Blog 🍎 School 22nd July 2022

Have your students considered university summer schools?

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James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

Many students are facing quieter summers than usual as COVID-19 continues to affect travel plans. But you can guide them to harness this opportunity and boost their university applications!

As the school year draws to a close, summer schools have probably come up in conversation. After all, it’s a time of year when students are naturally wondering about their next steps.

Your class of 2021 might be feeling excited and nervous about starting university in September, while the class of 2022 is likely looking forward to making some decisions about where to apply. The class of 2023 has been grappling with big decisions too, as they decide which subjects to focus on for their final two years of school.

One thing they all have in common is probably a diminished calendar for the summer ahead. Maybe they had hoped to secure internships for the summer, but found that many were cancelled. They’re probably also facing uncertainty about any travel plans they’d like to make.

But the summer doesn’t need to be dull or idle! Students who want to fill their days learning new things, nailing down their interests and ambitions for higher education, and rounding out their college applications should consider attending summer school.

In this article, we’ll think about what different summer schools involve, what students will gain from attending, and the important considerations they should make ahead of applying.

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What is summer school?

You might know summer schools by a few other names. They’re often referred to as pre-college programmes or summer intensives. But whichever label they’re given, they share a common goal: to give secondary school students a taste of university life.

These immersive programmes can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks, during which students attend lectures, seminars, labs and workshops run by guest professors and resident faculty. They’ll often even benefit from an assigned tutor who can guide them on a one-to-one basis! It has all the benefits of an open day, and then some.

What will students gain from summer schools?

The first obvious gain for students is that they get to learn lots of new things, and keep their brains active and curious during the break from school. Of course, we know some students might need a little extra incentive to go back to the ‘classroom’ during their holiday.

Students can learn what to expect from a subject at university level

Many students assume that their favourite subject will be just the same at university as it was at school, except a little more advanced. But that isn’t always the case. Some subjects can feel very unfamiliar to new undergraduates. The statistical and neurological components of psychology, for example, often take students by surprise.

Attending summer school can give students a taste of what it will be like to study certain subjects at university. That way, they might rule out subjects they were considering, and find ones that they’re really excited to explore further.

Students can explore new subject areas

Conversely, there are some subjects which students might not have been exposed to much during their time at school. Courses like international relations, environmental conservation and gender studies tend to be reserved for higher education.

Summer school can be a great opportunity for students to experience these subjects. They might find a passion they’d never suspected! It’s a great way to kick-off – or focus – students’ research journeys.

Students can explore new systems of education

It’s not just subject areas that might be unfamiliar to students. The entire system, even ethos, of education in a certain country or institution can be very different from what students are used to.

Summer schools let students dip their toes in the water and see how things work elsewhere. They give a feel for the academic culture, and whether it’s a good fit for each student. After all, the same subject can be taught very differently at, say, an Ivy League school in the USA than it is at a city university in the heart of Germany. Before sending out applications, students can make sure the institution’s approach chimes with their own.

Students can try things out without the pressure of assessments

One really appealing characteristic of summer schools is that they have no permanent impact on students’ transcripts or records. Summer schools aren’t formally assessed, and if their experience is disastrous, students don’t even need to mention that they ever went!

Without having to think of long-term consequences and final grades, students can dive into unfamiliar territories and quench their intellectual curiosity. It’s a wonderful time for academic exploration which could lead them down rewarding paths.

Students will be better prepared for university

Starting university can be a daunting experience. New skill-sets can be required, and students can sometimes feel they’ve been thrown in at the deep end.

But if they’ve attended summer school, students will be more comfortable with the principles of conducting rigorous research, collaborating with their peers and professors, thinking and working more independently, and navigating the impressive resources universities offer. They’ll also be adept at fitting the demands of university into their usual routine and juggling competing priorities.

The other daunting aspect of starting university is suddenly not knowing anybody at all, especially for students who’ve been at school with the same people since childhood. At summer school, students might meet future coursemates and already have a few familiar faces when they get started! And even if they or the people they meet end up choosing a different university, they’ll have developed the skills and confidence to socialise with new peers and professors.

Students can supercharge their university applications

For those more focused on getting accepted into university than getting stuck into their first semester, there are still huge benefits.

Attending summer school is a sure-fire way to stand out from other applicants. Of course, universities won’t favour students who attended their specific summer school. But according to William Hetherington, Head of International Foundation Courses and English Language Studies from SOAS University of London, summer school helps students develop the skills and characteristics that university admissions officers look for.

Students’ decision to attend summer school demonstrates intellectual curiosity, diligence, and passion for a subject – all of which universities really value.

What’s more, students gain the skills we mentioned in the previous section, which make them even more attractive candidates. The experiences they have at summer school will be a wonderful window onto the abilities and qualities which make them a good choice for universities, and well worth focusing on in any application essays and recommendation letters.

“Summer school attracts students from all over the world. This multicultural environment, and the course content, helps students develop a higher degree of critical thinking, something which is even more important nowadays.”

Stefano Raimondi: Guidance and Recruitment Office at Bocconi University

Are there different kinds of summer schools?

While this all sounds great, you’re probably thinking that your students are unique individuals with a broad spectrum of interests, attitudes and ambitions. Of course, as with most things in life, there’s not one size that fits all.

Luckily, there is some variety in what different summer schools offer. Some are more general, providing a useful option for younger students, and those who are still quite uncertain about their higher education plans.

Others have really specific, practical objectives, like teaching non-native speakers the academic language skills their degree will require.

Students can also opt for summer school courses organised by topic. A few real-life examples are:

If students want to explore a particular discipline, there are suitable options available. For example:

Any students who simply can’t choose from such tantalising intellectual buffets might find that their chosen school allows them to enroll in multiple courses, either simultaneously or back-to-back. If they’re keen to try different disciplines, they should check the description carefully to see if that’s an option!

And, if the timings allow, students can even enroll at several different summer schools. That way, they’ll get a taste of different countries, institutions and subjects.

How has COVID-19 impacted universities’ summer schools?

As the whole world continues to contend with the coronavirus, there’s no denying that students’ experience of summer school will be very different than it might have been a couple of years ago.

What might students miss out on this year?

Many institutions are now operating partly or entirely online, and the majority of universities in North America, the UK and mainland Europe have gone fully virtual for their summer school offerings.

As a result, students won’t get to live on-campus, or have the cultural immersion that previous summer school programmes provided. It can also make it a little trickier to network with professors, make new friends, or seek out existing students that can answer any burning questions.

All this means that students attending summer school need to be more proactive than ever. Passive participation just won’t work in a virtually-run programme. Students should try to make the most of every opportunity, be it social or academic.

Students can explore destinations that might have been out of reach

Although students might initially feel disappointed if they can’t visit the campus, there are plenty of positives! Firstly, there’s the huge cost-saving that not having to travel and live abroad provides. This opens the door for many students who might not have been able to consider summer schools otherwise.

Likewise, that also means that students can explore lots of different destinations, right from the comfort of their own homes! That is an invaluable opportunity for students who aren’t sure which destination is right for them.

Universities are experts in virtual learning

It’s also important to note that these universities have been veering into the virtual for years. Most have largely been remote for at least twelve months. Students can rest assured that they know how to provide a valuable and enjoyable experience online.

In fact, lots of summer schools have taken note of the risk of ‘Zoom fatigue’ and adjusted their schedules accordingly. Live events are being condensed into digestible chunks, either in the morning or the evening to suit the different time zones of the skyrocketing number of international students attending. And alongside the live events, universities are mixing in plenty of asynchronous options which students can do at their own pace.

Students will still get to explore outside the bounds of summer school

Students don’t have to miss out on the extracurricular and cultural life that surrounds the institutions they’re interested in! Many universities are teaming up with local cultural organisations and museums to bring students unique virtual tours, talks and other experiences.

Lots of extracurricular societies are also still operating digitally. Bocconi University Milan is even running a remote – and mouth-watering – cooking club!

Virtual summer school teaches important skills

The remote nature of summer schools this year will also amplify the autonomy that these courses teach. Students will have to be self-motivated and self-disciplined, important skills for thriving in higher education.

Plus, they’ll refine their remote-work skills. There’s no doubt that these are going to be vital in tomorrow’s job market.

Ultimately, all of the huge benefits of summer school hold true: students still get to hone their skills, focus their interests and experience what higher education has to offer.


Encourage students to unmute themselves and really get stuck into the exchange of ideas! They’ll be better able to navigate online interactions with strangers, but they’ll also gain much more from the course itself.

Important considerations for students contemplating summer school

With all of these great benefits and exciting opportunities, your students will probably be keen to send out summer school applications. But there are a few practical things to consider before they do.

Age and eligibility requirements

Unfortunately, not all summer schools are open to high school students. Some universities only offer summer programmes to their current undergraduates.

What makes this even trickier is that it’s not always clear on universities’ websites who’s eligible to participate. If they’re in doubt, students should seek out a contact for summer school enquiries and find out about application criteria.

They can also ask any other questions they might have about course content, financial aid, or anything else.

Application deadlines

The other roadblocks students might face are application deadlines, which are likely to be very soon. Most summer schools run throughout July, meaning applications need to be submitted around the start of May.

If you have students who you think would benefit from summer schools, don’t delay! Encourage them to apply as soon as they can. It could determine the path they take and have a resounding impact on the rest of their lives.

To give your students more inspiration on ways to maximise the opportunity that the summer break offers, be sure to download our Summer Activities Journal.

It’s full of ideas and activities which help students to think critically about their skills and experiences and develop new talents to really boost their applications!