Are you trying to decide whether you should spend next summer studying a textbook or rereading the Harry Potter saga? Spending time with the Hogwarts crew might sound like fun, but taking a college course for credit has some major upsides.
“A college class can be a great option for students who desire a more rigorous academic challenge than what their high school offers,” says Nancy Polin, a college counselor who is the founder and president of Educational Excellence, which offers college planning and tutoring services.
“It’s an opportunity for a student to get their first exposure to what a college class is like and can be used as a stepping stone for a smooth transition and future success as a four-year college student. In some high schools, students can use it to boost their GPA. Probably most important, it can be used to show colleges that you have the ability to be successful at college-level course work,” Polin says.
It’s important to be clear about your reasons for hitting the books over the summer, says Stacy Hernandez, a college counselor who owns The Best U, another admissions consulting service.
“Some students are trying to dive more into an academic subject to deepen their knowledge,” she says. “Others wants to get exposure to a field of study to help them decide what they want to study in college or do in their career.”
Gaining some college credits over the summer could help you check off some college graduation requirements or help you skip out of entry-level courses into higher-level classes, says Hernandez, who worked in the admissions departments at Johns Hopkins University and Northeastern University.
1. Pay attention to timelines.
If you want to make sure you get the credits you’ve earned, Polin says the first step is meeting with your high school’s guidance counselor to get the details about your school’s procedures. “Timelines are important because usually there's a lot of paperwork,” she says.
You may need to have your guidance counselor sign off on the college paperwork in order for you to enroll in a college class. Be sure to check whether or not your high school will list college courses on your transcript.
2. Look near and far.
Some students have the desire and resources to travel to a summer program.
“Parents might be eager for their child to gain more independence, so they want them to attend a program where they’re living in the dorms and getting comfortable living on their own,” says Hernandez. “Brown, for example, has a tremendous, diverse range of pre-college classes for high school students.”
A local community college is a lower-cost option that will provide a mix of educational options, and that works just as well for many students, she says.
“It doesn't have to be a big, elaborate program,” she says.
3. Choose wisely.
When choosing a class, find one that’s challenging but not over your head. “Most college applications will ask if you’ve taken a college class for credit, and low grades will stay with you,” says Polin. “The college classroom is very different. Teachers give you a syllabus at the beginning of the course, and it’s your responsibility to track what needs to be done. Be sure you understand the expectations from the start.”
4. Check transfer policies.
If you are hoping to attend a particular college after you finish high school, be sure to look at transfer policies on the college’s website so you know their criteria for carrying forward your summer college credits.
As a rule of thumb, says Hernandez, the more selective the school, the tighter the guidelines about transferring credits. “You submit your credits when you enroll in college, whether it’s college courses or [Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate] credits,” she says. “Each college has its own evaluation process and its own standards of what it will accept and what it won’t.”
Checking on transferability is particularly important for nonacademic summer programs, such as leadership conferences or outdoor adventure programs that promote leadership, she says.
From a college’s perspective, not all summer courses are equal.
“Some pre-college programs offer really interesting elective courses instead of standard classes like Calculus and Physics 101,” says Hernandez. “Those electives won’t necessarily line up with your college’s policies or requirements. It’s a good idea to find the programs that have very standard entry-level type of courses within the core subject realms of math, science, English, social studies and languages.”
5. Remember, it’s not just about credit.
In addition to getting some college credits, a pre-college experience can provide potential material for a college application essay or interview. “You can talk about how you challenged yourself by taking these more rigorous college classes,” Hernandez says. “It’s going to make you a more interesting applicant.”