Make the most of your summer with academic options


Summer provides the best opportunity for future college applicants to separate themselves from the pack. As the number of students applying to colleges continues its upward trajectory, so too does the need for students to make an effort to distinguish themselves.

So how do you get noticed? Doing something meaningful over the summer is one of the most effective ways to have your application stand out. You don’t need to travel the world or cure cancer, but it is important to make sure that whatever experience you choose is substantive. This is a great time for some self-reflection and to identify potential academic and professional aspirations.

Summer is more than a break from homework, tests and the drama of high school relationships. It is an opportunity for students to delve a little deeper into their academic or extracurricular interests.

Here are suggestions for academic programs, near and far:

Get a taste of college – close to home: Private schools and community colleges offer a variety of remedial and advanced classes during the summer. Students can take a prerequisite for a higher level course or find a class that is not offered at their high school.

Pros: A class over the summer can fulfill prerequisite requirements allowing a student to take a higher level class or enable the student to get ahead in the coursework and find the pace of the class more comfortable in the fall.

Cons:  Pretty simple – students aren’t crazy about going to school over the summer while so many friends are hanging out and going to the beach; it can be challenging to be truly focused.

Resources: Online classes for credit is gaining popularity:

  • North Carolina Virtual Public School ( currently offers 21 AP classes, as well as many honors, electives and college prep classes.
  • South Carolina’s program, Virtual South Carolina (, offers 10 AP courses as well as a healthy mix of other course options.
  • Another national resource is the Virtual High School, ( a nonprofit organization dedicated to online education that offers 24 AP courses, as well as dozens of other classes.
  • Check with your guidance counselor to make certain your high school accepts credit for these classes before you sign up and confirm how it will appear on your final high school transcript.

Get a taste of college – Far away: There are two options if you’d like to spend some time checking out a college by test-driving its academics, staying in the dormitories, eating in the cafeteria and hanging out on campus:

  • Pre-college academic programs – students can study and earn college credits on hundreds of campuses nationwide.
  • Pre-college enrichment courses – these are special interest courses lasting typically 1-3 weeks.

Pros:  Experiencing a real college campus during a 1-6 week summer program is a great way to have a better appreciation of whether the college represents a good fit.  What is it really like to be 3,000 miles from home? Is the quaint college town manageable for the summer but definitely deadly for a year-round experience? Many of these programs offer hands-on experiences working in laboratories and guest lectures from experts. Spending time with other students who are equally passionate about their interests is also very inspiring.

Cons: Credit programs are longer and can be very expensive.

Resources: Check out a college’s programs by going to its home page and typing “pre-college” or “summer programs” in the search box.

Some families are under the mistaken impression that attending a summer program at an elite school gives them a leg up in the admissions process. I asked Greg Zaiser, director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Elon University, if he felt most colleges are impressed when students participate in academic programs at such colleges and universities.

“I don’t know that they are impressive just because a student did an academic program, regardless of where it was. What impresses us the most is that students who do such programs have identified something they want to study or pursue in or after college. That focus is impressive, though hardly necessary for a liberal arts and sciences undergraduate experience.”


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;