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Is A Summer Of College Prep Worth The Price?

Dean Shu via Flickr cc

What's the price of a winning college application? According to Harvard, it's $11,250 (plus spending money for frozen yogurt).

That's the cost of attending the university's Secondary School Program (SSP), a pre-college summer program for high school students that promises a step-up in the academic playing field.

Essentially, SSP is summer camp meets competitive college prep. For seven weeks, teens can live on the Cambridge, Massachusetts campus with all the trimmings of a real college experience, plus have time for ice cream socials and beach outings.

While the program's website debunks assumptions that acceptance to SSP carries over to a spot at Harvard, it does hint that the opportunity to "gain admission to the college of your choice" awaits future participants.

Harvard's SSP isn't alone. There are countless other programs at top-tier universities that advertise themselves as the key to winning the admissions game. That's because high schoolers are feeling more pressure than ever to set themselves apart thanks to steadily decreasing acceptance rates.

US News National University 2013 rankings showed admittance at Stanford University to be hovering at just over 5 percent of applicants to that school. One of the driving forces behind the selectivity is the trend of applying to a long list of universities. The National Association for College Admission Counseling cited that in 2011, 29 percent of students applied to seven or more schools, compared to just 9 percent in 1990. 

Spending the summer taking additional classes at state-of-the-art facilities is certainly one way for a student to showcase his ambition--but is the considerable cost of attendance justified by the chance to name-drop an Ivy League school in an interview?

According to Colby College Vice President and Dean of Admissions Terry Cowdrey, the completion of a precollege summer program does not guarantee than an applicant will stick out of the pile.

"Admissions counselors see precollege programs most frequently on applications, but we don't have a place of value judgment for those students," she says.

Many admissions counselors are wary of whom the programs benefit more, their ambitious attendees, or universities looking for extra cash during the slow summer months. 

Additionally, skepticism over the grading at summer schools diminishes the impression of academic achievement. As Cowdrey explains, "An A+ at Harvard's SSP is not grounds for a 'Wow'-it is not equal to an A+ in a freshman year course."

Instead, Cowdrey advises students to find a way to learn from every experience, whether it's studying biomedical engineering at Columbia or working at Market Basket. 

"Say you have a love of literature, but you spend your summer bagging groceries. If you pass your shifts forming in-depth character analyses of store customers, and can talk about that experience in an interview, you are just as well-off as if you spent your summer months in a college program."

If students do itch for that taste of college life before actually attending college, they might want to choose a summer program that focuses on a specific academic interest. According to Cowdry, admissions officers like to hear from candidates who are confident that they have a sense of what they're getting themselves into when they are applying to college with a pre-decided major.

Cowdrey's final piece of advice for high school students is to "spend their summers intentionally." In other words, to keep in mind what exactly they hope to get out of their experience.

"Think of what you're doing, don't just do it to check off your list," she says.

"The key notion should be to learn from every experience and to a find a way to contribute to every experience."

So if a summer of academia doesn't fall within your budget, try to get the most out of whatever situation you find yourself in. Who's to say that your knowledge of 'paper or plastic' won't be useful towards an engineering degree at MIT?

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