Academic Summer Camps: Are They Worth It?

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There are plenty of choices for summer camp out there, and academic camp is just one type. Sending your kid to spend a summer week with extra schoolwork sounds equally effective and punishing. Read this list of academic camp's pros and cons to decide if it's a good decision for your child.

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By Jasmine Evans

Your child may not have the most ambitious summer plans: sleeping in, watching TV, frolicking at the mall and swimming at the beach. You know that going all summer without working on academic skills is just asking for trouble. Students who experience the “summer slide” return to school a step behind. Academic camps may be your answer, but many of them cost thousands of dollars. Are they really worth it? Our list of pros and cons can help you decide.

PRO: They can prevent summer learning loss.

The goal of these camps is to make learning fun and keep kids from falling behind during the summer. Some camps offer several subjects; some are specific to a certain field. Either way, a week or two at any academic camp will help your child maintain a student’s mindset outside of school.

CON: They aren’t fun for everyone.

Liz Albert, senior director of academic programs and services for the Center for Talented Youth (CTY), says that while the enthusiasm for learning can be “infectious,” academic camps are not right for some kids. “Students who really struggle to follow rules or to get along with others will be at risk of not succeeding,” she says. “Students just not willing to do their academic work also will not succeed.” If you have a reluctant learner, surrounding her with bookworms and math masters will likely do more harm than good.

PRO: They can help build social maturity and independence.

A big draw of camps like CTY is that campers stay in the dorms of some of the country’s most elite universities for a few weeks. Imagine the excitement and freedom of dorm life without the pressure of a college workload. Living in a dorm environment can push your student to be more independent and force her to practice certain social skills. It may be the first time she has to share a room and compromise with a roommate. “For some students, it’s the first time they’ve done their own laundry,” Albert adds. Your camper could return home with improved life skills, not just school skills.

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CON: They take your child away from home.

Some kids aren’t ready to be away from home, and if we’re being realistic, you may not be ready to either, and that’s okay! “It can be hard to know when a student just needs a little extra encouragement to try something new, and when the student is truly not ready for the experience or just isn’t willing to embrace it,” Albert says. Ask your young one about her fears and desires about academic camps. If she doesn’t want to be away from home, try to find a day camp in the area that meets her needs.

PRO: They give your child a space to fit in.

“The student is reading everything she can get her hands on about the history of flight, devoting his weekend to writing novels, or working ahead in her math book because it’s fun—that’s a student who will really thrive in an academic summer camp,” Albert says. If your high achiever struggles to make friends because her classmates don’t share her interests, an academic camp may have the social scene she’s been craving. And with today’s technology, your kid can easily stay connected to fellow campers for years. A lazy summer at home could be a missed opportunity to make a lifelong friend.

CON: They can create unrealistic expectations.

Andy Lockwood, a college counselor in Long Island, New York, cautions against falling for the big promises some camps offer. “The biggest downside that I see is that parents shell out thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars with the expectation that so doing will improve their kids’ chances of getting into a selective college,” he says. Understand that just because a student attends a camp at Princeton University doesn’t necessarily mean she has a better chance of getting into Princeton. Look carefully at what the camp actually offers and adjust your expectations accordingly.

PRO: They offer positive role models.

At many academic camps, the counselors are current college students and the instructors are dedicated teachers. If you put a scholarly kid in that kind of environment, she will be able to hear from other people—people she may even consider “cool”—that school and homework are important. Don’t miss out on a chance to expose your hard-working student to encouraging role models you’ll both appreciate.

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CON: Your child may not meet the requirements.

Many camps try to present themselves as an exclusive “cool kids club” to garner interest from parents. Before you spend time and money applying, make sure your child is eligible. Different camps have different selection criteria, so read the brochures and websites very carefully. CTY, for instance, uses standardized tests to determine eligibility. Other camps use GPA and letters of recommendation.

Making Your Decision

For a kid who gets teased at school for obsessing over science fiction or how machines work, it can be both enlightening and freeing to meet people over the summer who share her passions. Academic camps give students that opportunity and, for the right kid, can be the best part of the year. Know your child and consider what she wants before settling on her summertime activities.

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