Understanding Academic Summer Programs for High-Achieving Students

Whether it's a campus-specific program or a larger organization for gifted students, understanding what these programs offer is a must to get your money's worth.

Many parents are curious to know which academic summer programs are the most successful. Success, however, will depend on the student: Academic programs can be effective — or not — depending on whether they are the right fit for a specific student.

Should Your Child Attend an Academic Summer Program?

It’s thrilling to have your child deemed gifted and enrolled in a summer or after-school program designed for intellectually advanced students, but you should only consider these programs if your child wants to participate in them. Perhaps even more important to discuss is what your child wants to get out of the experience. Just because she’s great at math in school doesn’t mean she wants to learn new advanced math concepts after school or during the summer.

A student’s success in any academic summer program depends almost entirely on what she wants to learn and not on what her parents think is best. Even very young children enrolled in specialized programs are able to tell their parents what they would like to spend time learning. And if they can’t, they are probably still too young to be enrolled in a specialized academic program.

Related: High Schoolers, Here's 4 Solid Reasons to Consider Academic Summer Camp

Are All Academic Summer Programs for “Gifted” Students?

Not all academic programs are alike. One difference parents should be aware of is that not all of these summer camps cater to gifted students. Some are for students who may be on par academically with their peers but are seeking to learn something that isn’t taught at their school. This desire — if it truly originates with the student — demonstrates intellectual curiosity and is a wonderful thing. That said, it does not, in and of itself, indicate that a child is gifted.

If you are looking into academic summer programs, you will likely come across two types of camps: summer programs for gifted students and those run by specific colleges.

What Are Summer Programs for Gifted Students?

These programs offer advanced courses or learning opportunities (sometimes college-level courses) and foster interactions with other gifted peers. To be eligible to attend one of these camps, students must, in general, attain a particular score on a standardized test such as the SAT, ACT, or PSAT.

Summer programs for gifted students are often run by a specific university. That said, while a college may serve as the organizer of the camp, the programs themselves are typically offered at a variety of locations (for example, on college campuses across the country and around the globe). Moreover, the courses may be offered by different providers and not exclusively by the organizing institution.

A Gifted Program Case Study: Center for Talented Youth

The best known of all gifted programs is the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Johns Hopkins University. It offers online classes for students from second to twelfth grade, and weekend and school holiday experiences for students and their families. CTY also provides a variety of summer programs on U.S. university campuses, as well as at overseas locations for older students.

Admissions Criteria:

Depending on their grade level, students are admitted based on the scores they achieve on the SAT, ACT, PSAT or Scholastic College Ability Test, an exam originally created by the Educational Testing Service but later purchased by CTY. Students who do not meet the cutoff scores for the gifted summer camps are offered other educational options associated with CTY and can decide to retake the test to seek admission into another program the following year.

Program Structure:

Once admitted into the summer program, students can select a course that they will take over the span of three weeks while they live on campus (for young elementary-level students, a day camp option is offered). The courses that students can choose from span multiple disciplines, including traditional subjects like chemistry and calculus as well as more specialized courses like “History of Disease” or “The Critical Essay: Popular Culture.”

(Other notable programs for gifted students include Summer Institute for the Gifted (SIG) and Duke's Talent Identification Program (TIP).)

What Are Summer Programs for Accelerated Students?

Beyond the programs offered by a university at multiple sites, there are summer programs that are unique to a single campus. Some examples include the summer programs at Boston University, University of Virginia, and UC Berkley. High school students can enroll in one or several courses and get a sense of what living on a college campus is like. It’s a great chance for kids to get some exposure to the college experience early on.

Admissions Criteria:

While these programs require students to apply and may request a student transcript or an essay, campus-specific summer programs generally do not require specific scores on standardized testing.

Where Do These Programs Lead?

Will any of these programs actually be instrumental in helping a student gain admission to the college of her dreams? In short, not necessarily.

On their own, these programs are not intended to ensure future admission to a particular college or university. A student may end up being accepted to a college on whose campus she spent a summer, but this is likely to be a result of the fact that she was fully qualified to attend the school to begin with.

It’s important for students to understand that generally the high school programs run on campuses are independent and do not work with these universities’ admissions offices. Such a relationship would, otherwise, be unfair to those applicants who didn’t enroll in a summer program at the college. The fine print of every summer program contract will make this clear to parents and students.

A Satisfying Ending to a Difficult Experience

It is, moreover, possible for a student to fall in love with the college where she attended a high school program, apply Early Decision/Action, and still be rejected from the university. It happened to me!

I went to Cornell for a summer program just before my senior year of high school and loved everything about it. In the fall, I applied early decision to the university. In spite of the fact that my father was a Cornell alum and had died suddenly during the fall of my senior year, the school rejected me. I was heartbroken.

Little did I know that the school I would end up at, the University of Pennsylvania, would give me the best academic experience I could ever have hoped for. I would have saved myself considerable heartache in the college admissions process if I had understood that the summer program was valuable on its own and that it would have no effect on my prospects for admission to Cornell.

What Research Should I Do Before I Enroll?

There is only one way to tell if the program you or your child is interested in is the right fit: Speak to parents and students who have taken part in the program. Some of these programs cost thousands of dollars and, for older students, may take place halfway around the world; it’s smart to really understand the offerings before signing up.

In this case, the questions to ask are quite specific:

  • Did the program live up to its claims?
  • Did you receive an enriched educational experience?
  • In what ways did it fulfill these claims?

College and university summer programs for the gifted and other high-achieving high school students can be wonderful experiences. That said, the key to their success is good research to be sure you’ve found one that is a good fit and lives up to the promises made.

You can use Noodle to explore colleges in your area that may have summer programs for your child.

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