A Sneak Preview Of Campus Life

Summer school can be invaluable for the college-bound

In 1994, Katherine MacNamara, who had just completed her sophomore year in high school, spent two weeks exploring New York's Finger Lakes. But this was no summer vacation. MacNamara and 35 other high school students were studying the environment from the perspectives of biology, geology, philosophy, and economics. Their teachers: professors at the affiliated Hobart and William Smith colleges.

Summer programs, like this one by Hobart and William Smith's Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute, are popular choices for high school students. Hundreds of colleges and universities are offering residential programs for 14- to 17-year-olds who may want to hone their debating skills, immerse themselves in Chinese literature, or get hands-on instruction in aeronautics. "You get a feel for what you will be studying in college," says MacNamara, now a 21-year-old senior and biology major at William Smith in Geneva, N.Y. She intends to go on to graduate work in cellular and molecular biology.

Be forewarned: These programs, which can run from a few days to eight weeks, aren't summer camp. Many have a competitive entry process that requires grade transcripts, recommendations, and essays. The curriculum can be difficult. At Northwestern University's National High School Institute, applicants must be in the top 25% of their class. Students in the theater program could spend up to 12 hours a day preparing for 10 live productions over five weeks.

A pre-college summer campus experience offers many benefits, though. Students get a chance not only to test out a future career but also to see what life is like on an urban or rural campus, or at a small college or large university. And such a summer campus stint looks great on a college application. "Just being admitted to a program is an academic honor," says Shirley Levin, an educational consultant in Rockville, Md. "If there is a grade or written evaluation, that will tell the [admissions officer] even more about your abilities."

The costs can run from several hundred dollars for a few days at a commuter school to more than $5,000 for an eight-week residential program. Financial aid is available for many programs. Don't neglect to ask about any other charges, such as lab fees or field trips.

COLLEGE CREDIT? Several books describe pre-college programs. Peterson's, an educational publisher, offers Peterson's Summer Opportunities for Kids and Teenagers 2000 ($29.95). Kaplan Books has just issued its first Yale Daily News Guide to Summer Programs, 2000 Edition ($22). The Duke University Talent Identification Program publishes the Educational Opportunity Guide--2000 Edition ($15). Peterson's also has a Web site (www.petersons.com) that categorizes programs by location and subject. College sites also are a source. And those interested in science can check out the listings in the Directory of Science Training Programs (www.sciserv.org/stp/).

Students need to decide from the start whether they want a program that offers intensive study in one subject, such as the environmental science program, or one that lets them choose a couple of courses from a broad curriculum. Many larger universities offer the latter. At Cornell University, high school kids can choose among 70. Harvard University offers 200. But many students prefer total immersion. At the University of Virginia's Young Writers Workshop, teens spend many hours each day for two weeks with established artists learning techniques of poetry, fiction, or playwriting. Moreover, "in high school, these students are not with peers who live and breathe writing. It can be very powerful," says program director Margo Figgins.

Once the student selects some programs for further investigation, he or she should check that they're actually run by the colleges themselves. Many private organizations rent space on campus, hire instructors, and advertise using the college name. Some of these groups operate well-run programs, but "the program will have nothing to do with the college, and the college is not standing behind the quality," says Carole Warsawer, author of Summer Programs at New York Colleges For Kids 8-18 ($18.95).

Another consideration is college credit. Many colleges won't accept the credits, though they may let undergrads forgo a required course if they took it during the summer. So check around to make sure that the credits transfer. And ask whether college faculty will be teaching. Although it's typical for programs to use grad students to supplement teaching, high school students will have a more challenging experience if professors lead the courses. Applicants also should find out whether they can use university facilities, such as gyms.

Teens need to consider, too, whether they want to take classes with undergrads or college-level courses tailored to high school students. The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago mix high schoolers with college students. A teen may learn about college life, but such a route requires a certain maturity.

Supervision is another issue. Will students travel by themselves? Are there structured activities after class? Most colleges have special dormitories for their high school programs, with extra counselors and required curfews. But check anyway. At the University of Southern California's Summer Seminars program, for instance, students can leave campus only for official field trips or supervised recreation, or with special permission. The staff plans extracurricular activities on weekday afternoons and weekends.

With so many programs, it won't be hard to find one that piques a future undergrad's interest. And such an experience will not only be exhilarating in itself but will help ease the adjustment when the real event occurs. k

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