15 April 2017

Are Ivy League summer programs really worth it?

The short answer: In terms of giving you a leg up on Ivy and other highly selective college admissions, probably not. 

The long answer: It depends.

The reality is that summer high school programs effectively function as cash cows for universities. Dorms that would otherwise sit empty can be filled for profit, and thousands of dollars in tuition can be charged for courses taught primarily by low-cost adjuncts and graduate students. Administrators are well aware that parents will gladly shell out thousands of dollars for bragging rights that their children are taking classes at Harvard. They know that many parents assume these names will carry the same type of weight with Ivy League admission officers as they do with friends, in-laws, etc. But usually, that’s not the case.

The only real exceptions are as follows:

First, if you are planning to take a course in an area in which you already have significant demonstrated interest/achievement in order to explore a topic you wouldn’t be able to study in high school. If you do truly exceptional work, a recommendation from an instructor who also teaches regular undergraduates at that university may carry weight with the admissions office. Especially if you’re attending a program at your absolute top-choice school, to which you’re planning to apply Early Decision, that certainly can’t hurt. 

Second, if you are an under-represented minority/first generation student whose high school sends few students to top colleges, and/or whose prior experience with higher education has been limited. Most programs offer financial aid, and a student in this category who manages to obtain a scholarship and do well is likely to get noticed. (Many admissions offices also give a tip to local applicants in the interest of town-gown relations, so for students who live close to a school, this can sometimes be a significant benefit.)

But if you’re an unhooked middle/upper middle class applicant, it probably won’t make a huge a difference as compared to, say, taking Chem 101 at your local state university and getting a stellar recommendation from your professor there.

What admissions officers are really interested in is seeing is how your summer activities fit in with the rest of your application. If your high school transcript and extracurriculars give no indication that you are interested in STEM fields, but your summer transcript shows an A in a three-week science class, that just isn’t going to carry much weight. If on, the other hand, you’re a computer science junkie with a ton of programming experience and are taking a class to learn skills more advanced than those covered in AP Comp Sci, that’s going to be viewed very differently.

Basically, it’s great if you want to explore new subjects for enrichment, or if you just want to have the experience of living on a college campus to see what all the fuss is about (or get away from your parents for a few weeks), but you shouldn’t go into these programs with the expectation of huge admissions dividends at top schools.

Contrary to popular belief, summer programs do not need to be expensive to be impressive. In fact, the opposite is usually true: the more expensive a (non-selective) program is, the less automatic weight it will probably carry at top schools. And if you try to use this type of program for the sole purpose of name-dropping on your application, it’ll likely hurt more than it helps.

Here is what admissions officers are impressed with: students who take the initiative to seek out opportunities that truly engage them, and who are able to make the most of whatever situation they happen to be in. 

Let me tell you a story.

A while back, I was contacted by the father of a rising junior who had his sights set on the Ivy League. He was highly motivated and a strong math/science student, but on the weaker side extra-curricularly. Any serious shot he had at a top school was going to have to come from the academic side. He was planning to sign up up for an expensive, more or less open admission summer program at an Ivy League school – was that, his father asked me, a good idea?

My response was that as a well-off applicant who came from a competitive public school and who had access to lots of opportunities, he would need real research experience in order to be seriously competitive at places like Princeton and Stanford. An expensive summer program that pretty much any student with enough money could attend would do little to set him apart.

The student was at that point involved in a weekend science program at a local university, and I suggested he ask his instructors there whether they might know of anyone willing to let a high school student volunteer in their lab for the summer. His son was a little apprehensive, but he agreed to ask around.

To reiterate: I suggested that the student turn down a slick, structured enrichment program that cost in the range of $10,000 in order to do grunt work in a lab somewhere, at no cost other than that for housing.

As it turned out, that somewhere turned out to be a different Ivy League school, and he ended up doing a bit more than grunt work. But getting the opportunity turned out to be a lot simpler than he thought: there was no complicated application process, nor was there much (or perhaps any) competition. Although he did need to have a brief interview, all he really had to do was ask. And while he was nervous going in, he ended up making a great impression and getting invited back the next year. He also got a recommendation from director of his lab. The student was ultimately admitted to several Ivy/Ivy equivalent schools, undoubtedly in part because of his experience there. 

Since then, I’ve advised other parents who were thinking of enrolling their children in high-cost summer programs to do the same; inevitably, they were surprised at how easy it was to find no-cost opportunities. The jobs may have not been terribly exciting, but they offered a sort of uncurated experience that can’t really be had in a classroom — and certainly not one that students pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of sitting in. All it usually took was a handful of emails to area schools.

Professors are like anyone else: most of them aren’t about to turn down the prospect of free help. 


2 Responses

  1. Erica,
    Marvelous. I’ll use the story you tell. Imagine: actually pursuing something you care about, image be damned, instead of gussying up your resume with something expensive and superficially impressive. How not cynical! And in the world of college admissions, no less! – Nick Fichter
    PS Love your books; have to get the new ones!

    1. admin

      Hi Nick,

      That actually wasn’t quite the point I was trying to make — the student’s real goal in looking for research opportunities was to make his eventual Ivy League applications as strong as possible. Yes, he enjoyed science quite a bit, and yes, the experience ended up being very rewarding, but was this type of research his absolute passion? I’m not so sure about that. The reality is that almost all of the (non-legacy) students I worked with who went on to tippy-top schools had parents who knew exactly what questions to ask, and who went out of their way to start positioning their children at least several years in advance. This family didn’t pull their son out of the Ivy program in question so that he could do what he loved — they did it because I counseled them about the fact that it wouldn’t make their son stand out at HYPS etc. and told them exactly what would. Although the student’s interest was genuine, it was a very calculated move.

      There are levels of savvy about how the admissions game is played: among families with means, there are those who think that shelling out additional thousands for fancy summer programs is some sort of automatic ticket into the Ivy League, which isn’t the case at all. On the other hand, there are parents who do very careful research and take the time to figure out exactly what their kids need to do to set themselves apart. The fact that doing so might involve less money is nice but also somewhat irrelevant. Their primary interest is in ensuring that their kids are competitive. Again, that is perfectly likely to involve an activity their children find very enjoyable, but the goal is admission to a top school, not enjoyment of the activity for its own sake.

      For me, the real issue is access to information about what top colleges are actually looking for. Stories about families who pay thousands of dollars for fancy summer programs or community service trips give the impression that colleges place far more value on expensive experiences than they actually do. The result is a lot of hand-wringing among middle-class families who feel that they can’t possibly keep up; however, those parents are really looking in the wrong direction. There’s a whole other category of family that has a much more nuanced understanding of how the admissions process works (that is, the unspoken rules), and how to exploit that process most effectively. It’s correlated with social class, but it’s not a simple cause-and-effect relationship.

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