COLLEGE COUNSELING WITH MARTIN WALSH
Making the Most of the Summer
By Martin Walsh
Every winter students and parents approach me with the same questions: “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 at students who are still in secondary school has ballooned dramatically in the space of a generation. Colleges and universities learned that it was in their economic interest to offer many options over the summer aimed at 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 three-month period. I mention this first, given that one of the main driving forces for many summer programs is to generate money for the school.
In order to attract students to these programs, schools have been resourceful in devising summer programs that cover virtually every kind of academic and extracurricular interest that a person might have. A student interested in high-level research can find wonderful options, just as a student who wants to become a professional writer can find great programs, and a student wanting to take a course in virtually any academic field can find an option somewhere.
In addition to these subject-based options, there are programs that focus on leadership. Others are geared toward business. Still others promote service. And then there are the large number of sports camps and alternative programs that are tied neither to the college’s academic mission nor to the students’ intellectual growth. The latter are more like summer camps than an academic experience.
Many international students and parents consider some of the summer programs offered around the U.S. as great ways of gaining 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 such as the SAT or ACT are supposed to predict how a student will do in coursework at the college or university level, shouldn’t earning a high grade for an actual course at the school itself 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 primary 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 stated in clear terms that enrolling in a summer program will constitute a significant advantage in the admission process.
If a college or university did come out and publicly make such a statement, this would generate a huge backlash from many educators. There are untold numbers of students that 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 putting them in daycare. Or some may be engaged in activities at home or somewhere else that involve service or something of the sort that precludes a student from enrolling in a summer program. Giving students who take a summer course an advantage in admission would create yet another wedge between the haves and have-nots 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 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 I do not come across as anti-summer programs. I think these offerings provide wonderful experiences for the students. For starters, they represent an opportunity to have meaningful social experiences where students meet other students and bond, all while getting a feel for college life by living in a dorm and gaining a sense of how college courses work. All this is positive and helpful. But there may be other options that students could choose over the summer that would actually help in the admission process more than the summer programs offered by universities and colleges.
Perhaps a student could enroll in a MOOC (MIT offers a robust set of options). Or, alternatively, students may help themselves in both admission and in life generally by doing something they love 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 engaging in 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.
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