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Summer Programs at Prestigious Colleges: Are They Worth It?

By Robert LeVine

Conventional wisdom suggests that summer programs at well-known universities are a good way to spend a student’s time and a parent’s money. Maybe yes, maybe no.

Here is the truth: although summer school can inspire or give insight to students, it usually does not help the student’s admissions resume. In fact, it can hurt.

Let us consider “Andy,” a brilliant student with great grades and near-perfect test scores. Andy spent three weeks last summer at the University of Chicago, which became his favorite school. After writing incredible essays and collecting superlative recommendation letters, Andy filed his application for Early Decision to Chicago.

Andy was denied. Why?

For America’s most selective colleges, being a qualified academician makes a candidate look … just like everyone else. In rough terms, 90 percent of the applicant pool is qualified academically, just like Andy. And because grades and test scores are the primary factors used to evaluate the academic ability of a student, Andy’s three-week camp added little to his already-stellar record.

Moreover, we must remember that the best schools are looking for achievement, not just participation. Think about it: attending summer school does not prove that a student achieved at the school. It does not even prove that the student attended any classes!

Yet even if it were possible to demonstrate achievement in a summer program, that would not have distinguished Andy from the rest of the admissions pool. Lots of students achieve academically.

Colleges and universities evaluate applicants in many attributes, but in Andy’s case (and for almost everyone), one factor deserves strong consideration: originality. A pre-packaged summer program does not make you look different from anyone else who attends the same pre-packaged program (or any other summer program). If there are lots of applicants who do the same thing, a school doesn’t necessarily need to select you for their class.

What are the colleges really seeking? Contribution, which can be loosely defined as a student’s inclination to add value to a campus community. Students seldom contribute academically to a school. They take from the classroom much more than they give. They attend school to get an education. That is why you pay tuition!

Because America’s private universities utilize a holistic method of evaluation, applicants are graded in multiple areas, not just academics. Focusing your summer efforts on academics does not contribute to the non-academic pieces of the admissions puzzle, such as extracurricular activities.

But Andy did what he thought was a smart thing: he had a Chicago professor write him a recommendation letter. Then he submitted the letter with his application. That should help, right?


Imagine when the admissions office contacted the professor. “Tell me about Andy,” they asked. Then came the professor’s response. “Who is Andy…?”

Andy’s application was likely endangered before he even filed it. Three weeks on a campus is a wonderful opportunity for a college to audition potential students. Yet the students are not prepared to be observed and evaluated, nor are they aware that they should stay in touch with the school after the summer program is over.

I spoke with Andy this morning to prepare him for an Ivy League interview. He is a fine young man, a serious student but also a fun guy who smiles broadly and constantly. He will achieve a great college, but not at Chicago, and not because of summer school.

Andy’s is a cautionary tale. Summer school was supposed to help him, and it did. Studying at Chicago helped Andy find his academic direction. It did not, however, help his application for admission. If he had done something else, something original, then perhaps Chicago would have appreciated his brilliance and individuality.

We believe in summer programs, but only if they are good for developing the student. If you want to build a resume that will impress our best schools, do something different.

Robert A.G. Levine, president of University Consultants of America, can be reached at (813) 391-3760, email rlevine@universitycoa.com or visit www.SelectiveCollegeConsulting.com

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