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Summer Pre-College Programs: An FAQ

The College Transitions Team (from left to right): Dave Bergman, Andrew Belasco and Michael Trivette
The College Transitions Team (from left to right): Dave Bergman, Andrew Belasco and Michael Trivette

In the 1990s, while the rest of society was busy squirting each other with Super Soakers, listening to the Gin Blossoms, and carving Nike swooshes into their hair, colleges apparently realized for the first time their campuses were deserted during the summer. Then, in a Copernican moment, an administrator at a prestigious university had a revolutionary notion, “What if we filled up our dorms with high school students whose parents are caught up in the admissions hysteria and charged triple our normal tuition rate for the privilege?” Hence, the college summer program for high school sophomores and juniors was born.

Cynical pseudo-historical accounts aside, the merit of summer programs varies greatly from campus-to-campus and it is important to do your homework before reaching for that Visa card. The following Q & A seeks to address the most frequent queries we receive from parents on the topic.

How much do they cost?

Elite schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and Duke, charge between $1,500 and $3,000 per week for the privilege of sleeping in their dorms and having a few idle faculty members impart wisdom about the transition to college life. Programs abroad can be even pricier. On the other hand, some programs are actually free-of-charge, and can be far more valuable both in the experiential and admissions sense (more on this in a moment).   

Will they help my child’s chance at admission?

In most cases, no. A  summer spent strutting around Harvard Yard in a borrowed tweed jacket will be viewed by an admissions committee as equal in merit to spending your break restocking Horsey Sauce packets at an Arby’s in a mall food court. Admissions officers know that very few students have the resources to drop ten grand on a three week equivalent to summer camp and will not grant favor to those who attend. Doing so would be as absurd as NASA deciding to send a group of Space Camp attendees into orbit. Never mind that this scenario actually occurs, albeit by accident, in the 1986 Hollywood mega-flop, Space Camp.  

Do they have any admissions-related value?

Indirectly, perhaps. As with any experience a young person undertakes, a high-cost summer program could indirectly have a positive impact on a future application. For example, a summer program attendee might work on a project that ignites a passion which becomes ideal fodder for a future application essay. In some cases a student may impress a faculty member to the point where they are willing to write a glowing, committee-swaying letter of recommendation.

Yet, it is critical to be aware that the programs with the highest value are actually the ones that are cost-free and highly selective. For example, MIT offers several free programs that allow a select group of high school juniors to intensively study subjects such as the human genome or robotics.

College Transitions’ Bottom Line:

If you have unlimited resources and your son or daughter feels they would benefit from the experience, there is absolutely no harm in attending a high-end summer program. However, it is important to be realistic about what you’re paying for. Some “elite” programs accept as many as 80% of applicants. Again, we recommend first exploring more selective, cost-free programs that are merit-based and geared toward a discipline of genuine interest. And, if all else fails, don’t underestimate the value of a normal teenage summer experience. After all, you have to admit, the Sisyphean task of Horsey Sauce packet replenishment would make a damn original essay topic. 

For more information about our organization, please visit www.collegetransitions.com





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