A classroom might seem like the last place you’d want to spend those precious few weeks of summer vacation, but if it’s a college-level classroom, there might be all kinds of benefits.
“Taking college courses during the summer can be a great way to start to get a feel for the academic expectations of a college classroom and can enhance the rigor of your high school curriculum,” says Mike Lynch, director of undergraduate admission at Emerson College in Boston who meets lots of high school students at Emerson’s summer programs.
“Doing well in a college course can help admission officers begin to answer the question, ‘Is this student ready for college level work?’”
A way to explore new ground
Summer college courses should be about exploration or enrichment, says Andrew Palumbo, dean of admissions at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts.
“What we don’t want is students trying to impress the admissions committee and guess what we’re looking for,” he says.
“There’s not one formula that’s going to leads to admission. At a school like WPI, we’re completing an individual, holistic review for each student that’s going to take into consideration their personal context.”
Summer college courses won’t make or break admission for a student, he says, but having them on your resume will give admissions officers some insight as to things that are important to you.
“High school summers are a finite resource. How students choose to use the summer tells us a little bit about that applicant.”
Show that you love a challenge
David Dollins agrees that taking college courses can be advantageous for high school students. Dollins is assistant vice president of enrollment management at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. He’s also worked in admissions at Northern Arizona University and Colorado State.
“It shows hard work and dedication, and that grit component is something that a lot of admissions officers are looking for,” he says.
“College has highs and lows during the four years. Summer courses show they can do college-level work, but also that they’ve challenged themselves and they are motivated. Faculty members love students who are engaged in the academic experience.”
If it’s an overnight on-campus experience, summer classes can give future college students “a confidence boost,” said Palumbo. “One of the most difficult parts for most college students is the transition to a residential experience.
“They’ve gotten over the hiccups of how do you engage with other students when you don’t know anyone. What is it like to have some back and forth with a college professor? They’re having some of these experiences earlier, so they have a little comfort that their peers don’t.”
Check if credits will count
One advantage, especially for STEM students, is that taking a course or two before college sometimes help students progress to hands-on projects and upper level courses sooner in their college career, says Palumbo.
But that’s not always the case, he warns. Some colleges want to be sure students all have the same foundation in a course.
“A calculus class should be a calculus class, but, in reality, colleges and universities make decisions, whether it’s calculus or physics, about what’s going to be offered in an introductory course and how that supports all of the coursework that students scaffold on top of that foundation,” he says.
That’s why it’s important to check into whether you’ll be able to transfer credits.
“There’s no foolproof way of knowing,” says Palumbo. “It’s going to be different for every institution. A lot of schools have a credit-transfer database on their website. It will list what colleges and courses have received credit at that institution.
“From my perspective, the real value of a summer course is the experience. The secondary value is the potential flexibility it brings with credits.”
If you do want to rack up some advance credits, general education courses are going to be most beneficial, says Dollins.
“They will help you advance through the general education curriculum more quickly and get into your major sooner. College level math, English 101 and 102 – just knock that out of the way.”
Palumbo encourages students to explore something new.
“Particularly in the STEM world, there is a hyper-focus on the major,” he says. “Maybe applicants are great at math and science, but they’ve also challenged themselves and excelled in the social sciences or a language or English. We don’t want them to lose that interest or that skill set.”
Make room outside your major
Coming in with some gen-ed credits can give you more leeway to take advantage of courses outside your major, he says.
“Students value that flexibility. It allows them to find not only their major, but their mission. It allows them to take that music course, to continue with an interest or find a new interest. We don’t want them to feel that they have to be so narrow in their college experience that they become their major.”
The best part of taking summer college courses, Dollins says, is that it helps to demystify college course work.
“There’s an impression that college is going to be more difficult. It is more challenging but it’s very do-able for students,” he says.
“Colleges are not going to hold your hand and give you daily reminders or micro-manage your tasks. They’re going to make the assumption that you’re mature enough to handle your workload. … Summer courses help you build the confidence to succeed during your first year and beyond.”