There are immense benefits to attending pre-college summer programs, one of the key ones being that they prepare you for the upcoming rigor of the college admissions process itself. There are a host of summer opportunities to look into, and while the quality of pre-college programs varies, there are some well-renowned, competitive opportunities that select the nation’s brightest young minds to participate in rigorous, life-changing learning opportunities. Take a look at the 10 most selective pre-college programs whose acceptance rates are lower than some of the nation’s top colleges. Or, if you’re interested in STEM, you should consider these 10 pre-college summer programs in science and engineering that are also completely free of charge.
Discovering the opportunities that are out there is only the first step of the process. What does it actually take to be admitted into pre-college programs whose extremely competitive admissions processes often mirror those of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities?
While each program has a unique admissions process and seeks candidates that have skills and qualities specific to the nature of program itself, applications generally require you to demonstrate a set of attributes that is desirable across all disciplines; these include critical thinking, passion, leadership, hard work and academic aptitude. And, past the specificities of each individual application, you will notice that most applications follow a similar pattern, and require you to submit a nearly identical set of documents. Based on this, the tips below have been compiled to help you
Do your research
It’s never too early to start doing research on the kind of opportunities that are available to you. There are plenty of programs that are tailored not only to specific disciplines, but also to students who are of specific backgrounds.
There are plenty of resources where you can do your research: pre-college program databases, College Confidential discussion threads (though these should always be read with a healthy dose of skepticism), and countless blog articles.
An important part of doing research is identifying what is important to you – what do you want to get out of this summer experience? Are there specific goals you want to achieve? Do you want to obtain technical laboratory skills and research experience, or participate in a program with a more inquisitive and exploratory curriculum?
Make a list
If you have many interests, or aren’t sure where you are headed academically and professionally but would like to explore different fields to see what fits best, you may run into the problem of having too many programs you could potentially apply to. This will not only cause you unnecessary confusion, but may also lead to a disorganized approach to applying to programs where you don’t necessarily prioritize some over others, or prioritize them but for arbitrary reasons, such as which programs have earlier deadlines.
A solution to this is to make a list of programs that you definitely want to apply to. In making this list, you will have to evaluate the programs you are interested in across a set of criteria, so that your final selection can be based on meaningful comparisons. You will have to consider the programs holistically and be aware of important trade-offs – for instance, should you apply to programs that are top-ranked, but have very low acceptance rates? You can organize your research and impressions in an Excel document, if that makes the decision-making process easier.
Your final list should be balanced and realistic, and consider the time you will have to invest into each application as well as which programs you intend to prioritize. Making these kinds of lists is common practice when applying to universities as well, and learning how to narrow down your choices, organize your impressions, and make educated decisions will benefit you greatly later on.
Choose your references carefully (and early!) and cultivate them ahead of time
The NIH guide to writing a successful application for one of their programs makes a very important point about the teachers and mentors who will be writing your letters of recommendation: that “meeting and cultivating potential references is something you should always be doing.” Indeed, it doesn’t hurt to identify people who could potentially be your references later on and cultivating a relationship with them outside of class.
If there is a specific field you are interested in, talk to the teacher who teaches that subject. Let them know if you do independent work in addition to the assigned curriculum, or about interesting advances in your field of interest that you find compelling or problems that you pursue in your free time. Establishing this relationship with your teachers or mentors beforehand can enable them to write about you from a more personal perspective.
When you ask someone to write you a letter of recommendation, it is helpful to submit several documents to supplement your request. For example, the NIH guide also suggest to provide your references with a copy of your resume, a description of the program or programs you are applying to, and suggestions of what you would like them to address in their letters. Also, make sure whether the program requires that the letter of reference be written according to a specific format, and let your recommender know so that they don’t have to spend a lot of time researching it themselves. Also, make sure to ask your references as early as possible, as early as the start of the academic year so that they can take as much time as they need to write a compelling letter of recommendation that will both impress the admissions committee as well as give them a better idea of you both as a person and student.
Tell a compelling story
Admissions committees want to know what makes you a good addition to the student body. To stand out in a pool of competitive and highly qualified applicants, you have to be able to present yourself in a way that leaves a strong and lasting impression. Your essays bring your entire application together – they transform the grades, test scores, community service hours and extracurriculars into meaningful information that is a part of a larger, coherent whole.
When writing your essays, think about what personal experiences frame your perspective and how they related to your discipline of choice. Does the rigor and precision required in mathematics influence how you make arguments? Does doing dance shape how you think about teamwork and collaboration? Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable in your writing, and include information that is revealing and genuine, because admissions committees can easily pick out inconsistencies.
Always remember that your essays are supposed to tell a compelling story. This does not mean that they can be void of content – well-chosen language or gimmicky metaphors are not enough to disguise a lack of depth, thoughtfulness or experience, but don’t underestimate the power of well-written essays can have on leaving a lasting impression in the minds of the admissions committee, perhaps even more than grades and test scores. If you are applying to a program in the humanities, good writing is absolutely central to your application. If you are applying for a STEM program, being thoughtful and articulate can ultimately make a difference in whether they select you over another equally-qualified candidate, and as such, you should invest a lot of time and thought into what story you tell, and how you tell it.
Start by giving yourself time to think, observe, and reflect. This often means starting your applications in advance. Keep a journal of ideas, write many drafts, and ask everyone you know to read and critique your essay. Do this until the only feedback you get is that the essay clearly communicates who you are as a person and makes the reader feel like they know you on a more personal level.