What To Look For In A Pre-College Summer Program

The pre-college field is about three decades old. It has matured, more or less, alongside other services that developed largely as a consequence of the growing competitiveness of college admissions. There was a time, not too long ago, when applying to college was a pretty straightforward process. Taking the SAT was something you simply showed up for. No test prep involved. Although the college admissions “industry” existed in the 80s, it wasn’t until the 90s that prepping for the SAT became commonplace and hiring a private college consultant became a thing. Independent college consultants and rigorous test prep regimens, for those who can afford them, are now an established component of the college admissions process.

Similarly, although universities have been offering pre-college programs to high school students for some time, the market for these programs has expanded massively in the past twenty or so years. Today families approach “summer” with the same strategic eye towards college applications as they do test prep and most every other choice that will eventually get rolled up into an applicant’s representation of him or herself to a university.

Whether through a summer job, an internship, or enrichment (coursework, activities, etc), how you spend your summers is unquestionably an important consideration in the context of college admissions. Choosing a pre-college summer program for its college admissions “benefit” is likely part of the decision-making calculus for most families exploring the numerous available options. But there are certainly other ones. Here are some questions to ask yourself, in ascending order of importance, as you evaluate a particular pre-college summer program.

  • How Does This Pre-College Program Advance My College Admission Prospects?
  • How Does This Pre-College Program Help Me Better Understand My Ideal College?
  • How Does This Pre-College Program Help Me Better Understand My Academic and Professional Interests?
  • Is This Pre-College Program Worth The Cost of Participation?

How Does This Pre-College Program Advance My College Admission Prospects?

I’m not going to pretend that this isn’t the chief consideration for most families researching pre-college programs, including our own. It most likely is the most important factor in deciding which program to attend. That is ok, provided it isn’t the ONLY factor. However, I think a lot of families are making these decisions based on the wrong criteria. Focusing on the brand (highly selective schools in the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, etc) with the hope that it will bolster your admission prospects is, in and of itself, a mistake. As I’ve written before, you shouldn’t expect that attending a prestigious pre-college program will carry any real weight in the admissions office of that university or others. Without other qualifiers (see below), there is effectively “zero” consideration given to students that attend an “elite” pre-college program in admissions decisions at similarly “elite” (or the same) schools. If you’ve got your heart set on Harvard and you attend Harvard’s pre-college summer program, I sincerely doubt that an admissions official is going to give anything other than the most trivial significance to that fact in evaluating your application against the roughly 7 million other applicants to Harvard that also did Harvard’s pre-college program.

Sure, Harvard’s pre-college website says, “Attending Harvard Summer School and performing well will strengthen your application to any college or university.” I don’t doubt that is true. It certainly isn’t going to hurt your college applications, but many families read a lot more into this sort of statement than they should. It is important to keep in mind that the courses on these programs are pass/fail and non-credit bearing. To receive a passing grade, according to many of the courses listed in Harvard’s pre-college course catalog, you simply need to attend every class session. Admissions officers know this. Taking Principles of Microeconomics at your local community college is likely going to be viewed in the same (or better) light as taking the similar offering at Harvard’s pre-college program.

The same can be said of just about any other “elite” pre-college program out there. Just because it is an “elite” university doesn’t mean that participating in their pre-college program confers the same implicit acknowledgment of your capabilities as, say, an undergraduate degree from that same institution. There are exceptions. These tend to be free programs with very low acceptance rates where participation IS viewed by admissions officers as an indication of your outstanding potential in a particular field. These are also typically highly specialized programs, focused on, for instance, engineering or mathematics.

So if it isn’t going to provide you with a meaningful edge in college admissions, why attend a pre-college program, at Harvard, Brown, Columbia, or wherever? Lots of reasons. I think the most important ones are the ones below, but in the context of college admissions, a pre-college summer program can be incredibly helpful. Where you go is less important, in this regard, than what you study. For students that already have a handle on their academic and professional interests, participating in a pre-college program that focuses explicitly on that area of interest is, in general, a better option than one that offers a broad course catalog. While the latter is appropriate for students that are still figuring out their interests and want to get the proverbial taste of campus life, the former is going to provide for more intellectual stimulation by allowing for the type of inquiry that is typically not possible during the regular school year. There are plenty of specialized programs out there, whether in STEM, the arts, or even our own niche of sustainability. The best programs, I think, are the ones that create lots of space for project-based learning and deep exploration of a specific subject.

Unfortunately, a lot of the pre-college programs out there simply ask students to select a couple of courses from the course catalog, take notes during lectures, do some homework, and attend a few workshops on college admissions. That sounds a lot like, well, school. And while there are unquestionably benefits to this type of program, those same benefits (experiencing campus life, college level coursework, meeting new people and possible mentors or references, etc.) exist on a “specialized” program. For students that don’t really have a clear sense of a “specialization” that they want to explore, taking a couple of pre-college courses could prove helpful in honing in on some specific academic interests. Maybe you discover that college level chemistry isn’t as interesting as you thought it might be, but you really loved your economics course. There is value in that, to be sure. But it probably isn’t going to advance your college admissions prospects in any meaningful way, in and of itself. On the other hand, if your new found interest in economics results in your participation in one of the specialized economics summer programs for high school students, you take AP Economics and score a 5 on the test, and end up “pitching” yourself as a likely Econ major at colleges with strong Econ departments, you’re going to be setting yourself apart from the pack. This is all about your theme as an applicant. Colleges want well-rounded classes comprised of individuals that can fit neatly into certain categories that admissions wants or needs in each class, from the much overused trope of the tuba player to the academic or athletic “all-star.” If you don’t know the difference between water polo and polo, and are otherwise not a top athletic recruit or have some other esoteric skill, positioning yourself – authentically, of course – as a future academic heavy-weight in a particular discipline is going to make it a lot easier to standout to admissions than simply being an all around solid student. This is where participation in a “specialized” pre-college program – in whatever academic subject you’re interested in – can help tell your story on your application.

How Does This Pre-College Program Help Me Better Understand My Ideal College?

This and the other questions below are, I think, the most important ones families should be asking themselves. A college education is a huge investment. You can get an excellent education at hundreds of different institutions and the long-term monetary benefit of attending an “elite” school – for most of the college-bound population – is essentially zero compared to “non-elite” schools. In other words, students destined to be “successful” will be equally successful regardless of whether they went to the Ivy League or their state school. (The exception is for socioeconomically marginalized students who disproportionately benefit from attending an elite college.) You want to identify a place that is going to feel like home for the next four years. Somewhere that you’ll be happy, develop meaningful friendships, and provide creative and intellectual stimulation. “Trying on” a particular college during a pre-college program is, in a lot of ways, equivalent to trying on a pair of new shoes. You’ll get a sense for how it fits. You might quickly realize that you need to go a size up or down to find your ideal fit. Or maybe you liked the way they looked on the rack, but looking at yourself in the mirror you discover they don’t look quite right on you. Of course, maybe they do seem perfect at the store, but you aren’t really going to know how they’re going work out in the long-run until you’ve put some mileage on them. A pre-college summer program is far from the perfect proxy for your perfect college, but it will be a very helpful data point as you consider what’s important to you in a university.

How Does This Pre-College Program Help Me Better Understand My Academic and Professional Interests?

As mentioned above, what you study is a lot more important than where you study it. The financial return on an “elite” school compared to a “non-elite” one is “indistinguishable from zero.” Entering any degree program with a sound understanding of your academic and professional interests will allow you to make better decisions in your course selection and extracurricular choices, and ultimately maximize the investment in your education in a number of ways. It’s difficult to excel in subjects you aren’t passionate about. You’ll identify specific areas of interest within an academic discipline, which will allow for greater opportunities to explore that interest through research or internships. And you might even graduate a semester (or two) earlier than you otherwise would, saving real money. I don’t want to diminish the value of dabbling in diverse subjects while in college. The world is an endlessly fascinating place and college is the ideal time to discover the things that will engage and satisfy you in the phase of life that comes after. But your college years will fly by faster than you can possibly imagine. You won’t be able to do everything and there as an opportunity cost to every decision you make. That cost is particularly high in terms of both college tuition and your own time, which you will never get back. Better to discover that you aren’t as enthusiastic about economics as you thought you might be in a one-week pre-college program than an entire semester-long course. On the flip side, most high school students, even the most informed ones, don’t fully grasp how specialized academic and professional fields are until they start really engaging with a subject at the college level. Every summer we have students who enter our program with a strong existing interest in environmental science, but come to discover that environmental policy or social entrepreneurship or some other field is a new found interest related to but altogether different from what initially led them to want to participate in our program in the first place. This is a really valuable discovery in both the short and long-terms. From a college admissions standpoint, your application will benefit if you can articulate precisely why a particular college is an ideal match for you and vice versa (eg; the school has a highly reputable environmental studies program, you want to solve environmental problems, and you’ve come to that realization through your academic and extracurricular activities). Once you are actually enrolled in a course of study somewhere, you’ll be that much more informed and self-aware of your interests and able to make better choices with your time time and tuition dollars.

Is This Pre-College Program Worth The Cost of Participation?

We often bring a bit of economics into our programs. Looking at the world through the lens of economics is useful. Every decision has an opportunity cost. When it comes to the environment, there are always going to be tradeoffs (for example, a hydro-electric dam provides “clean” energy, but causes significant ecological disruption and creates new problems for some stakeholder groups). But let’s shine that same economic spotlight on the decision to attend a pre-college program. What is the cost of attending Yale’s Global Scholars pre-college program? It isn’t just $6250 (or whatever it is). It is whatever else you didn’t spend $6250 on (and whatever else you might have done with your time during those two weeks). And while economists universally agree that investing in a college education has one of the best returns on investment, the return on a pre-college program is of a far more uncertain nature. That same $6250 that you didn’t spend on Yale pre-college would be worth about $7600 three years later if invested at a 7% annualized rate compound annually. Maybe investing the money in your 529 savings plan is a better choice for some families. If you’re asking yourself the questions above and struggling to come up with solid answers, I would say it is certainly a better use of the money. This cost-benefit analysis is going to be different for every family, of course. Economists can calculate the cost-benefit, in dollar terms, of a college degree or of saving an acre of rainforest or any manner of things. There is, however, very little cost-benefit analysis in K-12 education, yet society has universally accepted that a free K-12 education should be made available to every student (in the US) for free. Of course, in an economic sense, it is not “free” and the quality of education varies hugely from place to place and child to child. In an ideal world, every young person would have access to free post-secondary education and academic enrichment throughout their K-12 years. We don’t live in that world. But as the founder and director of an organization that espouses this ideal, I am bound by a moral imperative to deliver an educational service of the absolute highest value. From my perspective, the last thing I want is any student, whether they’re paying full tuition or a few hundred as a scholarship participant, feeling like they didn’t get outstanding value from one of our programs. This is part of the reason we’re pretty picky about who we accept into our programs. If we have any hesitation about your ability to extract significant value from the experience (based on how you represent yourself in your application) we’re going to suggest you find something that is a better fit since that is a much better for everyone.