Summer Is No Break For College-Obsessed Students

By Luther Turmelle, New Haven Register

July 24, 2005 — WALLINGFORD — Nat King Cole once sang about the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,” but for high school students deciding which college they want to attend, and even middle schoolers, this is hardly an idle time of year.

Nearly 500 high school and middle school students are taking part in this summer’s educational programs at Choate Rosemary Hall, which for a month becomes an educational version of the United Nations.

Last year, students from 27 states and 27 countries attended the programs, said Jim Irzyk, director of Choate’s summer session.

Among this year’s group of foreign students is Jei Wook Moon, 16, from South Korea. Moon, who will be a junior when he returns to his homeland, said he is hoping to use his performance at the Choate summer program as a springboard to getting into a good U.S. college.

“I want to do well, because my parents are spending a lot of money to send me here,” Moon said.

Lately, the makeup of the student body has shifted away from high school students preparing for college to middle school students jockeying to make themselves more attractive to prep schools.

Choate caps its summer school enrollment at 500, and, for high school students like Moon, the competition is getting tougher.

“Where we’re seeing the real growth is at the middle-school level,” Irzyk said.

The percentage of middle school students attending Choate’s summer session has grown 14 percent over the past six years to 47 percent of the total student body.

“Everything is getting pushed downward,” Irzyk said of the pressure to do well in grades below the high school level.

Karen Pellegrino, director of undergraduate admissions at Fairfield University, said college admissions officers don’t factor any academic activity before high school in their decision-making process.

“We don’t discourage it, but it’s certainly not a necessity,” Pellegrino said. “The only time that something before high school might be a factor is if they’ve done something really outstanding or unusual, like being in a Broadway play.”

What advanced summer academic programs like the one at Choate do offer is an opportunity for middle-school students to solidify the proper academic skills, said Bill Eisele, general manager of one-on-one tutoring services with Summit Educational Group of Watertown, Mass.

The company provides standardized test preparation and academic tutoring services to students in Grades 5-12.

“Students’ learning and study habits are certainly developed in middle school,” Eisele said. “If they can get onto the right path with one of these summer programs, then it’s going to be a huge help in high school.”

Tuition costs vary among the summer programs Choate offers. For the high school program, they top out at $5,100 for boarding students. For day students, the costs are $1,450 per course in the students’ major and $790 per minor course.

Educators say there is an increasing pressure on teens to use their summer breaks to maximize their ability to get into the college of their choice.

“I’m not defending it or saying it’s a good thing, but it is the way of the world,” said Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant. Goodman has spent the past 18 years working with families trying to help their high school-age children get into their colleges of choice.

“The pressure is everywhere,” he said. “It’s almost a prerequisite to do something in the summer that will build your college resume if you want to get into a good school.”

The summer programs offered at Choate have grown dramatically in an effort to meet families’ changing educational needs, Irzyk said.

Among the programs offered are:

  • A beginning writers workshop for students in fifth and sixth grades.

  • A science and math program for girls in sixth through eighth grade.

  • The John F. Kennedy School of Government, a political studies program for high school-age students that includes a five-day trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials.

Another way high school students are spending their summer is by attending college fairs. Choate recently held one that drew several hundred area students and their parents.

Admissions representatives from more than 60 schools, some from as far away as California and Colorado, were there.

It isn’t just elite private educational institutions that are becoming harder to get into, Goodman said. Public colleges such as the University of Connecticut have raised their standards dramatically.

“Students are getting shut out of quality state schools,” Goodman said.

Dolan Evanovich, a vice provost for enrollment management at UConn, acknowledges that the school’s admission standards have become more selective over the past 10 years, and believes summer courses are a good thing.

“Good students are always doing what it takes to make themselves better prepared for the challenges they face in college,” he said.

But Goodman argues that there are also increasing signs that such constant pressure on high school students has some drawbacks.

“We’re seeing increasing numbers of students taking anti-depressants or being treated for depression,” he said.

Some admissions professionals say high school students can overdo it in their efforts to position themselves as attractive college applicants.

“College admissions departments look for well-rounded students, somebody with a good balance,” said Justin Holmes, assistant director of admissions at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. “And that can include a summer job, especially if you’re doing something you’re passionate about.”

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