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Paid Summer Experiences: Helpful for college admissions?!


"Can't I just pay for a prestigious summer experience for my kid? Will colleges know the difference?"


If you’re a high school parent... chances are, your kid has received unsolicited invitations with words like:

  • “Congratulations! Because of your academic achievements, you’ve been selected to join…”

  • Or: “This is for only highly accomplished students…”

  • Or even: “Come to [brand name school] for the summer with other student leaders like yourself…”

These invitations come in official looking envelopes with seals. They make big promises. And their websites look legitimate. All of this leads to excitement around the house.

Every year, thousands of parents fork over thousands of dollars to enroll their kids in summer camps like these for a few days.

These expensive summer camps must help a student's college admissions chances, right? And if the camp is on a well known college campus, it must be prestigious, right?

Wrong and wrong.

These programs aren't technically scams, since students are technically “selected." But they do not help your kid's chances. In some cases, these types of summer activities may actually hurt their chances.

That's because seasoned admissions officers understand that:

#1. While these camps might be hosted at a prestigious college, the actual program itself is NOT affiliated with the school.

This is important for you to know. During the summer, universities often rent vacant lecture halls and dorms to third parties for extra revenue.

A program hosted at Harvard doesn't mean it's as selective as Harvard, or even operated by Harvard. And if you examine the fine print, you may find that none of the program's faculty are even affiliated with Harvard!

#2. These programs are “pay to play”… and their selection process is far from rigorous.

If you want to attend one of these programs, you’ll likely have to go through a short application process. It's relatively easy. Send in your transcript, your test scores, and a few other pieces... and you're good to go!

In fact, the most important part of the application is often whether you can afford the price tag of the program. The acceptance rate to these programs is very high.

In other words, attending these summer programs only tells the admissions officer that:

  • a) you got into a program that almost anyone can get into… and

  • b) you're willing to pay a large sum of money for a few days, thinking it’ll boost your college admissions chances

Can you see how that might not reflect positively on the student?

#3. In these programs, students usually don't take on active roles.

Colleges want to see students take on active roles in their summer activities, not passive ones.

An active role is when a student is contributing to the organization or project in a meaningful way. For example, in the Simons Summer Research Program, students work on a project alongside a professor over the course of 2 months. This is an active role, and Simons is a legitimate program.

A passive role is when a student is only there to soak in the experience, without contributing. For example, a passive role is going to a leadership camp to just listen to lectures, with few team bonding exercises sprinkled in.

"Pay to play" programs often put students in passive roles because it's easier and cheaper.

So, how do you tell if a summer program is “legit”?

We recommend the following litmus test:

  • Vet the organization behind it. Who is actually hosting the program? Is it a reputable and well established organization, or is it just borrowing the name of the university? You can often tell by the caliber of the organizers & lecturers.

  • Find out its acceptance rate. Many programs say they are selective but actually have a very high acceptance rate. While not all summer programs post their acceptance rate online, the well known ones do. Ideally, you want to aim for more selective summer programs.

  • Gauge the complexity of the application process. If a program doesn’t disclose its acceptance rate, you can use the complexity of the application process as a proxy. The more involved it is (e.g. asking for multiple recommendations, long form essays, etc.), the more rigorous the program generally is.

  • Look for active roles only. Will you be an active contributor, or a passive member? Are you going to complete a project, write a research paper, publish something, build something, etc.?

  • Look at the price tag. Many of the most prestigious programs are actually free or provide a stipend. Those programs are generally very competitive. They're well known to admissions officers, and their funding often comes from a legitimate foundation. That said, some great programs do cost money too. Use this indicator in conjunction with other indicators in this list.

We understand that it can be very flattering to students to receive mail telling them that they’ve been "hand selected" for a program. These programs prey on students who are not familiar with this type of marketing. But given the opportunity cost, we recommend students to spend their summers elsewhere.

Excerpted from Admissions Science


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