Updated: May 8, 2022
There are thousands of different summer programs all around the world, and each promises to offer a life-changing experience, but not all live up to their lofty claims. By joining a summer program you’re investing significant time, trust, and resources, so it’s important that you do sufficient research to ensure that you make the best choice that you can. So how do you start? We’ve put together the ultimate guide to aid you in this decision, covering over 20 factors to consider - everything from aligning your summer program with your goals and interests to levels of student support and extracurricular activities.
Do you want to attend a summer school at all?
The first thing you need to ask when considering a summer camp is to work out what your motivations are to go in the first place. What do you want to gain from the experience? Do you want to see what it is really like to study a subject first before committing to a degree at university? Or do you just want to relax and try out something new? Do you want a balance of indoor class time and outdoor activities to stay intellectually and physically stimulated? Are you looking to create a network of new friends, or explore a new city or country? You’ll probably have many different reasons. So start with a brain-storming session to list them all, and then rank them from most to least important. This will help you to narrow down the most important factors to look for. At the same time, it can be useful to do a web search just to see what is out there. You might not even realize what you’d like to do until you see it.
Consider also your audience when you propose a summer program to your child. Tweens and teens for instance might shut down at the mere utterance of “summer camp”, but might be more receptive to the idea of a pre-collegiate summer program. It can also be useful to introduce the idea of a summer camp slowly, and get your child to buy in by highlighting all the different ways they will have fun. Recruiting older siblings and friends to join them can also be an attractive enticement.
1. Program Type
Summer schools come in an enormous variety ranging from outdoor adventure and sports camps to intensive academic courses and programs, some of which are accredited and can count towards high school or even college graduation requirements. You might instead prefer a broad-ranging arts camp where you might paint, sing, dance, act and more, or opt for something more focused like an immersive foreign language summer school. The most important thing is to consider what it is you want to do on your summer school. Don’t worry about being too specific – there are plenty of courses out there to choose from, so you’re almost certain to find one that’s a good fit!
To aid you in this process, here is a list of the main summer camp categories that are available:
Traditional: Think bunks, campfires, canoeing, and archery ala Huckleberry Finn. These camps aim to build self-reliance and character in a traditional outdoor setting.
Academic: Avoid summer learning loss and maintain your scholastic momentum while school is out for the summer. Academic camps like World Scholars Academy provide a fun balance of intensive learning and exciting extracurricular activities. An added benefit of an academic summer course is that many cover subjects that secondary schools don’t or can’t teach, often focusing on building skills around in-demand and lucrative fields of study.
Expert Tip: Academic summer courses are great for students who are especially keen on learning more and getting a head start in a particular subject area, or to supplement education for students who don’t like traditional instruction. Academic camps give students the chance to focus on a field of study, and develop competence in this area over the camp session. Academic summer courses are available in various subjects such as business, mathematics, STEM, medicine, law, history, psychology, international relations, foreign languages, or computer-focused areas of study.
Art: Art camps offer students the chance to explore their artistic interests in a focused setting outside of school. Kids can take on theater, film, photography, and the visual arts including graphic design, sculpture, or even 3D printing.
Adventure: Fun, exciting, and high-energy—these camps are great for exploring the natural world and trying out new things. An adventure camp is similar to a traditional outdoor camp, but with a specialized sporting or exploratory component. For added excitement you can even try out an adventure camp in a different state or foreign country.
Athletic: Athletic camps are ideal for kids who want to train in a particular sport and increase their skills under the guidance of expert coaches, or for kids who want to try their hand at a variety of new sports. Sports camps are also great for kids and teens who want the outdoor camp experience at the same time!
Special Needs: Special needs camps are designed for students who, due to physical, mental, or emotional challenges, might not be able to attend typical summer camps or activities. Oftentimes these camps are combined with adventure-related activities. Camper-to-staff ratios are typically lower to provide individual attention and to create a supportive environment tailored to the campers’ needs.
2. Camp Setting
Some academic, arts, and sports camps hire university facilities to provide programs in a collegiate environment. Students live in the dorms, eat in the dining halls, tour the campus, and spend their recreational time in university facilities. Some students may appreciate the opportunity to experience what university life is like before they go to college. Other camps may take place in a city environment in order to take advantage of local amenities, or are set in a rural location for better access to the natural world.
3. Age and Ability
Make sure you choose a summer school that is suitable for your child’s age and skill level. Some academic courses might require them to have a certain level of ability before acceptance, for example proficiency in algebra or the language of instruction. If they don’t currently meet the requirements for a camp don’t get discouraged. Consider attending this camp a goal to work towards for a future summer, and look for similar courses which are better suited to their skills this year.
4. Go Co-ed or No?
Many summer schools are co-educational, meaning they take both boys and girls, and encourage collaborative work between the sexes. If it’s an overnight camp, rooms will usually never be shared by mixed sexes, but separate sex rooms may be in the same building. Co-ed summer schools are great for building social skills and learning how to interact with a wide range of people. If your child normally attends a single sex school during the regular school year, sending them to a co-ed summer camp can be a great way to help develop these skills. However, there can also be benefits to attending a single sex summer school. It is thought that girls may become more confident when they don’t have to compete with boys, and may be more willing to pursue STEM subjects in such environments. Boys on the other hand may better develop character and enjoy the camaraderie of an all male camp.
5. Residential or Day or Virtual?
Another important decision is between whether to attend a residential camp (aka an overnight or boarding camp), a day camp (where your child goes home each night), or a virtual camp run from your computer at home. Some summer schools simultaneously offer residential, day, and virtual program options, but many are only set up for one or two. Let’s take a closer look at these options.
A residential camp helps to build independence and provides an immersive experience, which can be especially useful for language learning. However, a residential camp requires a certain level of maturity and can be tough on younger students. For children under 8 years old, it may also even difficult to find residential spaces at all. Consequently, many parents wait until their children are twelve or older before staying away from home. If your child is not quite ready for a residential camp, but has found one they like, bookmark it and consider it for a future summer.
A day camp on the other hand allows a lower level of commitment than a residential program and can be more tailored to a specific interest. Day camps can also be cheaper. However, a day camp also narrows your possible options as it needs to be within commuting distance, which can be a good or a bad thing. Consider also how your child will actually get to and from the camp on a daily basis. Are you able to drive your child? Is there public transportation available to deliver your child to early-morning activities and to safely extract them from any later nights?
A virtual camp is great if you have an interest in a specialized subject, want to be taught by a particular instructor, or are worried about being able to travel due to visa or health restrictions. If designed properly, virtual camps can also provide many of the benefits of an in-person experience, such as opportunities to collaborate with other students and make friends.
There are summer schools all around the world, but if you can narrow your choice down to one or more cities or countries, or even whether you’d like somewhere English-speaking or not, that will focus your choice set considerably.
If you’ve no idea where to start in choosing a location, there are some things you might like to consider. Is there somewhere you’d like to visit or a place you are thinking of studying in future? If so, you might consider a summer camp in that location.
Alternatively, you might want your summer school to be a form of holiday or choose a destination that you’ve never been to before with exciting activities. If you want a warm and sunny location, you might not want to consider northern Europe or the Alps. Or if you like big cities, focus on camps close by that provide lots of urban adventures. You might also want to consider picking somewhere where you and your family could extend your stay into a family holiday.
If you’ve got more than one child, it can make sense to send them to the same summer camp or to put them in the same online summer school. However, if your children have varying interests and significant disparities in age, you’ll want to find a summer program which can cater to these differences. Some schools also offer discounts for second and third children, which can be useful when funding several children through summer programs at once.
8. Counselors & Staffing
Different summer schools have different approaches to staffing. Most summer schools primarily employ university students or recent graduates as counselors supported by older more senior staff. Students often appreciate having counselors who are relatively close to themselves in age, as they can more easily relate to them, and may feel more comfortable discussing any issues with them.
In most summer schools, all staff regardless of age or position will undergo background checks and first aid training before being accepted for the role. When you’ve narrowed your search down to a few programs, feel free to contact them and ask any questions about staffing you might have.
In the same way that a great teacher can turn a boring subject into something magical, the right instructor can make all the difference in your child’s summer camp experience. If you are planning on joining an academic summer course, the question of who their instructor will be is especially important. Unfortunately, it is not enough to simply take the lofty claims made by summer schools of their great instructors at face value. You will need to verify. But how can you identify which camps really do have the best teachers? Both instructor credentials and course reviews should come into play in your assessment.
For academic summer schools the qualifications of the instructors can vary considerably, from undergraduate students with only a high school diploma all the way to university lecturers. Be wary when summer schools tout to have ‘the best instructors’, but do not provide much background information on them, or give exact details on who will be teaching each course. This lack of specificity often belies the fact that the majority of their instructors may in fact have inferior credentials and experience compared to ‘highlighted’ examples, or even that these featured instructors no longer work for them.
In addition to being knowledgeable and experienced, instructors should also be fun, upbeat, and passionate about teaching your child. It is one thing for a university professor to be a subject matter expert, but it can be quite another to enjoy mentoring high school or middle school students. Again, course reviews are an essential benchmark for gauging instructors along these more subjective but equally essential metrics. Feel free to call up camps and request more details about their instructors, or even ask if you can speak to your prospective instructor directly to better assess their suitability.
10. Health & Safety
Health and safety is especially important for activity and sports-based camps. At most summer schools, health and safety provision is generally regulated by local governments. However for rural camps, you additionally might want to know how close their nearest hospital is. If health and safety is of particular concern for you, feel free to ask summer schools for specific details of their provision, or for a copy of any risk assessments they have undertaken. If your child has any additional needs relating to their health, diet, or well-being, have a chat with the summer schools you’re considering to make sure they can accommodate these before booking.
11. Level of Supervision
Level of supervision typically depend on the age of the child, but different summer schools may also have different policies. Some camps will have counselors living in dorm rooms with the students, providing close to total supervision throughout their stay. Others allow their students more freedom, with for example, unscheduled free-time to explore their surroundings with their new friends. If this will be your child’s first time staying away from home, you might opt for a program with greater supervision, and work up to one which offers more independence later on.
Also when considering your child’s safety, it is important to find out the level of security at your prospective camp. For instance, is there 24/7 security, are there locks on the doors, and are the camp grounds gated and off limits to the public? While security breaches are rare, child safety should be your camp’s first priority.
12. Student Support
As well as keeping your child safe, a summer school should be supportive of their emotional needs. This can include comforting students if they are feeling homesick, helping them to make friends, and adjusting activities or academics to keep them fully engaged. Some schools have specific members of staff, like a matron or house parent, specifically on hand to deal with these issues, while others make it the joint responsibility of all of their staff. You should choose a summer school that both you and your child will feel comfortable with, and make sure you keep emergency contact details for the camp to hand at all times, such as email addresses and a 24/7 phone number. That way if you or your child have any issues or worries at any point during the course, you’ll be able to notify the camp immediately.
Summer schools can be found to fit any budget. Some schools offer scholarships which allow children to attend for free, and others may cost upwards of $13,000. Most free programs are targeted to young children and are funded by charitable donations. Free camps are almost exclusively virtual, and consist of pre-recorded videos and set exercises. While this can be useful if your child prefers to learn on their own and at their own pace, free virtual camps generally aren’t able to offer live instruction, student interaction, or personalized guidance. Some summer schools are able to provide partial scholarships, but these are tend to be highly limited for residential programs, and if available may only be offered to local students from prestigious schools. If you want expert instruction tailored to your child or an exciting outdoor adventure, this will generally come at a cost.
If world-class instruction in a technical field is something you are after, it is important to consider the camp cost as part of a bigger picture. In this case the camp can be considered an investment in your child’s future. Pay attention to the overall value proposition that the summer school offers and how this meshes with your child’s educational needs and aspirations. Consider also that summer camps can build not just academic skills, but practical skills, social skills, greater independence, and a network of academically-ambitious peers who will inspire your child to aim higher as well.
Nevertheless, almost all summer camps do offer discounts. In particular, look out for multi-session, sibling/friend, and early-bird discounts which typically end around March. When considering the total costs of a program, be sure to factor in any additional necessary expenditures like travel costs, travel and health insurance, meals on excursions, and any miscellaneous items.
You might also want to take into consideration the type of accommodation that the summer camp offers. For instance, will your child sleep in a co-ed dormitory? Is there air conditioning for hot nights? Will your child have access to the facilities they need to perform well on their summer camp such as an in-room desk and perhaps access to school computers? You might also be able to choose whether your child shares a room or not, or whether a homestay option (often on foreign language courses) might be available. That can be great for getting to know the local culture and to maximize your skills in the local language. But it’s less good for socializing with your summer school peers, especially if you are inclined to be an introvert. There may also be other accommodation options depending on the summer school you choose.
15. Subjects Available
If you already know which subjects you might like to study over the summer, you can narrow down your choice of summer school quite a lot. But if you don’t yet know which subjects you’d be interested in, it’s worth taking the time to browse a number of options and see which ones take your fancy. A great start is also to look for things you might be interested in as a future career, or which have practical usefulness like business, medicine, or learning a foreign language. Or you could choose something simply because it sounds interesting and you have never studied it before. A unique course might spark a new academic passion, or simply be a fun way to spend a couple weeks.
One thing to consider, even if you know which subjects you’d like to study, is the approach the summer school takes to teaching them. If you’re studying – for example – engineering, do you want to focus purely on studying the technical aspects of engineering, or do you want a course that will also help you on your university applications and provide career guidance? This is relevant even if you plan on taking a course that is purely focused around a purely academic subject rather than one which leads naturally to a particular career.
Furthermore, if you are on a virtual summer course, find out whether they will record your classes, and if so how long will they make them available to you for review? Having the option to later revisit the recordings of your lectures can go a long way towards long-term retention, and if you find yourself having to study the same topics at a later date, referring back to these recordings can help reinforce and deepen your subsequent understanding.
16. Teaching Style
At World Scholars Academy we use a distinctive teaching style inspired by the tutorial approach of Oxford University. The principle is that the instructor introduces a topic, leads the class through some practical examples, and then guides a discussion where everyone is encouraged to speak up and contribute their own perspectives and realizations, thereby drawing on the diversity of the class as a whole. In this way, students collaboratively come to their own understandings. Lessons are lively and interactive, and all students know that their ideas are valuable for the group. We find this approach ideal for developing students’ analytical abilities and hence confidence. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Teachers open the door, but the student must enter by themselves.”
Nevertheless there are other potentially valid teaching approaches that a summer school might adopt. For instance, you might prefer a course with a focus on written work, and less emphasis on discussion and debate. It all depends on your particular preferences and what you’re hoping to achieve at summer school.
Students are under ever greater pressure to perform academically, and so it is important to take into account the possibility of burn-out if going directly from an intense school year to an intense summer course. Therefore, be sure your child is able to take the time they need to recharge, de-stress, and re-motivate themselves after a long school year, and perhaps consider them joining a course only after several weeks of summer holiday have already gone by.
18. Extracurricular Activities
There are a number of things to consider in terms of extracurricular activities when choosing your summer school. One is whether they are included as standard or whether they will incur an additional extra. For most (but not all) programs, extracurricular activities are included. But for some programs there may be extra costs for more expensive activities like equestrian programs or certain special tours.
Also consider how much time is allocated to extracurriculars. If meeting and bonding with new friends is important, find out how much of the day is reserved for free-time and collective activities, and whether indeed there is something going on every day or if these group activities are confined to a few hours at the weekend.
Finally, take note of whether the activities the summer school offers align with your interests or at least sound enjoyable to you, and whether they present challenging opportunities for growth in themselves. For instance, it might be the case that all extracurricular options are related to cultural enrichment or sight-seeing, whereas you would be more interested in sport-based activities. Or perhaps you are looking for a summer school that offers a mix of activities and can cater to a variety of interests. Also consider trying out new things that you wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do. Of course, if a summer school can’t supply you with a sample timetable of their planned extracurricular activities, they’re probably best avoided.
19. Where Your Friends Are Going
It’s a delicate balance to strike when deciding whether you’ll go to the same summer school as your friends, or whether you will try somewhere different in order to make new ones. It could be that if you all go to the same summer school, you’ll have a great time. But equally you could end up missing out on one of the greatest benefits of the summer school experience – making new friends from all over the world, which can be more difficult if you arrive in an already fully-formed clique. That changes a slightly if you have friends that are going who you don’t see so often or if there are only a couple of you. But at the same time it can also be great to share experiences with your existing friends to deepen your relationships. However, there are compromises that can be found too, such as choosing the same summer school but not necessarily the same course, so that you’ll only see each other for part of the day at larger gatherings like parties or excursions. Or you could try out a couple different summer camps, where you go with friends to one, and try your hand at flying solo at another. Ultimately, you have the decide the right balance of friend involvement for you.
20. Where New Friends Are Likely to Be
Most of the other students going to a camp will not be acquaintances. So consider as well what kind of people you would get along well with and who might be useful to you against the kinds of students the summer school is likely to attract Do you want to get to know more of your peers in your local city, or would it be more beneficial to make connections with a more varied national or international cohort. If you are attending an academic summer school and are focused on your studies and applying to selective universities, are the other students on the program able to provide new insights, inspire you become your best self, and perhaps become a colleague for life? The best friends are those that share common goals and values, and who can be useful to one another - so choose your summer school with a thought to the other students you are likely to surround yourself with there.
21. Reviews and Recommendations
So far we’ve looked at how to choose a summer school based on your own needs and preferences. But there’s also the more straightforward question of whether the summer camp can deliver on its promises. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to assess the validity of a summer camp’s claims. You could look at video testimonials or written reviews such as those on online summer camp directories, which allows you to get an insider view on the course and insights on what you can expect. You could see what summer schools appear at the top of online 'best' lists. Finally, if you’re enlisting an agent to guide you in your summer school search, you could also ask them for recommendations, and they may be able to convey the feedback of their previous clients.
22. Cancellation and Deferment Policies
The future is anything but certain, and various exigencies may require you to change summer plans at short notice. Before you put down a deposit for a course be sure you understand the camp’s cancellation policies. In particular, to what extent refunds are available if you have to withdraw, and what are the deadlines to do so? Even if you have passed the cancellation deadline, many camps will still allow you to defer your course to a later summer session or even year, and credit all or a portion of your deposit.
How to Research
While almost everyone starts their summer camp search with Google, there are many other ways to find great camps and assemble a more complete picture of the experience you can expect. There may be local camp fairs where you can speak with representatives from a number of different camps, you can often organize a tour of prospective camp facilities, ask camps for customer references, sign-up to newsletters, get advice from summer camp agents, or discuss a camp’s programs and courses in greater detail with the camp’s service rep. You can even tap into your own social group for useful camp suggestions - ask around and see where your friends have sent their kids, and what their experience was like. A personal recommendation is often a great way to get unbiased advice, and you may even be able to arrange for your child to join their friends and to secure a group discount for all of you.
We know there’s a lot to consider when choosing the perfect summer school, but hope this guide has helped make your search a little bit easier. Although it can be time consuming, it’ll be worth the effort when you have the best summer of your life. Here are our key takeaways to consider as you start searching for your perfect summer school.
Find out what is out there, and focus on what is most important to you
Verify prospective camps’ claims
Make a decision as a family
Book your place, and get ready for an unforgettable summer!