Summer vacation is when we take a deep breath after a long year and relish a sense of wellbeing after the strains of the school year. We vegetate mindlessly in the sun and we laze days away in a hammock. But we also catch up on our reading, argue with friends about ideas that have absolutely nothing to do with homework and linger over a volume of poetry that was never required for school. Rather than putting our minds on hold, the summer gives us time to recover a joy in exploring ideas for no better reason than our interest in them.
This is indeed exactly what high school students need to do with their summers, and one way to do so is by attending a youth program with like-minded peers.
But in deciding to send a student to one of the many such programs offered in the US and across the world, parents often have far more functional intentions – they hope quite bluntly that attending pre-college at College X, or a few weeks helping the poor in a developing country, or traveling to exotic locales will impress admission officers and increase the student’s chance of admission at College X. Having countless students pursuing summer programs for the same set of reasons has, however, helped to dilute the impact of this strategy. Yet there remain excellent reasons for students to seek out a summer program that excites and intrigues them:
- the opportunity to explore an academic field – economics, archaeology, computer science – with peers that share that interest
- to travel to a new city or a far-flung country
- to meet students from all over the country and even the world, enlarging their perspective
- to develop their English language skills if that is not their native tongue
- to expand their sense of service to those far outside their own community
- to get a taste of college life and remind them of the adventure ahead
- to leave home and begin to develop an empowering sense of independence and self-sufficiency
Will any of this have any impact on their college applications? Definitely. But the impact will in fact be far more intriguing than many parents anticipate. Pre-college programs are offered either by for-profit organizations or as a money-generating venture by a unit within a college that is completely separate from the admission office of that institution. Doing such a program at College X therefore does not in itself improve a student’s chances of admission at that college. But that does not mean that admission officers will not notice that a student attended. Instead they will notice:
- because it suggests that a student is actually interested enough in the college to spend time there – a form of “demonstrated interest” that colleges have to care about as they fret about their admissions yield
- that the student has enough intellectual engagement with a subject to spend time on it
- that the student has the social and emotional maturity to spend time away from home
- that an international student has sufficient English skills to cope at an American college
Colleges will of course take note of the academic and social growth that attending such a program can generate. But the value of a summer program extends far beyond a college application. Instead, the student will have spent a week or more of their summer having fun, making new friends and talking about new ideas, while expanding the horizons of their world and of themselves.