As a high school student in Shreveport, Louisiana, Cherish Taylor was fascinated by forensics and looking for anything that might give her exposure to the field. After searching online, she came across a summer program through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Taylor applied and was accepted to the MIT Introduction to Technology, Engineering, and Science, or MITES, and ended up taking a genomics course. She worked with researchers from MIT and Harvard University at the Broad Institute, where she helped sequence the DNA of a cancer patient.
“It exposed me to this world of genomics and even more so to a science career that existed outside what I thought you could be, which was either a forensic scientist or a teacher,” Taylor says.
More than a decade after her summer at MIT, Taylor now holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Texas at Austin and her journey has brought her full circle back to the Broad Institute, where she’s a postdoctoral fellow.
[READ: How Schools Are Improving STEM Education for Girls, Students of Color]
For high-achieving high school students like Taylor looking for a new challenge or a chance to dive deeper into a subject they are passionate about, a pre-college summer program can be a life-changing opportunity.
What Are Pre-College Summer Programs?
Many of the most competitive colleges offer summer programs. Some allow attendees to earn college credit. Others simply give teens an opportunity to leave home, dive into a subject they’re interested in and learn what life is like on a college campus before actually beginning their four-year odyssey.
Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, launched its current pre-college program in 2018. What began with six program options for students has ballooned into 18, including everything from an entrepreneurial bootcamp to a mini med school.
“We’ve seen a lot of application growth and are really trying to grow our portfolio to fit our demand,” says Arianna Wilson, director of pre-college programs. The goal, she says, is “really giving a taste of anything a student is looking for when determining their major path or career path.”
Summer camps these programs are not, and interested parents and teens should know that, just like applying to college, admission to pre-college summer programs is often competitive.
[READ: What to Do in High School to Prepare for College.]
“I would encourage students to look into pre-college programs early on,” says Reimi Hicks, associate director of recruitment and admissions at MITES. “We receive hundreds of inquiries in the winter and spring, and that’s often too late, because there’s an extensive application process that takes place in the fall.”
Programs can run anywhere from a week to more than a month. Most involve kids staying on campuses in dorms to get the full college experience, although since COVID-19, some programs began offering hybrid as well as fully remote opportunities.
Cost is another thing to keep in mind. MITES, which is aimed at providing STEM education for underserved and underrepresented students, is completely free, but most programs carry a hefty price tag. For example, the one-week “Mini-Med School: Clinical Experiences” program at Tufts costs $3,400 for commuting students and $4,200 for students who opt to stay on campus.
How to Make the Most of a Pre-College Summer Program
Teens should consider carefully what they want to get out of their summer experience. While some programs are holistic in offering students a preview of college and possible career paths, others are extremely focused and rigorous.
Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York system, has been running its summer research program at the Garcia Center for Polymers at Engineered Interfaces for 25 years. Admission requirements are steep, with students needing a near-perfect GPA along with extensive honors and Advanced Placement courses. As Miriam Rafailovich, professor of materials science and chemical engineering and the program’s director, says, the program isn’t for those looking for just a leg up in the college admissions process.
“There are other ways to build a resume that are a lot easier than this program,” Rafailovich says. “It’s very demanding and not everyone is ready to do this at 16 or 17 years old. Lots of people develop this aptitude later on, and we don’t want to turn them off to science.” But students who are accepted can look forward to taking full command of research projects, along with having access to state-of-the-art laboratory technology.
At the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY), which runs residential summer programs at multiple colleges, teens can take an entire year’s worth of high school physics in only three weeks. But while some summer programs offer college credit, CTY does not. Executive director Amy Shelton says that’s intentional.
“We’re a program that is lower stakes but extremely rigorous,” Shelton says. “We’re a great place to flex academic muscles. Students can come and work really hard without the pressure of the grades. They can feel free to fail and make mistakes and try things they wouldn’t necessarily try.”
[READ: Gifted and Talented Programs: What Parents Should Know.]
Ultimately, the real value of many pre-college programs is the chance for teens to preview their future. The Summer of Art program at Otis College of Art and Design, for instance, gives burgeoning artists “the experience to reflect on whether this is what they want to do every day, at school and presumably for the rest of their life,” says program manager Steph Smith.
“It also offers students the chance to have an immersive college experience and then go home and talk to their family about it,” Smith says. “Often kids go off to their freshman year and don’t have a chance to sit down with their families (and talk) about what their experience is. And (they) come home at Christmastime feeling alienated and not having made the right choice.”
Choosing a Pre-College Summer Program
There’s no lack of options when it comes to pre-college summer programs, but there are important qualities to consider. Experts say the best programs offer students a hands-on experience that they can’t get in high school, while introducing them to a network of peers and the opportunity to build a relationship with a mentor or instructor who might write them a letter of recommendation for college.
On the other hand, parents and teens should keep in mind that attending a program associated with a college or university does not mean guaranteed admission down the road. The prestige of a host institution also does not always translate to a summer program. In addition to financial costs, families will also want to consider whether other summer opportunities, like volunteering or traveling abroad, are better options.
Keeping all that in mind, here are a few more programs students might consider:
Camp Cronkite at Arizona State University: This one-week media camp for budding reporters is held at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Students select from one of three tracks (digital journalism, broadcast journalism or sports media), and leave with the start of their professional portfolio.
Summer Scholars at Notre Dame: Students spend two weeks on Notre Dame‘s historic campus in South Bend, Indiana. Courses, taught by Notre Dame faculty, range from archeology to world politics, and in the end students earn one transferable college credit.
The Summer Science Program: Launched in 1959, the Summer Science Program is a nonprofit run by program alumni and former faculty. Teens complete immersive, team-based research projects in astrophysics, biochemistry or genomics at several host universities throughout the country, including Purdue University in Indiana, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and New Mexico State University.
Syracuse University Pre-College Programs: The university offers six different pre-college programs, including an on-campus residential program, hybrid and online options, and research immersion programs.
Yale Young Global Scholars: This academic and leadership program at Yale University brings together more than 2,000 students from 150 countries and all 50 U.S. states to tackle interdisciplinary topics through international perspectives.
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Exploring Pre-College Summer Programs for Teens originally appeared on usnews.com