How Admissions Officers Really View High School Summer Programs

How Admissions Officers Really View High School Summer Programs

As we move rapidly into the spring, it’s a great time to ask yourself, “What will I do this summer?”

With unstructured time and less supervision, summer vacation is one way some students begin to set themselves apart from their peers and prepare for college in high school. Are you going scuba diving with your family in Australia? Planning to spend the summer catching up on that Netflix series you couldn’t watch during soccer season? What about attending a community service trip or debate tournament? While there isn’t just one effective mold for planning your summer holiday, there are a few common steps students can take to ensure that their time is well spent.

As a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College, I’ve seen a variety of summer activities. But what stands out? What sort of high school summer plans are a waste of time and money? Keep reading for a few tips to keep in mind when deciding how you’ll allocate your time during your summer break!

1. College/University Summer Programs:

When most families start planning their summers, they tend to gravitate towards structured summer programs. These programs often take place at college campuses around the world and combine classroom-based learning with social activities to emulate a college environment. These programs are great…

…inasmuch as they provide exposure to college life and allow students to focus on an area of interest. When choosing these programs, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • These programs are best when they allow students to explore an interest in greater detail.
  • Summer programs can help a student figure out his/her passion, which will lead to more compelling narratives for the application and can help the student determine a path moving forward.
  • Programs on college campuses allow students to gain exposure to what life may be like at that school.

What to look for:

Look for a program with a solid curriculum that provides students greater detail than what they could learn on their own or at their high school. Additionally, programs that emphasize project-based learning will give students a tangible way to apply what they learn.

Cons / What To Avoid:

Admissions Officers don’t view these programs as deal breakers in the college admissions process because they often are indicative of a student’s family resources. Accordingly, shelling out thousands of dollars for a summer camp will not guarantee you a spot at a specific university. There are some highly selective programs, for which students must undergo an intensive vetting process. These programs often see their alumni go on to attend very prestigious universities. However, this is likely the result of the high caliber of students who are admitted to these competitive programs.

Not all programs are created equally, so buyers must beware!

You should guarantee that you will be challenged and align your expectations with the outcomes of the program. For every program objective, you should ask yourself: Is the plan that they have outlined going to help me grow? The next question should be: Is this the best way for me to learn this competency?

Don’t expect these programs to set you apart from the crowd on their own. Every year hundreds of students attend programs of these nature. As long as you have another goal in mind for attending the program, it should be a worthwhile learning experience.

Examples of good summer programs:

  • MIT Launch: MIT Launch Summer brings together high school students from all over the US and world each summer to MIT campus to become entrepreneurs in a 4-week program.
  • Yale Young Global Scholars: An official Yale University program, participants in the Yale Young Global Scholars Program for Outstanding High School Students can expect an amazing summer experience studying in beautiful campus lecture halls and classrooms, living in Yale’s historic residential colleges, eating in award-winning dining halls, meeting a talented community of fellow students, engaging with world-renowned professors, and interacting with extraordinary visiting practitioners.
  • UPenn Summer Medical Program for High School Students: The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania offers a unique four-week summer medical program for highly motivated high school juniors and seniors. Guided and taught by Penn Medicine faculty and students, you will be immersed into the many worlds and opportunities of medicine as you explore career possibilities.

2. Competitions:

Another category of formal summer programs includes competitions and tournaments. For the purpose of this blog, these programs tend to cater to academic subjects, such as math or science leagues, debate, or robotics, to name a few. These competitions are a great way to have students demonstrate mastery in an area. They provide an objective evaluation of the student’s abilities, and they can also teach the student how to perform effectively under pressure.

What to look for:

When deciding which programs to participate in, clearly outline your goals. For instance, are you young and need to boost your confidence in a subject? In that case, finding local competitions that will help you understand a specific process is helpful. However, if you are more advanced, simply competing in local competitions because it’s a quick way to rack up first place accolades isn’t effective.

Since there are so many competitions worldwide, a student would need to earn high rankings at national or international level to signify impressive talents. For instance, when a student wins a MUN debate, they normally start at the school. There are an estimated 37,000 schools in the United States. Accordingly, more is needed to differentiate oneself from the crowd!

Cons / What to Avoid:

Unless you are going to be a top scorer at the highest level of competition, in most cases there are better ways for students to invest their time. Nonetheless, students do gain skills from these types of competitions, and the value of the lessons they learn shouldn’t be understated.

But from an admissions standpoint, they will do little to help a student standout at highly selective colleges and universities. Students can compete in a few competitions and see how they fair. If after a while they realize they don’t have the time to truly standout at these competitions, it’s a good idea to change course.

Examples of good competitions (again, winning is the key factor in what makes these competitions impressive):

  • Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology: Winning this competition could actually result in college recruitment. MIT specifically attends this premier research competition to draw on top high school students.  
  • National Speech and Debate Tournaments: The National Speech & Debate Association is the world’s largest honor society devoted to speech and debate activities, and bestows numerous awards and recognition to students, coaches, and schools. It hosts the largest academic competition in the world, the National Speech & Debate Tournament.
  • Congressional Art Competition: Each spring, the Congressional Institute sponsors a nationwide high school visual art competition. Students submit entries to their representative’s office, and panels of district artists select the winning entries. Winners are recognized both in their district and at an annual awards ceremony in Washington, DC. The winning works are displayed for one year at the U.S. Capitol.

3. Non-Structured Programs

There are many reasons why a student would want to forego a formal summer program. For instance, many programs can be cost prohibitive or the dates conflict with school or family obligations. A non-structured program is one that isn’t available commercially to a large number of students. It is either custom designed to meet the student’s needs, or started from the student’s initiative.  

For instance, a student I’m working with is interested in humanitarianism, so she found a way to work with an NGO in Vietnam that provides educational and social services to Vietnamese citizens. This experience allows the student to explore her individual interests, while focusing on projects that build upon her skills. She’s also getting unparalleled career exposure, by serving in the field.

What to Look for:

These opportunities should be personal in nature and should directly intersect with a student’s interest. When thinking about creating a non-structured program, work backwards.

For instance, you may ask yourself: What do I want to learn or what skill should I gain this summer? From there, think about creative ways to accomplish the goals you’ve outlined. Another student I worked with—a self identified atheist—decided to teach English at a monastery in Nepal. While teaching English isn’t a novel activity, her motivations to get exposure to a deeply religious culture made it a perfect fit for her interests.

Cons / What to Avoid:

In my experience while working with students, I’ve learned to advise them to start small and then scale up. A program that accomplishes a small-goal is better than a project that fails to accomplish a lofty one. These types of programs are for students who are self motivated and dedicated to the task at hand. An unstructured program isn’t something for students who haven’t learned to manage their time or work independently. Make sure that you are ready to take the lead to manage your own summer.

Generally speaking, summer should give students a chance to explore their interests, gain tangible skills and learn outside of the classroom.

What will you do this summer?

About the Author


I am a former Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College, my alma mater. As an Admissions Officer at Dartmouth, I traveled and read over 1000 applications of students from a wide variety of backgrounds, and was the Admissions office contact for states in New England, the Mid West, and the Mid Atlantic.

I have diverse experience advising students and families throughout all stages of the admissions process. For instance, I have hosted workshops for US high school guidance counselors and youth development organizations to deepen their understanding of the Admissions process.