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How Summer Programs Impact College Admissions

Listen in to learn more about the pros and cons of summer programs, and become more informed about how to choose the best activities for you.


| “However you arrange your summer, make sure that it’s arranged around your core values and your own interests. Explore them with gusto, and be an investigator or journalist about it.”

Is the summer camp held at that flashy university good for your teen?

Will it help them stand out when they apply to college? The answer is important, and probably not what you think.


  • Should you attend the summer camp held on your dream college's campus?
  • Will attending that camp give you a leg up when you apply later?
  • Is attending a camp at Harvard University going to make you more competitive? 
  • What are the downsides of these programs?
  • How should you decide which of the many different opportunities will be the best use of your valuable time?

     And so much more.


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A lot of teens and their parents really want to know how they can make the most of their summer. That's a great question because there are endless opportunities all around you and not just around you, online and around the world. So how do you make the most of those 2 or 3 months that you have between school years? And if you're like some people, you might be wondering, could these activities give me a leg up in my college admissions?

Now, I want to spend most of my time talking about how to think about your summer and how to make the most of it. But first, let me clarify that second question. If I participate in this particular camp, will it give me a leg up in college admissions somehow? Is, for example, attending a camp at, say, Harvard university going to make me more competitive? Would having the Harvard name on my application say that I attended a camp on that campus? Would that look impressive to admissions officers at the school that I want to go to, even if it's not Harvard? The short answer is no, not really, with very, very few exceptions. And the reason for this is admissions officers are familiar with this entire history. They know that over the last 5 or 6 years, the number of camps or summer opportunities at these campuses has really mushroomed and that many of these camps are run by outside companies.

The reason why many of these schools are interested in hosting these camps is that they have a lot fewer students on their campus during the summer. But they have these amazing facilities.

If a for-profit organization wants to organize a camp and recruit students that are in high school to come to that campus, and make use of those facilities, whether it's classrooms or gymnasiums or laboratories or libraries or whatever else, then the colleges are excited to leverage that opportunity. They don't have to let these amazing facilities sit and go idle throughout the summer. They can get good use out of them. And that revenue, frankly, is important to most of these colleges. So the summer camps are not going away anytime soon. In fact, I imagine they'll continue to become more popular over time. But it's really important that you understand that, for the most part, attending one of these camps is not going to help you stand out. So there are some exceptions to that. I want to talk about that. First, I want to talk about why you might attend these camps anyway, even though it will not give you a leg up on your college admissions.

First of all, what are the exceptions? You should know that there are some truly outstanding programs on these campuses; if you are admitted into one of these programs, it will help you stand out. It will show that you are able to beat out the tremendous competition and earn a spot in one of these opportunities, one of these programs. Some of these programs have lower admission rates than some of the top universities in the world. If you are able to beat the odds and get into a program that has a 3 % or a 5 % admission rate, then obviously, that's going to reflect very, very well on you. Oftentimes, these programs are popular and get so many applications because of two things.

The first is these camps are really well done. They are being taught by college professors or similar experts. They're being run by professionals. They're just outstanding programs. And the students who attend learn a lot. Not only do they learn a lot, but they get to meet and interact with other really amazing students with peers who are like-minded and equally ambitious. It's a fantastic opportunity for them. And the second reason these camps get so many applications is that they're usually free. Oftentimes they're free with a stipend. In other words, many of these camps are not only free to attend, but the school might give you a stipend for meals while you're attending and might pay for your travel to attend as well.

Now I'm not going to name any of these programs here in the podcast just because this recording will last for years, and the names of these programs might change, or the programs themselves or the characteristics may change. And so I don't want to have kind of that list as it exists right now, locked in time. But I will go ahead and update lists like this within the ivy league challenge updated for my students and on my website as well. If you attend one of these outstanding, highly selective programs, absolutely, that will, in fact, give you a leg up in college admissions. It will look impressive to the admissions officers because it's objectively impressive. Very few people were able to do what you were able to do. However, the vast majority of these summer camps of these on-campus summer camps, even if they are held at flashy brand-name schools, are open enrollment or nearly open enrollment.

And the only thing you need to do to be accepted is pay tuition and maybe fill out a few answers to some questions or an essay or two. But virtually everyone who is willing and able to pay tuition is able to attend and is enrolled. Those programs are not a backdoor into the brand-name university where they're being hosted. They're not that impressive to other admissions officers, either, because these admissions officers understand that these programs are basically open enrollment. It will signal that you have enough money to pay for that program, but it won't signal much else. So does that mean that you should not attend one of these programs? Actually, not necessarily. There are many pros and cons, and let's go ahead and jump into those right now.

First of all, these programs often are pretty good. They'll often be valuable learning experiences, and you may be able to study something at a deeper level, at one of these college programs, these summer camps, than you could possibly do inside of your high school. That's fantastic. Also, you may be able to experience firsthand a little bit about what colleges like. You may sleep in the dorms with other camp participants, which is a little bit like college attendance. You can walk around campus and be inside college classrooms. You can eat in the cafeteria, and you can read in the library. There are some cool aspects to that. And you can get a feeling for what it's like to be on a college campus for a week or two or six. That might even help you realize that you like or don't like certain things about a college campus, which might be really valuable.

Maybe you love the fact that it's in a huge city, or you hate it, or you love the size, or you don't love the size, or you discover that you care about one thing that you didn't realize before. Those are things that you can discover as you're living and breathing and eating and walking on campus that is hard to do if you don't.

Now, many of these programs are actually highly specific programs. So if you're in debate or drama or theater, or something else that you're excited about already, then you might be able to meet college professors or the coach. If you attend a debate camp or a music camp of some kind, for example, and you're able to meet the coach from that university or the teacher or leader or director from that university, that could be super valuable.

In fact, I know many people who have met and impressed some of these coaches or leaders or directors and have gotten either scholarship offers or have gotten invitations to get letters of recommendation written on their behalf, etcetera. It can be super valuable in that way. The last thing is that you can meet a lot of like-minded peers, and especially if those peers are difficult to find in your community or in your current peer group, that could be life-changing. The younger you are, the more valuable that could be if you're 13 or 14 and really struggling with school or struggling with engagement, joining a camp or joining one of these opportunities where you meet other peers that are your age or maybe a few years older, could be really life-changing.

You could meet people that impact the way that you think about yourself, the way that you think about the world, and the way that you think about how you study and how you should prepare for life; it can be absolutely wonderful.

So even though these camps, generally speaking, do not directly influence or improve your ability to get admitted to your dream school, they can be super helpful for you and can indirectly greatly improve your chances by just improving you as a human being.

What are the downsides of these programs? The downsides, honestly, all come from the misunderstandings that we've already clarified because many of these summer programs are very expensive, especially if they're at a flashy university, they can be thousands of dollars, or they can be 10,000 or more dollars. And that doesn't include travel or anything else. I these can be really expensive. And if you think that expense is helping you get a leg up in admissions, that can be really disappointing. And that can be even more confusing because the selectivity of the program itself often has nothing to do with the brand name of the university where the program is being housed. I explained it just a few minutes ago. The fact is that colleges want their resources, want their equipment, and their facilities to be used during the summer. They want to be paid for those facilities to be used. And they're open for business. The selectivity and prestige, and academic rigor of the camps often do not correspond to the rigor and selectivity of the brand-name school where these camps are held.

So, in other words, do not spend extra money because you think spending that extra money will get you into a better college; spend the money to go to the camp that works for you because you love the thing that you're studying because you love the opportunity to meet with like-minded peers.

And if you can meet a professor and who you're going to meet, that could be really, really valuable. If you've been listening to my podcast that I teach an online program called the ivy league challenge, you also know that I generally worked with students before they begin actually applying to college. That's because I helped teens with this foundation all elements, which is an online course that takes students through three phases of growth.

Phase one is self-discovery, where they identify their core values, their interests. They learn how to be more reflective, more thoughtful about themselves, more self-aware, greater emotional intelligence, and things like that. The way that I structure that online course is in small group cohorts so that like-minded peers can facilitate that thoughtfulness and that reflective thinking with each other. It turns out that doing that kind of thoughtful, reflective work is the best thing for a teenager's confidence. When you realize what your core values are and interests are, then you learn to align your life or your daily choices to those core values and interests. It can be amazing to see how much your confidence grows just naturally. Instead of looking around at your peers to try to figure out what you should do at any given moment who you are. So you make your own choices. Your choices make you awesome.

The next phase of the ivy league challenge is what I call the impact project. Once you have identified your core values and your interests, then it's important to learn a couple of skills. First investigative journalism. How do you ask the better questions that are going to lead to the best answers? Once you ask those questions in your field of interest? Then you're going to become a bit of an expert over time. In the thing that you truly care about, you already did this self-awareness work, so what are your interests? What are your core values are.

Now go explore them with gusto, zest, and with excitement. And as you explore those things, you're going to identify problems, problems that exist in that field. And you'll understand those problems and all the nuance behind them. You won't be naive about them anymore and think, why doesn't someone just solve this? Why doesn't the government do this? Or that you won't be so naive? Instead, you'll understand the issues and why they're issues and why they're difficult to solve. One or more of those issues is going to violate a core value of yours. And in phase two of the ivy league challenge, I teach my students to begin working to improve on that problem that violates their core values. So begin working to solve a problem inside of your community that you care a lot about.

Finally, in phase three, I teach them how to connect these ideas, their self-awareness, their emotional intelligence, their awareness of their interests, and how deeply they can dive into that, as well as the impact that they're making in their community. How do they tie those things into their college admissions? A few years later on. I teach them ahead of time to pay attention to those moments when they change personally, moments when things that they used to believe about themselves or the world begin to shift because they accept new information in their lives. They keep a journal of those moments. And later on, when they write their personal statement, they're going to have 30 or 40, or 50 different moments in time when they changed or grew. And we're really thoughtful and reflective about it. All that work will be done by the time they write their personal statement. I also teach them how to network with their high school teachers and college professors, high school college counselors, as well as admissions officers. If you know how to network with the important key adults in your high school years, then you're going to get the best letters of recommendation.

You're going to get the best experiences, and you're going to create the best application。 For when you do apply to college. Now, why do I explain the Ivy League Challenge in all of this? I believe that the best use of your summer is to find activities that really align with your core values, find those camps, find the summer programs, and find the online classes or local community college classes. However, you arrange your summer, make sure that it is arranged around your core values and your interests, explore them and be an investigative journalist about it.

Once you're there, whether you're part of my program or not, begin solving a problem that violates your core values inside of your community, and begin working to solve that problem and recruit important adults, these key adults in your life, recruit them into your solution, recruit them into the process, at the very least make sure that they're aware of what you're doing and why and how it correlates to your core values.

But in many cases, recruit these very adults into your solution, Lean on them for referrals, or to make contact with people that they know who might be interested in the solution that you're proposing.

Once you're clear about your core values, your interests, and the impact that you're making in your community, you can use your summers really productively, whether that's a summer camp or an online program, or a local community class, research with a professor, you can make sure that your summer is used in the bed, the best way possible.

So don't try to game the system. Don't think that paying extra money to get into a program that's held at a flashy university. The campus is going to help you get into that school or any other school. Instead, make choices around your core values, your impact around you, and your interests. And you're gonna love your summer, and you're gonna learn a lot more. And it's going to look best on your college application anyway. So do the thing that's fun and interesting, and exciting and helps you grow the most. And that'll be the best thing strategically as well.