Some summer camps are for unwinding, getting outdoors, playing sports or music, or doing crafts. And then there are those that offer kids -- most of them heading into junior or senior year of high school -- intensive study sessions focused on upping SAT scores, working on college applications and essays, getting help navigating the admissions process and, in some cases, experiencing a taste of college life.
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"Our goal is to give them tools for success, and access to high-level instruction and materials that they may not otherwise have access to," says Nermin Fraser, director of admissions at the Berkeley, California-based Education Unlimited.
The organization runs college admission prep camps on the campuses of the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Yale and Georgetown. Kids stay in dorms and eat in the campus cafeteria.
The camps are a lot of work (sometimes accompanied by a little play), and aren't for everyone, administrators say.
Kids who are struggling academically might not be a good fit.
"Kids should have an A or B average and be academically motivated. The nice thing about it is that there are no grades. Some kids work super hard and seek out extra work. Other kids may not be there yet in terms of their mindset. They can benefit from the process in either case," says Fraser, a former high school principal.
"Because we work in small groups with personalized attention, we are able to help kids make incremental growth from wherever they are starting," she says.
Most students in the program are rising juniors, getting ready to take SAT and ACT exams. Rising seniors tend to focus on college applications and essays
While the focus is on academics, Fraser says campers also go on field trips and tours of local college campuses.
Command Education runs college-prep summer programs in New York and Los Angeles. They cater mainly to kids entering senior year.
"A lot of students tend to procrastinate during the school year, when there isn't a lot of time to focus on college essays and applications anyway," says Christopher Rim, who runs the program.
"We structure the camp so that they're working independently. But it's easier to focus on working on the essay because they are surrounded by other kids who are working, too. We have them from 10 to 5. They submit their essay before they go to sleep. It's looked at night, and in the morning they get it back and start on it again," Rim says.
"It's an intense camp, and is really for students ready to put in the hard work," he says.
"It's an intense camp, and is really for students ready to put in the hard work"
If that sounds like a grueling way to spend part of the summer, Rim says the camps sell out quickly.
The hard work put in during the summer makes the college application process less stressful in the long run, he says, since students can enter senior year with application and essay completed.
The camps tend to have hefty price tags, though.
Education Unlimited's summer camps range from around $3,000 for a 7-day college admissions camp to $8,000 for a 21-day version. Command Education's offerings cost an eye-popping $20,000 for a weeklong camp, including counseling before and after camp to help navigate the college admissions process.
Many camps offer discounts or, in some cases, full scholarships for qualified students in need.
Nevertheless, for-profit college-prep camps give wealthier kids a leg up, says Rick Mayfield, director of learning and achievement at the San Luis Coastal Unified School District in San Luis Obispo, California.
"A low-income family would not consider something like this, even at a discounted rate," he says.
"A low-income family would not consider something like this, even at a discounted rate"
He said high schools must try hard to provide such support themselves to students.
"What we have tried to create in schools are resources that kids and families can tap into to help them with the process that do not cost money," he says. "There are adults that can show how to go about the application process, help with letter writing, and applying for scholarship funding. The playing field is anything but leveled and it is an uphill battle for those of lower socio-economic status."
Rim notes that because wealthier communities tend to have better schools, the entire process is unfair from the start of a student's education. But he says colleges tend to set aside a certain number of places for qualified students in need, as well as for international students, so wealthy U.S. applicants are competing with each other for slots, not with those with fewer resources or those from overseas.