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How to Choose Your Summer Programs

How to Choose Your Summer Programs

By James H. Choi
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https://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Graphics/summer-camp.jpgKorean version: Summer Camp를 선택하기 전에 아셔야 할 사실

Summer programs for high-school students come in two categories: commercial and academic. Of course, both camps aim to teach students at some level, but their primary objectives are different.  Commercial camps are out to make money, whereas academic camps want to teach students.  The easiest way to know which group a summer program belongs to is to look at how you found out about it.  Did you receive advertising, like a colorful brochure?  If so, the camp is commercial.  Commercial camps spend their money on advertising.  Academic ones spend their money on scholarships for students, thus you won’t find out about academic camps by sitting in your house.  You’ll have to diligently search for them or else know someone in-the-know.

It is not that one type is good or bad, it all depends on your goal.  There are many reasons to take summer courses.  One could be to enjoy the summer.  If this is your goal, you could take any program that put an emphasis on the play side.  But if you’re doing the summer program to improve your chance of MIT admissions, then only the hardcore, top academic programs will be of use.  Attending a commercial summer program proves only that you have money and time, which are not qualities top universities seek after.

But even then, not all academic camps are equal.  Broadly speaking, some are academically passive; others are active.  Passive means classroom lectures, and the only students have to show for is a grade.  Active means students perform their own research, or create something that is uniquely theirs.

In passive academic camps (such as EPGY and CTY), you follow a predetermined curriculum.  These camps are basically an extension of your high school (except you might be in a different city).  Doing well in such programs proves you have the patience and ability to sit and take classes which is already proven by your school GPA, but it doesn’t show anything about your creativity or motivation to do things that are not required of you.


Active summer camp programs are different.  These camps can make the difference in being admitted to a top school like MIT or Harvard or not.  In active academic camps, you decide your own program and perform your own research.  Your study is not predetermined.  You pick a topic, and you explore it further with assistance of the local teachers and professors in the program.  The top programs are generally free, or do not cost beyond the student’s means because they provide financial support that includes round trip airfare.

Then why in the world would people join ineffective and expensive passive programs when there are killer free active programs?  Ah, there is a catch, of course.  The free active ones are furiously difficult to get in to.  The admissions competition is so fierce, it’s actually harder than getting into MIT.  In fact, among tens of graduates from those problems I met, I have never seen anyone who was not admitted to MIT later as well.

So how do you prepare for those programs?  If you go and read the application requirements you might be astounded to find the things they ask for.  The application process is just as rigorous as — and good training for — applying to college.  You have to meet academic requirements, you have to be a top-notch student, you have to have great teacher recommendations, and you have to have a great transcript and test scores.  But even all those credentials alone do not get you a spot.  Because everyone else has them too.

So what else do you need?  The thing that boosts your application, gives you an edge is your track record showing that you are the type, i.e., your previous research experience.  During summer vacations, you should join a camp that teaches you how to do research, or do it on your own.  Yes, it is the Matthew Effect all over again.  You need experience to gain experience.  Thus, in your earlier summers, you need seek out active camps  that will teach you to produce something: A research paper.  It’s level is not as important is its existence.  It must be your research — with your own ideas in it and your own name on it.  Chances are you will have to be mentored to take your first step into this world.  That explains why so many of these students are professor’s children.  But once the Matthew Effect kicks in, you can become ever more self sufficient and self propelling cruising not only through college and graduate school but also through your career.

If you must do it alone, then you are better off doing the activities I described in How to be Accepted to MIT 1 (How to get free passwords) than going to passive summer camps.

So, spend every one of your junior high, and high school summer with a goal of making into one of these free active summer camps that practically guarantees your spot at MIT.

When you do apply for these great active camps, make sure you take advice from those who have been through the camps before because there is no second chance.  The application process is lengthy and involved, and there are many ways to make mistakes that will disqualify you.  We know this well because we have an ex-admissions officer of a very prestigious active summer program on our staff.  Please note that most active summer programs end their application processes by early February.

Choose your summer programs wisely from early on.  It will change your life.


Categories: Summer Programs
  1. J.R.
    December 9, 2021 at 11:33 am

    Seems and sounds like it’s actually VERY difficult to get into top schools in the US from the states than coming from abroad? Discouraging. Nonetheless, thanks for the post. Always knew top kids were teacher’s kids and they do have advantage for sure.

    Also saw a kid who had a sound curiosity applied into own research, and got the top Intel science award; went to (NOT) ivy but still pretty good private college. What’s interesting is, later, the kid’s alum scouted the kid into Harvard (medical), but declined; went to NIH and Johns Hopkins MBA. So always personal passion is the thrust getting one into needed place. The world needs such people with passion. My 2 cents.

  1. February 19, 2017 at 9:51 pm

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