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Pre-College Summer Programs For High School Kids

Not long ago, teens had only a handful of ways to spend their summers. They might work at the local mall, watch a little too much TV, and chill with neighborhood friends.

Now, though, teens have many options for making the most of summertime. Perhaps academic enrichment, specialty camps, or volunteer opportunities. These experiences can build up some academic prowess, develop leadership skills, and even provide content for an eventual college application. They’re also a great antidote to summer boredom.

Summer is an Opportunity to Explore

“Summer is important for kids to recharge their batteries, spend time with friends or alone, pursue their hobbies, be with family, and decompress,” says Susana MacLean, an independent education consultant in Westfield, New Jersey. “But summer is also an opportunity to explore what interests them more deeply.”

Pre-College Summer Programs

Looking for just the right kind of activity to occupy your teen this summer? Here’s one avenue you may not have considered: a summer pre-college program at your local college or university. These can be an ideal way to develop a favorite area of study or to test-drive a subject that may not be offered at your teenager’s school.

“A summer pre-college program can help a teen figure out, in a low-pressure environment, what they might really like to pursue in college or even later as a career,” says Kari Jo Storm, program coordinator for summer and youth programs at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

At BGSU, for example, teens can participate in day or residential summer programs covering a variety of subjects, like forensic science, marine biology, pre-medicine, veterinary medicine, the arts, and more.

These types of programs can be anywhere from a three-day stay to a week or more, with some even designed for daily commuters. A good place to start is to check the websites for colleges and universities in your area.

Getting a Taste of College Life

In addition to immersing teens in a particular interest, a summer college program—especially a residential program—helps expose them to what college life is like. “Students can get a good taste of the college experience. They stay in dorms, eat in the campus cafeteria, and tour the facilities. They meet with faculty from other departments on campus,” says Storm. “For many students, a summer pre-college program may be their first time away from home.”

Whether academic or arts-related, a pre-college program can also be a great time for students to think about finding their place in the larger community beyond high school.

BGSU summer camps“Often, a student may be the best player in their school’s music program. But when they attend a summer camp like ours, they are suddenly surrounded by students and faculty who challenge them in ways that they never thought possible,” says Lindsay Gross, director of Bowling Green State University’s Summer Music Institute. “The great thing is that these students will bring what they learned in the summer back to their school’s music program, to strengthen it.”

Summer programs are also an opportunity to connect with faculty and learn more about the school’s different departments, says Storm. It’s good intel if the college ends up on their short list someday.

Give Them Some Credit (Or Not)

At some multi-week summer programs, students are eligible for college credit. These programs tend to be more expensive and rigorous than those that don’t offer credit. They may also have prerequisites, including minimum standardized test scores. You can Google programs and look for universities that offer scholarships for credited summer programs.

But don’t overlook the tremendous confidence-boosting value of non-credit programs. “One of the unique opportunities of participating in a non-credit but academic-related program is it takes the pressure off a right or wrong answer,” says Storm. “Students have an opportunity to ask questions without fear of asking the ‘wrong’ question.”

Do Summer Programs Help with Admission?

If you’re considering a university’s summer program, check who is actually running it. Some university-based summer programs have no connection to the school at all and merely rent the space from the university. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but the university doesn’t care that you attended on their campus,” says MacLean.

Even if the university is running the pre-college program, attending a summer course is not a pipeline to acceptance there. Typically, a university’s admissions office operates independently from the summer programming department.

Ultimately, encourage your teen to take a class because there’s something they are hoping to get out of it. Not just because they want to impress the college with their devotion to the school.

“Don’t push your teen to take a course on a prestigious university campus because you think the college will look more favorably on their application,” says MacLean. “You still have to bring the goods.”

Your teen may learn something else incredibly valuable from a summer college program experience: what they don’t want to study. “A lot of kids are good at math and science and decide they should probably be engineers. However, you can be good at both, but find you don’t have that engineering itch,” says MacLean. “You can take a one- or two-week introduction to engineering course and come away from it saying, ‘I don’t want to be an engineer.’ That is still a good outcome.”

What About Those Summer Jobs?

Today, just 35 percent of teens have a summer job, compared with roughly half of teens as recently as the year 2000, according to Pew Research Center. What happened to the humble summer job?

While some of the jobs you remember from your youth have indeed disappeared—the biggest decline is in retail—teens are still able to earn cash in food service, hotels, and other classic summer jobs. And of course, for many kids, work is not a choice: Their jobs earn important income for themselves and their families—and toward their future college tuition.

When my rising junior’s long-planned two-week camping trip was canceled last summer because of wildfires in the region, he suddenly had a lot of extra downtime. Too much downtime. I suggested he explore getting his lifeguard certification. We were both pleasantly surprised to learn that some health clubs are in such dire need of lifeguards that they will cover the cost of certification. In addition, they may offer perks like a free membership.

As my son racked up hours at our local town pool, he worked alongside other college-oriented peers. He developed a good work ethic, tending to first-year-guard tasks like emptying the garbage cans and cleaning bathrooms.

Why Colleges Care About Work

There’s a reason the college Common Application has a section in the activity category to list paid work. That work ethic says something about prospective students.

“I like to see that students have done something with their summer. I think that leads to a better, more well-rounded student both in and outside the classroom,” says Cecilia Castellano, vice provost for strategic enrollment planning at Bowling Green State University. “There’s nothing wrong with working at the local ice cream shop. Having the experience of being responsible and showing up are valuable life lessons.”

MacLean agrees. “Summer jobs matter in that they show that a student is hardworking and is learning how to work with others, take initiative, learn new processes, and handle customers,” she says. “And it’s not either/or. Students can work for pay while also pursuing interests and passions over the summer. And of course they should have time to see friends, vacation, and have downtime to recharge before a new school year.”

However your teen is thinking about spending their summer, it’s not too early to start planning. “Many families start thinking about summer plans around spring break, but even by then, some programs have filled up,” says Storm. “So, have those conversations early about their interests and what they’d like to learn, to have the best chance of matching them to those summer opportunities to grow.”

Gail O'Connor

Gail O’Connor is a mom of three in Westfield, New Jersey. She can be found writing about kids or feeding them. Follow her on Twitter @GailWrites.