Should I Take College Classes Over the Summer?
As you know, making good use of your summers is an important way in which you can maximize your high school potential, and a well-planned summer activity is a significant asset for your future college applications. On the CollegeVine blog, we’ve written about many different summer plans in the posts in our Summer Activities category.
One summer option that can be particularly attractive for college-bound high school students is that of taking college courses while you’re still in high school. Whether through a program designed specifically for high school students, or through an open enrollment option at a local college, successfully taking on college coursework demonstrates both your academic capabilities and your dedication to seeking out challenging experiences.
Interested in finding out more about summer college courses that accept high school enrollees? Read on for an overview of the types of programs available, the pros and cons of taking college courses in the summer, and the steps you can take towards taking summer college courses in high school.
Taking summer college courses in high school: an introduction
Obviously, you can’t simply walk into any college of your choice and sign up for a summer class. However, there are a number of different avenues by which high-school students can register for summer courses at the college level.
Below, we’ll list your main options and describe their distinguishing features. Your individual choices will depend upon such factors as where you live, your transportation options, and what you can afford. Before you decide which option might be appropriate for you, you’ll need to have a talk with your family about what resources you can draw upon to make your coursework possible.
Participating in a college’s summer program for high school students:
This type of program is specifically intended for students your age, so you’ll be mostly among your peers, often in courses specifically selected for your age group. (Depending upon the program, your academic courses may also include current undergraduates.)
Unlike the options listed below, these programs are often residential, so you’ll also get the experience of living in a dorm, participating in other group activities, and socializing with your fellow participants. Many colleges across the country offer programs of this type, and some popular options that provide college-level courses for credit are:
- Brown University’s Pre-Baccalaureate Credit Program
- Cornell University’s Summer College
- Duke University’s Summer College for High School Students
- Georgetown University’s Summer at Georgetown College Credit Courses
- Harvard University’s Secondary School Program
- The University of Pennsylvania’s Pre-College Progam
Not every summer program for high school students that’s run by a college will provide you with actual college-level courses or credits, so read the fine print. You should also keep in mind that taking a college course through a program for high school students will not guarantee that you’ll eventually being admitted to that college or university. In fact, it generally won’t increase your chances of admission at all.
Taking a course at a local community college:
Community colleges often have an open enrollment policy, meaning anyone can register for a college-level course without entering a degree program, though there may be age limits and prerequisites or placement tests may be required for certain courses.
Since these courses are open, your classmates will likely be of a range of different ages and educational levels. These classes are simply classes, not cohesive programs, so you won’t have residential or other programming options, but they’ll likely be much more affordable than programs intended just for high school students.
Taking an Extension School or Continuing Education course at a local college:
Courses offered through a college’s Extension School or Continuing Education department also often have open enrollment. Some courses may have prerequisites, and some programs have age limits; check the program’s enrollment policies for details. These programs are usually designed for working adults, so that’s who your classmates will most likely be.
Taking an online college course:
This can be a particularly good option if your local options are limited, or you have to juggle a summer course with a job or other responsibilities. Your classmates might be any age and from nearly any location. Not all online programs are equally well-respected, however, so you’ll need to be careful in choosing a good program.
Pros of college-level summer coursework
As we’ve mentioned above, taking college courses over the summer while in high school can benefit you in a number of different ways. Besides giving you a chance to show off your academic prowess, college coursework can have significant practical benefits for your ongoing development as a student and your future college plans.
Getting a head start on college credits can save you time and money.
Depending upon your eventual choice of college for your bachelor’s degree, the college credits that you complete over the summer may transfer to the college that you end up attending. If these credits can be applied to your degree requirements, you may be able to graduate from college early—and since community-college courses generally cost less per credit-hour than courses at a four-year college, this can save you money.
Completing college prerequisites in advance may allow you to take more interesting advanced courses as an undergraduate.
At many colleges, prerequisite requirements will limit your course choices, and you may have to sit through a lot of massive lecture classes on basic topics before you can access the more interesting seminars. If you take some prerequisites before you get to college, you may be able to skip right to these higher-level courses (assuming that the credits for these courses transfer) or “test out” of a prerequisite requirement.
College coursework can make up for a lack of options at your high school.
Not every high school can offer a full range of advanced courses, and if your desired high school classes are offered at the same time of day, that can further complicate your efforts to take a challenging courseload. Taking a summer college course can introduce more flexibility into your pre-college academic plans and give you additional options.
You’ll get a taste of the college-style learning environment.
Obviously, college is different from high school, and even taking an AP class is different from being in an actual college classroom. Whether your course is an intimate seminar or a large lecture with smaller discussion sections, it will introduce you to the types of classes you’re likely to encounter in college. You may even find that these new environments suit you better and bring out a different intellectual side of you.
You’ll gather information about what kind of college environment will be best for your undergraduate experience.
Immersing yourself in a college environment can give you a uniquely clear perspective on what features might work best for you in a prospective college, as well as ones you’ll want to avoid when making your college list. This information can come in handy when you’re narrowing down where you should apply or choosing where to attend.
You’ll show colleges that you take your academic development seriously.
Taking college courses in high school demonstrates your ambition, your high level of academic achievement, and your willingness to think outside the box to pursue your intellectual interests. Also, as always, colleges will be pleased to see that you’ve used your summers wisely.
Cons of college-level summer coursework
There are plenty of reasons why taking a summer college course while you’re in high school might be a great idea for you. However, like any other summer plan, this option isn’t for everyone. Even if you’re pretty sure that you want to pursue a summer college course, you should take note of the considerations we’ve listed below.
Summer college credits may not transfer to the college you end up attending.
Your future college might accept your summer courses only to determine placement, not for credit toward your degree, or they might even not accept those courses at all. Different colleges have different policies, and some have more complicated review policies for transfer credits. While you’ll still benefit in many ways from taking a summer college course, you may not save time or money on your bachelor’s degree in the end.
You may not be ready yet for college-level coursework and expectations.
College comes after high school for a reason, and high school curricula are designed to give you the knowledge and skills necessary to prepare you for college. If you haven’t yet acquired these skills or the academic background necessary to bring you up to a college level, you may find it difficult to succeed in a college course.
Your high school may not have prepared you well for college course content.
Again, what you learn in high school forms a foundation for what you’ll study in college, but not every high school offers equally rigorous preparation, particularly in the earlier grades. Even if you’ve completed the named prerequisites for a college course, your actual readiness depends upon the quality of your high school coursework.
You may feel out of place among older and more advanced students.
If you take a summer college course that’s open to a wide range of people, you’ll likely be among the youngest and least experienced students in the classroom, which can be intimidating for some high school students.
Summer college courses can be expensive.
Your costs will vary depending upon the college you select, with residential programs tending to be particularly pricey, so they may not be within your means. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of books and materials—in a summer art course, for example, be prepared for a lengthy list of supplies you’ll need to purchase early in the course. Some programs intended for high school students may offer financial aid or merit scholarships.
Summer college courses may require you to make travel arrangements.
If your program is far away, in order to get there, you’ll either have to be comfortable traveling alone or perhaps allocate additional funds to have a parent travel with you. If you’re attending a college closer to home, you’ll have to figure out how to get there for class, whether that’s driving yourself, getting a ride from a family member, or taking public transit.
You’ll have to spend your summer doing academic work.
This may seem obvious, but any academically focused summer program will require an investment of intellectual energy, and going to school over the summer isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. You’ll be graded on your performance, and a college course may be much more challenging than your high school courses, so you’ll need to study hard and take your course(s) seriously.
Summer college courses limit your ability to pursue other summer plans.
A college course is a commitment, even in the summer, and taking on that commitment will limit your other options—you can’t leave for two weeks of family vacation in the middle of the summer session, for instance. Clearly, you can’t do everything at once, and you may have to make tough decisions about which summer activities to prioritize.
Things you need to do if you choose to take college courses in the summer
If, after you consider these potential pros and cons, you believe that taking a college course over the summer is the right choice for you, it’s time to consider your options and start making plans. Here, you’ll find some advice about how to move forward and find a program that’s a great fit for you.
Talk to your guidance counselors and teachers about whether you can handle college-level coursework.
Teachers who know you well will be best equipped to assess your level of performance and whether you’re likely to succeed in a college course. Your guidance counselor can use their experience with past students to help as well. (For more information about how your guidance counselor can help you prepare for college, see our blog post How to Build a Relationship With Your Guidance Counselor.)
Research credit transfer policies at colleges you might eventually attend.
Summer college courses can do more for you than allow you to build up college credit, but if that’s a major factor in your decision, these courses can only save you time and money on your bachelor’s degree if they successfully transfer to your future college. Either way, some research will tell you what to expect from a given school.
Thoroughly read course descriptions and syllabi (if available) to find a course in which you’ll feel comfortable.
Descriptions and syllabi can tell you a lot about the course and its workload, from how much reading will be required to when your homework or written papers will be due. These can be key factors in determining whether that course is a good fit for you. Since college courses are often much more narrowly focused than high school courses, it’s especially important for you to understand what you’ll be studying in advance.
Talk to other students who have taken summer college courses while in high school.
Getting a firsthand account of the experience from a trusted source can be invaluable. Other students who have gone through similar situations can give you uniquely useful advice about how to succeed at the collegiate level and what surprises might await you in a college classroom.
Just like any option for summer activities, taking a summer college course is not the best choice for everyone. Not every high-school student can handle either the content or the structure of a college-level class, nor is every student willing to spend their summer in the classroom. However, if you’re able to rise to the academic challenge, summer college coursework can be a great way to enhance your academic experience in high school.
Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!
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