Summer Programs and Selective Admission

How should I choose a summer school program? What does the experience look like? How do I make sure my summer school will benefit my application?

I was asked to answer the questions above on the website For those unfamiliar with this website it is the Chinese version of I have changed my answers so that what I write in response applies to all students rather than just students from China.


Thank you for asking this important question. In recent years thousands of students from China have come to the US to enroll in summer programs. Many of the students have enjoyed the experience they have received. But there area number of important things that students and parents should know before investing a lot of money on one of these programs. (Note: What I am going to stress about summer programs applies to any student, domestic or international.)

I. The Range of Programs

First of all, 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 a re 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, except tangentially, 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. According to the New York Times, more than 100,000 students from China came to the US last summer:

By some estimates, more than 100,000 Chinese students, some as young as 10, flocked to the United States this summer to delve into American life and culture. Some studied diligently in programs intended to improve their SAT scores. Others kicked back and enjoyed more leisurely pursuits, on group tours that visited Las Vegas, New York and Disneyland. Some attended outdoor camps.

In addition to students from China, of course, there are thousands of domestic students and students from other countries enrolling in summer programs. To put this in an economic perspective I will estimate that the average program will cost a student between $4,000-$6000 (this may be slightly off but is based on costs I see students charged at some elite schools) For student from China alone, schools will be dividing up about $750,000,000. The summer programs as a whole are a multi billion-dollar industry. Students from China are coming in such large numbers because, over the last decade, the interest in coming to the US for an undergraduate degree has skyrocketed. At the same time, the competition for students to get into the most elite schools has become far more competitive than it has ever been. The schools at the top offer admission to fewer than 10% of those students who apply. For international students, and for those from China in particular, the acceptance percentage is far lower than that. (While there are no absolute quotas set by schools when it comes to students from particular countries there are goals that students set and since China sends the largest number of applicants from any country the acceptance rate for these student at the most elite schools is often well below 5%.

II. How Much Do Summer Programs Affect Admission Decisions?

Many students and parents, in China and elsewhere, 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? (So far as I know, there is no deep research on this particular question for reasons that will become clear later.)

While I cannot speak for the policy on how these courses are evaluated by admission officers all highly selective schools I can speak to what I believe is most often the case For the most part, summer programs students enroll in, even the ones at elite colleges and universities, play a small to negligent role in an admission decision.

The purpose of these 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 coms to access to elite schools.

I do think, however, that not enough parents, and educational consultants too, especially in China, are aware that while these programs provide a wonderful academic or social experience they do not help the student gain an advantage in admission.

To give just one example about how the universities promote the programs I will quote Stanford’s overview:

The Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes are three-week and four-week residential programs for academically talented and motivated high school students. The Summer Institutes provide an opportunity for these students to enrich and accelerate their academic pursuits and to meet other students who share their interests and abilities.

Summer Institutes participants live in supervised Stanford housing and are taught by instructors who are experts in their fields and passionate about teaching. Students engage in intensive study in a single course and are introduced to topics not typically presented at the high school level. The Summer Institutes provide a taste of college life in the beautiful surroundings of the Stanford campus.

Summer Institutes subject areas include arts and humanities, business, computer science, engineering, legal studies, mathematics, social science, physical and biological science, and writing. The instructors are assisted by undergraduate and graduate student mentors who have expertise in the course subject areas. These mentors serve a dual role of Residential Counselor and Teaching Assistant so that the academic and social aspects of the program are tightly integrated.

There is nothing in the language that even hints that students who enroll in this program get an advantage in admission. But it is also true that they do not come out and say in written form that the programs have no effect in admission. I wish the schools would say this in writing, but it would likely result in fewer students taking summer courses. In addition, while it is true that the vast majority of student who take summer courses do not gain and advantage, there are a very small number of who do. For example, I have read recommendations written by professors who have taught a particular student in a summer program that had a positive affect on an admission decision. But these kinds of letters are rare. If a professor is willing to say a particular student is one of the best they have ever taught in a summer program and that the student has exceptional ability that indicates they would be a star student at the university, then this can help. But professors do not often indulge in hyperbole and so they rarely say things in a recommendation that will have a dramatic effect on an admission decision. To sum up on recommendations: : many students who take summer classes do get recommendations from their instructors, but while almost all of them are positive, most of them do not help much. The courses that the students take are often precollege in nature and they are not perceived by many admission officers as challenging as courses offered to fully enrolled students during the Fall and Spring semesters.

There are a few summer programs that target particular kinds of students and these can help these students gain admission. For example, a school like MIT offers a program that pays all the fees for represented student to attend a 6 week summer program Under-represented students who have done very well in the this program and have demonstrated strengths in academics may well be recruited by MIT. Summer programs that target under-served populations are designed to help increase the pool of student who will apply for admission. Many of these programs, not just at MIT, cover the cost for these students to attend.

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.

One of these options was highlighted by the NY Times this past summer:

Anthony Liu, 17, who will be a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall, said he completed five MOOCs on topics like artificial intelligence. He estimates he tried out nearly 20 others that he did not finish.

I have written about MOOCs several times before. I think they provide low cost options for student to learn valuable things like coding. In addition, some of the top professors at the most elite schools in the world offer MOOCS on a full range of topics. It is very rare for a top professor to teach a summer course for high school students. MOOCs on te other hand have some of the top people in the field leading student through the courses. It s important to say, however, that many colleges have not come out and said that MOOCs help in admission either. There are a number of concerns about them — security issues are perhaps at the top of the list. Nevertheless, students who have completed MOOCs, as Anthony Liu did, may be able to demonstrate skills in ways student may not who take a precollege course over the summer.

Finally, students may help themselves in life and in admission by doing something they have to do or 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.

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