Getting into a well-regarded college is an obsession with many parents. They develop their own ideas of what admissions offices are looking for and try to “enhance” their child’s résumé by pushing them into summer programs that they believe are so prestigious that participation will give their kids a leg up on the competition. The reason they think these programs are so elite — and so helpful to their child’s admissions chances — is that they are often hosted, or at least located — at the most elite colleges.
The problem is that these programs won’t do much, if anything, to help. Here to explain why is Raymond Ravaglia, the former associate dean for pre-collegiate studies at Stanford University and is currently the director of pre-college programs at The School of The New York Times. He is also the founder of the world’s first online high school for gifted students, The Stanford Online High School.
By Raymond Ravaglia
Like baseball and cherry blossoms, articles and anxiety about college admission are once again in season. They feed upon years of practice by parents seeking the “best” and most prestigious college summer programs, since “everyone knows” that getting into the right college requires this prerequisite. Wrong!
Time and time again during the 15 years I directed pre-collegiate programs at Stanford University, I saw parents laboring under two fundamental misconceptions – “truths” garnered from other parents and popular wisdom that drove decisions they believed would help their children “get in,” but which, instead served only to accelerate the anxiety treadmill.
These misunderstandings are pervasive, causing many parents to deprive their children of a fulfilling summer of personal growth, rest, and recovery that would, in fact, be truly helpful in the highly competitive college admissions process.
The first misconceives the actual nature of summer programs.
Belief 1: “If my daughter attends ‘Dream College’ Summer Session and does well, it means she is competitive with ‘Dream College’ students and every college will want her.”
Reality: ‘Dream College’ isn’t ‘Dream College’ over the summer.
Summer students at “Dream” are taught by visitors and graduate students, while the regular students go home and regular faculty largely pursue research. Success here does not signal anything to admissions officers about academic competitiveness. Furthermore, if a high school student can think of nothing better to do in the summer than continue to be a traditional student in a classroom for another two months, isn’t that more likely to suggest a lack of imagination than intellectual vitality?
The second misconstrues the very reason why summer programs exist.
Belief 2: “Summer programs reflect a school’s official thinking about what students should be doing to get ready for college and for that college in particular.”
Reality: Nothing could be further from the truth!
The reason such programs are so common is not because colleges are worried about empty heads, they are worried about empty beds. Since undergraduates go home in the summer, colleges invite all manner of independent programs to campus, simply to fill the dorms. This disconnect can be hard to see because colleges will maintain a patina of official sponsorship — not because the admissions office or the undergraduate deans want to see how students in the program are doing, but because without such sponsorship the revenue generated might not be tax exempt.
Summer in the high school years should be a time for students to escape the classroom, to discover and explore their interests and to distinguish between passions, fads and passing fancies, because college will offer more options than even the most engaged of them can ever hope to master. Unless they have learned to focus their attention and prune their interests, this can be overwhelming and counterproductive.
The purpose of college is not to create perpetual students; it is to make young people ready to enter the world.
Students who have begun to encounter the fullness of life and have explored a sense of direction are inherently more appealing to colleges and universities than those hot house flowers who have only demonstrated their ability to be good students. Truth be told, there are plenty of those; while students who have explored their creative instincts and honed their critical skills are far fewer.
Even the most orthodox of liberal arts colleges understand that they do best when they admit young people who know what they are good at, what talents they wish to develop and what they wish to cast aside. Having a passion clarifies the mind.
This is why these two misconceptions about summer programs are so counterproductive. They seduce parents into co-opting what should be a time of growth and exploration, transforming it into just more of the same. Parents need to understand that as interested as colleges and universities are in attracting good students, they are even more interested in graduating alumni who will be successful in the world and make lasting contributions to society.
High school summers at their best when they prepare young people for the discovery of success in life itself.