At a college preparatory school like The Gregory School, the realities of the dog-eat-dog world college application and admissions process are constantly on students’ minds.

With each year, elite universities only become more selective in their admissions process and more demanding in their expectations for extracurricular acheivements.

For many students, an acceptance letter to Harvard University (with a 5.9% admission rate) is as much a winning lottery ticket as it is a supposed guarantee of one’s future.

As a reaction to these declining acceptance rates, many students have used summers to pursue different application-padding opportunities and also their interests.

For many teenagers, summers have become a time to participate in college preparatory summer programs hosted at universities around the country and the world.

Summer academic programs are not necessarily a new concept, but their availability at colleges all over the nation has certainly increased in recent years. As of 2015, almost all selective universities – from John Hopkins to Stanford to Princeton to Barnard to even the University of Arizona – boast summer programs for high school students.

The structure, offerings, price, and duration of these programs vary. Some, like state governor schools or fully-funded conferences, require competitive applications but are otherwise completely free of cost (besides airfare and spending money), no matter the duration of the program or the student’s income. A student’s competence is the only requirement.

According to The Gregory School Director of College Counseling, Malika M. Lindsay, other “pay-to-play” programs offer all the benefits and more of a free program at a much higher cost.

A seven-week summer college program at Harvard University for high schoolers costs $11,000 for tuition and on-campus housing, with courses ranging from Government to Photography. The average price tends to be anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 for these “pay to play” programs, but prices for other programs vary widely.

At many general programs hosted at colleges (as opposed to programs focused on one specific field), students usually select one morning class and one afternoon class.

These classes can range from general overviews of large subjects (biology, engineering, creative writing, vocal arts) or more specific seminars (like “The Psychology of Gender Differences” as offered at Barnard). Many programs also tend to emphasize the surrounding college town, with frequent field trips and free time for students to explore what the city has to offer.

Yet Lindsay warns students about these programs. “Remember, the ‘pay to play’ programs are not going to be useful in the college process, but selective ones will be,” said Lindsay.

They also will not influence the student’s chances of getting into the school where they attended a summer program. Lindsay said, “The vast majority of summer programs that are run on college campuses are run privately. They are in no way related to the colleges themselves.”

Lindsay said that even free, prestigious programs cannot be expected to contribute largely to college admissions. “They will not, by themselves, make or break someone’s application to college. So you’re not going to be on the bubble and then get in because you went somewhere and did something awesome with research that summer.” Lindsay added, “But, they can always help. They’re probably in the same category as recommendations as far as an application is concerned.”

With programs that cater to all interests and backgrounds all over the world, there are certainly things to gain from them.

Senior Sarah Klaehn attended an Oxbridge Academic Program at Oxford University during a summer, and considered “gaining friends from all over the world and experiencing life in a new place” to be a true gift.

Junior Brian Liu has attended Stanford’s EPGY summer institutes for computer programming and the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Intensive Studies for Computer Science, Chemistry, and Cognitive Psychology, as well as the University of Arizona’s KEYS Summer Research Institute. Liu said, “These programs let you spend a few weeks learning about things that interest you in classes you may not otherwise have at school. You’re practically guaranteed to enjoy yourself even though you have classes on weekdays.”

Even though they do not pad your college application, summer programs can certainly assist students with other college decisions. For example, any intensive summer experience that allows students to pursue possible interests is helpful for determining one’s major and career.

Additionally, time spent living on a college campus can prepare students for the realities of college life, especially the little things not covered on campus tours – like dining hall options, campus size, cleanliness, and availability of help from faculty. These factors won’t help a student get into a school, but it can certainly help them decide on one.

Lindsay recommended summer programs that “get students abroad” or are especially experiential in their subjects, like the Oxbridge Academic Programs or National Youth Leadership Forum. Currently, there are folders and books as well as Lindsay herself available in the college counseling office to assist inquiring students about any summer program opportunities.

Many families worry that these sorts of programs promote an elitist collegiate system, where the ability of some families to pay over others is unfair. Furthermore, not every student has the luxury of spending their summer learning rather than having a job.

Lindsay advised students not to worry, because valuable summer experiences can be found in other places that are just as beneficial and often much cheaper.

“Remember that work experience you’re doing instead of a summer program is as compelling in an admissions office as a summer program would be. So you’re going to Oxford in the summer and studying philosophy is awesome, congratulations, but that is not going to be any more impactful than working at Eegee’s all summer long so you can save money,” she said.

Whether you attend an $11,000 program at a university for seven weeks, win an amazing all-paid expenses research opportunity in medicine, or work as a lifeguard, take advantage of your summers.

Lindsay summarized, “Never think that watching Law & Order all day is going to help you in any way. Even if you volunteer at the library once a week, something is better than nothing.”