Beware of Fancy Envelopes for Summer Programs – They Don’t Become Thick Envelopes in the Spring

By Sam Rosensohn

About five years ago, I happened to notice an opened letter from the President of the United States on our washing machine. It was part of a ritzy invite that the Congressional Youth Leadership Council had sent my son, Zac, the tenth grader.

The gold embossed appeal to a summer academic program looked like a wedding invitation that had gone too far. The invite was made up of five different pieces and the cost to the summer program ran between $2,375 and $4,790.

The week before Zac received an invite for another summer academic program.  Instead of the President of the United States taking the lead, it was pro football coach Don Shula, who has the most wins in the history of the NFL, and who’s also in the hotel, steak, golf, and autographed merchandise business.

Over the past three weeks, my youngest son, Trevor, a sophomore at Valley Regional High School in Deep River, has received ten attractive invites.

No doubt, you too have received your share of summer invites and may be wondering what’s the best way to use the summer months to help a student’s chances of gaining admission to college.

The good news is that expensive academic summer programs do not open the doors to better schools.

Sally Rubenstone, senior counselor and editor at www.collegeconfidential.com and co-author, of Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions, says, “so many top students take part in so many for-pay programs over the summer that admissions folks are rather jaded, if not downright cynical, when they spot this stuff on application forms.

“Thus I tell students, ‘if a program sounds really great to you, and it doesn’t take too big a bite out of the family fortune, then go for it. But if your major motive is a fat letter from a favorite college come April, you may be better off staying home to write a novel or to man the fry-o-lator at Mickey D’s.”

Colleges are looking for candidates, who have identified what they love most in life, and, who have found a variety of ways to participate and to make contributions to those fields of interest throughout their high school career.

“Colleges aren’t looking for the one-shot wonders. The key is to do something over an extended period of time. Do some work with the fire department, do an exchange program, work as a lifeguard – get out of the house and get involved with the world,” said Bruce Chandler, a retired Old Lyme High School guidance counselor.

The key, says Chandler who guided students for over three decades, “is what you do with what you got. Colleges are pretty attuned to what you do with the hand you’re dealt. If a kid doesn’t have money, how can you penalize him for not traveling in Europe and spending time at the opera? I’d vote for the kids who did some work over the summer.”

“The more select schools are very sensitive to the unequal playing field of the haves and the have-nots,” notes Dennis Eller, a college counselor at Canterbury School, an independent college prep school, in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Eller sent a letter to the parents of his students advising that he had high regard for the National Leadership Youth Forum’s summer programs in medicine, law and leadership.

But he added, “You need to know that attending a NLYF will in no way enhance your child’s college applications. Attendance will make them more knowledgeable, enlightened, and informed; it will not make them better candidates for admission to selective colleges and universities.”

Eller says that the criteria summer programs use to target certain students can be as cold and calculating as the ‘parent income’ category on the SAT registration, or SAT scores. Regardless, of the criteria used, he adds, “do not feel for one moment that receiving an invitation is the distinct honor that programs want you to believe it is.”

So now that we know what not to do, what to do?  Students should identify what they love most and then look to find activities, jobs, internships, or summer academic programs that will let them explore those fields.

If a student wants to pursue an academic summer program that reflects a keen interest, I’d suggest going to www.principals.org, and click on student activities and then click on the gold seal of approval for student contests and activities. The National Association of Secondary School Principals Association established this site, which is also a wonderful place to explore summer programs.

“We’ve been reviewing student program applications for over 60 years,” said Jeff Sherrill, of the office of Student Affairs for the NASSP.  Beware, he says, the marketing of summer programs is stealthy and sophisticated. “We don’t want them to tell a student he’s been nominated when the program purchased the student’s name from a list, and that’s the sort of thing we look for.”

Sherrill encourages students to look at summer academic programs as “a personal educational experience that they can do. I think these programs are no different than a student who has an interest in a sport and goes to a sport’s camp.”

I quite agree. A tennis or football camp might help to improve a person’s skills. It might also make for a great week or two. But there’s little doubt that it’s going to take more than a couple weeks at a sport’s camp to make the team.

Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth has a superior site worth looking at http://cty.jhu.edu/imagine/linkA.htm. Not only does it list summer programs by order of discipline, but it also has a great link on its homepage on How to Choose a Summer Program.

That said, hope to see you on the beach before long.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT, the ACT, and the SSAT. He helps students to prepare for college and to write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857.  Visit www.satprepct.com for previously published College 101 columns and SAT prep class times. sam@satprepct.com