the carefree days of summer,
when a kid can be a kid, kick back and hang out at the pool, maybe scoop some ice cream to make some extra money, decompress, de-stress, and recharge. Those are the kinds of summers most of us remember, but those days are fading into a time as outdated as a “Happy Days” episode.
Many kids, especially teenagers, growing up in today’s ultra-competitive, high pressure environment, are now feeling more and more compelled to make even the summers count in their quest to get into the right school.
And there are many companies making a lot of money playing right into that trend, some charging thousands of dollars for several weeks.
“If you’re considering a summer study program, chances are you already know how it can help you improve your college application, meet new people, increase your independence and provide you with the global knowledge critical in today’s world,” exhorts the online brochure for one summer program.
Another summer course, described as an accelerated learning program for students ages 9 to 24, promises better grades and the “skills, confidence and motivation to succeed in the classroom, the lunchroom and in life.”
There are also outdoor adventures programs like the non-profit Outward Bound, in business for 40 years, conducting adventure-based programs structured to “inspire self-esteem, self-reliance, concern for others, and care for the environment.”
NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, has been in business for almost as long, focusing on leadership and wilderness survival skills. Then there are summer schools for students who want to catch up, get ahead, or simply expand their horizons.
Leslie Fisher, lead guidance counselor at West Windsor-Plainsboro’s High School South, has been a counselor there since 1992 but started in 1979 as a social studies teacher and sees the growing trend. She says the competitive nature of college is part of the driving factor behind the recent boom, especially over the last five years, in the number of students participating in some time type of academic summer program. Another factor, she says, has to do with sheer numbers. The baby boomers’ baby bulge means there are more students in the pre-college population.
“In the past we’d see more students going to summer camp or sports camp. Or they’d go to the beach or go on vacation with their families. Now we’re seeing more students taking summer classes especially at local private schools like Peddie, Hun, and Princeton Day. We’re also seeing a dramatic increase in the number of students taking courses at Mercer County Community College either for their own benefit or to advance a course level.”
Fisher says there are strict guidelines at High School South for summer coursework. “Any courses taken over the summer have to be pre-approved by a committee of supervisors and administrators. If the course is approved it goes on the high school transcript and colleges can see where it was taken and what grade the student received. The student will receive high school credit but the grade is not calculated as part of the GPA. That’s to make sure we give a level playing field to all the kids.”
Fisher points out that not everyone has the time, money, or desire to take a summer study or adventure program just to create another notch on their resume. “Sometimes it’s the parents who are driving the kids to do these things and often the kids are not interested. It’s the parents who will say this will look good on your college application so you have to do it. Parents come to me and say my child needs to do community service, what do you have? You shouldn’t be doing community service just to fulfill a requirement. You should do it for yourself and build a sincere interest. You need to focus on the genuine piece of it, not because it looks good.”
College admissions officers, Fisher says, have gotten very savvy and know when a student is using a summer experience to pad his resume. “If you have an experience that’s changed you in a profound way and you write an essay on it, it may enhance your college application. But if it doesn’t reflect your interests it’s not going to carry too much weight. Colleges would rather see you doing something different, like volunteering in a law office. Many students think that if they take a summer course at Penn or Harvard it’s going to be easier to get in, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
She encourages parents and students to opt for other kinds of learning opportunities, church mission trips for example, and house-building projects with Habitat for Humanity. “Kids should use the summer to get a good link between their interests and passions and strengths. Explore an area they’re truly interested in. Colleges want to see that you have grown, that you’ve related your experience to your own life.
Fisher says that while summer jobs may sometimes be a necessity, they are also valuable because they instill life skills — initiative, work ethic, budgeting, and the world of finance — and colleges realize that.
Her office offers a developmental guidance program to help students navigate their way through all four school years and the summers in between, focusing on a different challenge each year.
In the ninth grade, it’s the academic and social transition and getting involved in the high school community. In 10th grade the focus is on interests and skills and developing a personality profile that matches the student to a career cluster. “Maybe they’re interested in humanities, social studies. Maybe they can get part time jobs or volunteer opportunities in those areas. Maybe they can be doing a summer program to further their interests. In junior year we focus on the college search process and by senior year it’s the college application process.”
The bottom line, emphasizes Fisher, is that summer can be a great opportunity to explore options not possible during the school year.
Lee Riley, her counterpart at High School North, echoes that thought. Riley, in his fourth year there, leads a guidance office of six counselors.
“When they pursue summer opportunities we tell our students to first ask themselves ‘Will this be meaningful for me? or ‘Will this be a great experience?’ Colleges evaluate candidates on many criteria. Students should enjoy themselves and try to land an experience that results in personal growth and insight. They should not elect to participate in such programs solely for the purpose of impressing a college or enhancing their resume.”
Riley tells kids to be kids and to remember that schools will be looking at the entire package. Even if it doesn’t enhance an application, a program is valuable when it helps focus a student on his interests and where he might go geographically.
But before laying out thousands of dollars just to impress a school, he cautions buyer beware. Colleges understand that not everyone can afford to pay for these programs and they will know when someone is buying an experience.
“You need to research the program. Do you know anyone who has participated? Is it reputable and will it deliver on what it promises? They may put out fancy brochures but not be quite as advertised. There’s a lot out there because anybody can rent space and charge $2000. We tell kids to look carefully.”
Some scholarships programs, Riley points out, such as the Governor’s Schools of New Jersey, are competitive. You have to be nominated and the program is free. The Governor’s School is an intensive four-week residential learning experience for selected high school students who have completed their junior year. The Telluride Association offers scholarships to gifted juniors for summer seminars in the humanities and social sciences based on results of the PSAT. “These kinds of programs will be more meaningful to colleges because they are so prestigious. They take very few students and they don’t discriminate financially.”
Like Fisher, Riley also sees the growing trend of kids doing outside classwork over the summer. A student might take geometry, he says, then test into the next level in the fall. Sometimes there’s a desire to advance a level in math because they’re trying to reach a terminal course like Calculus BC by senior year.
“We recognize that it’s not always the best choice for all kids. We have a pre-approval process for the credit option so we get a chance to talk with the kids. Some are trying to make up ground. But if they’re advancing just to advance, we would discourage that. It’s ultimately up to the student and the parent but we have to pre-approve it.”
Riley says traditional YMCA type camps and sports camps are great to sharpen athletic skills. For parents he reiterates this point: “Colleges know what summer opportunities have to be paid for versus selected for. An expensive program won’t indicate a student is any more capable and won’t necessarily give a kid a leg up. It’s valuable if it contributes to developing the whole person and is a positive growing experience.”
For kids, he says this: “If you’re looking to do something over the summer, make it personally meaningful. Think about that first instead of how it might look in terms of college. And there’s enough hard work during the school year. Remember to have fun.”
As the number of college applicants continues to increase, it isn’t as easy as it used to be for students to get into the schools of their choice. In almost any case, advice from the people making the decisions can be invaluable to kids…
On Saturday, February 26, Princeton University, will offer just such an opportunity as part of its Alumni Day program. Janet L. Rapelye, Princeton dean of admissions, will lead a program titled “Navigating the College Admissions Process.” The program, open to students in grades 9 to 11 and their parents, will be held at TK from 10 to 11 a.m.
Rapelye speaks of the difficulties of the admissions process in a 2003 article printed on the Nobles School’s website. Rapelye is a 1977 graduate of the private school, located in Dedham, Massachusetts.
Says Rapelye: The admissions numbers these days are daunting, adding that only 9 percent of students applying to Princeton are admitted.
“Parents often treat their children’s college acceptances as a report card on their parenting,” she says, advising parents and their to focus on what is the best fit for the student, both intellectually and personally. “Selecting a college is not about where parents wish they had gone or about where they did go and want their child to follow. It’s also not about the Ivies.”
Rapelye says the admissions process is very different from 20 years ago, when many of today’s parents were applying to school. It’s important, she says, to think of your child’s primary and secondary education not as a means to an end but rather as an experience in and of itself. Going to a “good” high school doesn’t give you a ticket in. “Nor should it,” she says.
The interview, for instance, is not weighed as heavily by admissions officers as it was in the past, says Rapelye. Instead, recommendations from those who know the student well at school are much more important.
Rapelye makes that point in a 1999 article printed on the web site of Wellesley College, where Rapelye served as dean of admissions for 12 years before coming to Princeton University.
“Teachers recognize the tremendous responsibility of helping students present themselves in the best light,” she says. “The importance of each recommendation, coupled with requests from as many as a dozen students, can make the whole process very stressful for teachers.”
She offers the following advice for teachers and students in writing effective recommendations:
Don’t limit requests to teachers in your best subjects. Writing a meaningful recommendation for a top-notch student can be difficult. Teachers often feel that the student’s record stands for itself and that there is little the teacher can add. “We often encourage students to think beyond a teacher in whose class she’s excelled. Some of the most telling and valuable recommendations are from teachers in whose class a student has struggled and really had to work hard,” Rapelye says. “These teachers are able to describe a student’s persistence, her determination, and desire to master concepts and course work.”
Talk before you write. “A student should talk with each teacher who is going to write a recommendation,” says Rapelye. “This conversation provides a context for the teacher’s recommendation. Find out where the student is applying and what type of program she’s interested in and why. Talk about the student’s applications essays. We encourage teachers to ask students if there’s a particular aspect of her high school experience that the teacher should highlight in the recommendation.”
Write about the student’s progress. “The best recommendations are those that provide the ‘how’; and ‘why’; behind a student’s record of academic achievement,” says Rapelye. “What did the student struggle with? What made her stick with something academically challenging? We want to see that students have challenged themselves beyond the basic high school requirements, that they’re not afraid to grapple with material that is new and perhaps difficult.”
Detailed and personal recommendations are best. “Although many teachers are hesitant to include personal observations about a student, we encourage them to do just that. Give examples of accomplishments. Note how the student worked with others in her class. Tell us what excited her. Rather than write solely about individual performance, tell us her role in the class,” notes Rapelye.
“The least useful recommendations are very generalized. Don’t say that a student is ‘excited about learning’ because that could describe anyone. Give an example of a project that really piqued her interest and how she put in extra effort just because she was fascinated by the topic.”
Don’t wait until the last minute. “Although it should go without saying, don’t wait until the last minute to begin writing or to ask for a recommendation,” says Rapelye. “We encourage students to think about which teachers they’d like to ask for recommendations around the end of their junior year. We encourage teachers to heed their own advice to students: don’t wait until the night before the deadline to write the recommendation. Just as with application essays, it’s easy to spot a recommendation that has been written at the last minute.”
A 1981 graduate of Williams College, where she earned dean’s list honors as an English major and skied with the varsity (Division I) ski team, Rapelye taught high school English for a year in rural Wells River, Vt., before beginning her admission career. In 1982 she was named assistant director of admission at Williams College, where her responsibilities included oversight of international student applications. In 1985 she moved to Stanford University, where she earned a master’s degree in education and worked as a counselor in the Stanford admission office.
She became associate director of admission at Bowdoin College in 1986, with special responsibility for administering the Bowdoin Alumni Schools and Interviewing Committees and serving as liaison to the athletic office and the alumni office. She also played central roles in hiring staff, developing publications, assisting with minority recruitment and administering the office, and served as an academic adviser to freshmen and sophomores.
In 1991 she was named the dean of admission at Wellesley, one of the most academically challenging and diverse liberal arts colleges in the country. In addition to overseeing the entire admission process (first-year students, transfers and continuing education) and managing the admission office systems, operations and staff, she has served on the president’s senior staff, has staffed the trustee committee on admission and financial aid, has helped develop financial aid policy and has coordinated the 43-member board of faculty, students, staff and administrators that makes admission decisions. During her 12 years at Wellesley, applications have increased by 34 percent; the academic credentials of the entering classes have improved significantly; Wellesley has been recognized as the most diverse college outside of California with a population of 40 percent students of color and 6 percent international students; and its athletic program has earned a reputation as one of the strongest Division III programs in the country.
The author of more than a dozen articles and professional presentations on admission topics and an active participant in national and regional organizations of admission counselors, Rapelye has served as a trustee of the College Board and has chaired its New England Regional Council. She also has served as a trustee of her high school, the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., and as a member of its executive committee.