Last Updated: Sep 14, 2020
College admission officers love applicants who challenge themselves and push their boundaries, both inside and outside the classroom—and pre-college programs are a great way to demonstrate that. As students spend the school year balancing a rigorous course schedule on top of extracurricular activities, athletics, test preparation, and (I almost forgot) a social life, summer pre-college academic programs offer invaluable opportunities to take advanced courses and make use of resources not available in most high schools. And with most application deadlines set several months before programs begin, it’s never too early to start planning your summer.
Why attend a pre-college summer program?
Summer academic programs allow high school students to:
- Explore specialized subjects from Archaeology to Veterinary Medicine, or learn a foreign language not offered in your high school’s curriculum.
- Preview careers in fields like business, engineering, and government through pre-professional programs that combine coursework with career seminars, guest speakers, and field trips to work sites.
- Earn transferable college credit and save on undergraduate tuition.
- Develop the independence and time-management skills necessary to ease the transition from high school to college.
- Build confidence in your academic abilities and demonstrate that you can handle college-level work.
Programs held on college campuses can be a valuable tool in the college search process, providing prospective applicants with an in-depth look at academic and student life. Although a few colleges guarantee admission or award scholarships to students who complete a summer program on campus, most programs explicitly state that attendance does not improve your odds of undergraduate admission. However, spending a week or more living in dormitories and meeting students and professors will help you better articulate your reasons for wanting to attend when it’s time to fill out that application—or you might find that your dream college isn’t so dreamy after all.
Which summer program is right for you?
The first step in selecting a summer program should be discussing your plans with your school counselor and family. Decide whether location or subject material is more important to you, if you’d like to attend a residential or commuter program, and how many weeks of the summer you’ll have available; session lengths range from two-day conferences to eight weeks or more. Keep in mind that the most valuable summer programs will offer opportunities that aren’t available in your high school.
It’s important to establish your family’s budget, as summer tuition costs run as high as several thousand dollars. Merit- or need-based financial aid may help defray program costs, and some funded programs are offered tuition-free. Admission to free programs is usually very competitive and may be limited to in-state residents or students from underrepresented backgrounds. Paid internships with business or science research facilities offer high-achieving students opportunities to earn a salary or stipend.
Academic programs are conducted by boarding schools, major research universities, smaller two- and four-year colleges, and private companies. Boarding schools offer a preview of dormitory living on small campuses and course material geared toward high school students. Colleges and university programs offer a higher degree of social freedom and less structured coursework; program participants are treated like college students and often enroll in introductory-level classes alongside undergraduates. Private companies operate programs on various boarding school and college campuses, but instructors usually are not affiliated with the school.
It’s never too early to start applying to summer programs
Summer program application deadlines range from the fall of the previous year for the most selective programs to others with rolling admission or open enrollment that accept students until programs are filled. Some programs, such as state Governor’s Schools, require counselors or principals to nominate students.
Applying to selective summer programs provides a small-scale preview of the college application process, requiring applicants to submit high school transcripts, standardized test scores, teacher recommendations, and one or more essays or writing samples. Prerequisites for admission may include minimum GPA or PSAT/SAT scores, and some programs conduct phone or in-person interviews with applicants. You’ll want to get started early to allow your teachers plenty of time to complete recommendations and to give yourself time to fine-tune your essays and make sure materials are complete. And don’t let a rejection letter from that prestigious first-choice program get you down—apply to a few less selective programs, take a course online or at a local community college, or volunteer at a local service organization.
Related: Top Summer Pre–College Programs
If you're looking for a way to stand out from the crowd in the college admission process, try taking a pre-college summer program! You'll get a taste of campus life, explore interesting subjects, and build lasting relationships with peers and professors.
Start looking for schools with summer programs using our College Search tool.