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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

How to Decide If a Summer Program Is Worth It

As the number of students applying to college skyrockets, students search for ways to gain a competitive edge in the admissions process. Enter the pre-college summer program. Held at prestigious universities during the summer months, these programs allow students to take classes and develop their skills and talents while living with their peers in a college dorm. 


Though such summer programs have been around for a few decades, their popularity has increased among students seeking a leg up in the application process. However, the measurable impact on an applicant’s odds of getting into their dream colleges varies from program to program. Keep reading to learn which pre-college summer program might be worth your time. 


How Do I Know If A Summer Program Is Valuable for College Admissions?

The high cost of attending a summer program can be a barrier for many students. For a family already putting money aside for college, the idea of spending thousands on a summer program may be off-putting. In order to decide whether or not a program is worth it, students should do their research to find out if a given program will have a measurable, positive effect on their application. There are two main indicators that you can use to assess the likely impact of a program on your application: (1) the cost of the program and (2) the competitiveness of its admissions process.


Highest impact programs: In general, the summer programs that will have the most impact on your application are those that are free and that have a competitive application process. Free programs have the most impact because the college admissions committee can see that you did not essentially pay to add an activity to your resume. And getting into a prestigious program that accepts only a handful of applicants each year shows college admissions committees that you already possess skills and abilities that others find valuable. In particular, students can win points for choosing competitive summer programs that highlight their passions. If a student has taken every English literature class their school offers, pursuing a summer program in writing can demonstrate that they are serious about a career in this field. By contrast, if that same student attends a robotics program instead, despite not displaying any prior interest in robotics, the program might not fit cohesively into the student’s application. 


Programs that have some impact: Programs that are not free but that have a competitive admissions process may still hold some sway in the admissions process. These sorts of programs demonstrate that you stack up well against peers with similar interests, since you have gained admission to a selective program. However, because these programs aren’t free, they are not as accessible, and therefore are less impressive because they likely have a smaller pool of applicants (only those who can afford the program will apply). These programs are also a good opportunity to explore your interests and show your commitment to and interest in a given field.


Lowest impact programs: Attending a program that is not free and that has non-competitive admissions will not demonstrate the same level of qualification to the admissions committee, since anyone who has sufficient financial resources can attend such a program. Though these programs likely won’t boost your application, they still can provide valuable learning opportunities. You can try out a major or area of study and gain experience in your field(s) of interest. And, at the very least, these sorts of programs can allow you to get a feel for college life and build connections with students who share your interests.


More and Less Valuable Summer Programs

Wondering what summer programs have the most value from an admissions perspective? Boasting a competitive application process and free admission, the Research Science Institute (RSI) is one of the best options for high schoolers who are passionate about pursuing a STEM degree. Open to just 80 students, this MIT-hosted program allows participants to experience scientific research through on-campus and off-campus course work and interactions with scientists and researchers. The program concludes with both written and oral presentations.


On the other hand, the National Student Leadership Conference is an example of a summer program that isn’t necessarily worth the high price tag. Featuring courses in a range of fields, including business, art, and STEM, this program allows students to explore areas of interest while living on college campuses and participating in leadership training and other activities. Although the program purports to be highly competitive, the truth is that all high schoolers with a B average are eligible for admission. In fact, the NSLC invites thousands of students each year to participate in this program. With program costs between $2495 and $5295, the price tag likely doesn’t justify the minimal effect that attendance will have on attendees’ college admissions chances.


Should I List A Summer Program on My Application?

As we’ve discussed above, not all summer programs are equal in the eyes of admissions committees, so students and families have to decide for themselves whether it’s worth attending summer programs–and whether to include summer programs on their college applications. The Common App activities section only allows students to list ten activities, so in many cases students have to weigh which activities include and which to leave off. 


In general, programs with selective admissions and a low (or no) price tag are likely to impress admissions committees and may boost your odds of being accepted to top schools. It’s a good idea to include these kinds of programs in your resume or Common App activities section. 


If a program is less selective or more expensive, you should only include it in your application if it substantially adds to your application. For example, if a student attends a non-competitive STEM summer program and does not have other meaningful extracurricular activities that demonstrate his or her interest STEM, it might make sense to include this STEM summer experience on his or her resume and activities list. In this case, the student should specify what he or she got out of the program; this might mean listing a particular coding language the student learned or another new skill the student gained. By contrast, if that same student already has many meaningful and impressive STEM activities, it’s likely best for the student to leave off the summer program and use that space on his or her resume for another more impressive activity.


Finally, if you received a scholarship to a non-competitive or less-competitive summer program that normally is expensive, this can make your attendance more impressive. Receiving a scholarship to a costly program can demonstrate that you’re a truly qualified student who the summer program admissions officers wanted on their campus to enrich other attendees’ experiences. In this case, you should specify this on your resume or activities section. This could mean writing something like: “Selected to receive one of six all-expenses-paid scholarships, out of a pool of 400.”


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Short Bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.