I am a junior in high school and have recently been seeing people applying to elite summer programs like RSI. I am planning on applying to a few selective schools next year, and I don't know if I need to attend a pre-college program in order to stand out. For the past two summers, I have worked about 20 hours per week with my local lake association and swam in preparation for the fall season. Last year, I also took an online community college course. I was planning on continuing with similar activities this year, but I don't know if I need to add anything else.
What I've heard from my college counselor is that for the most part you're better off doing community service or continuing your job. Unless it is a program you were invited to attend on scholarship, all it really shows is that you can afford those programs. Being at the same job for three years in a row will probably be a lot more appealing to college admissions. If it's a program you apply for and get in for free, yes, absolutely do that! But don't spend a ton of money going to a pay to go camp. It is much more impressive if you get it based on merit, or you continue your job. (no shame in not getting many volunteering opportunities because you need to work, but mention how much you work in your application).
When it comes to pre-college programs, participate if you are interested. You do not need to pay to have activities for your college resume. There are many free options like internships or jobs (even at your local store/cafe) that look great! Good luck!
In terms of summer programs, the only ones that are really beneficial to your application are the ELITE summer programs like RSI -- and only beneficial if most of your application revolves around STEM. But those aren't necessary to have a strong application. Pre-college programs on the other hand, while they DO give you some extra education (they better for the price), won't help you that much on your application. Your summer activities for the past 2 years (job, swimming, CC) are amazing things to do in the summer and build resonance in your application.
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