author: Martin

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