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Student Guide: College Courses for High School Students

When we consider the ways that high school students can impress colleges academically (thinking of GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and AP classes), we often overlook an important criterion: students’ college coursework. It might sound strange at first–high school students taking college courses before they’ve even graduated–but it is an increasingly common trend, both in California and nationally. And college courses, so they say, provide students with a distinct advantage on their college applications. But do they? And given the proliferation of college courses for high school students, how do you select the program that’s best for you?

College courses for high school students come in two types: pre-college programs and dual-enrollment programs. Pre-college programs are held during the summer at colleges and universities (or online), and usually range from 1 to 3 weeks for online courses and 3 to 6 weeks for on-campus courses. Though they often offer introductory courses for little or no college credit, these summer programs can also include intensive programs or advanced coursework. Dual-enrollment courses, on the other hand, usually last for a full semester (16 weeks) during the academic year at the student’s high school, a university or community college, or online. Dual-enrollment courses get their name from the fact that students will be enrolled concurrently at two schools: their high school and the university/community college.

If you haven’t heard of pre-college or dual-enrollment programs, it may be partly a matter of terminology. Although many pre-college programs have been around since the 1960s (with Cornell one of the first in 1958), pre-college programs tend to be recognized by their sponsoring institution rather than their specific courses, and the names vary from one school to another. What Harvard calls a “Pre-College Program,” Yale refers to as “Summer Immersion” and Cornell terms “Precollege Studies.” In addition, each school tends to offer multiple pre-college programs for high school students. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania offers Summer Academies (3-week, on-campus, non-credited programs focused on exploratory research for grades 9-11), Pre-College Programs (5-week, online or on-campus programs taught by Penn faculty that provide college credit for 10th-11th grade students), and the Penn Summer Prep Program (2-week, on-campus, non-credited, immersive studies in the Humanities, Sciences, or Arts for 9th-11th grade students). Whew! While these summer programs at Penn have different names, modalities, and areas of focus, they all fall under the rubric of pre-college programs for high school students.

Dual-enrollment courses, on the other hand, are a more recent phenomenon. While some individual programs, like the University of Connecticut, have offered dual-enrollment since the mid-1950s, national standards weren’t formally established until 1999. In addition, it’s only really in the last ten years that dual-enrollment courses have expanded significantly, growing by more than 50% since 2013. (For example, in California, the number of high school students taking dual-enrollment courses increased 56% between 2015-16 and 2019-2020. In Indiana, the percent of students taking dual-enrollment increased from 39% in 2012 to 60% in 2018.) But prior to 2012, dual-enrollment courses were generally seen as a rarer option “for students whose schools don’t offer AP or other advanced courses, or for students seeking further academic challenge.” (That’s a quote from Robin Mamlet and Christine Vandevelde’s College Admission guidebook, published in 2011.) As of last year (2022), the Department of Education reports that 88% of high schools offer dual-enrollment courses, and 34% of high school students take at least one of them.

So, what advantages do pre-college and dual-enrollment courses offer students? Well, with dual-enrollment courses, the advantages are very easy to see. Students receive college credit as well as a high school transcript that reflects the academic rigor of a college course, and the cost is generally less than an equivalent college course. Of course, all things being equal, admissions committees are likely to prefer dual-enrollment courses that are actually taught by university faculty at a college campus–rather than courses taught at the student’s high school. Also, while dual-enrollment courses may give high school students a certain advantage when applying to college, the college credits they earn may not significantly shorten their time to degree, as is often claimed. Finally, Dr. Constance Relihan, Dean of University College at Virginia Commonwealth University, points out that dual-enrollment credits may impact students’ ability to take the typical introductory courses that can enrich their college experience and also enable students to explore their intellectual interests and decide on a major and career.

With pre-college courses, on the other hand, the advantages are less tangible. Students often receive no college credit (or minimal college credit), the cost is often higher than a college course, and these pre-college programs aren’t generally viewed by admissions committees as very rigorous or challenging–even when it’s a program run by their own institution. A compelling study by Anne Kim, investigative journalist and contributing editor to the Washington Monthly, lays out the evidence that these pre-college programs are designed to exploit students’ and parents’ college dreams through misleading marketing implying a surefire path to acceptance at the college. However, as Kim herself points out, if students and parents understand that these programs don’t necessarily provide that path to acceptance, there can still be good reasons to take a pre-college course. Maybe it’s the chance to experience residential life on campus, to get a sense of what type of college is right for you, or to take a course or program of study that isn’t available at your high school.

Speaking from personal experience as a writing coach, I think the biggest advantage pre-college and/or dual-enrollment courses offer is the ability to turn a student’s interest into an experience. In other words, when students sit down to write the college essay and reveal their interests, it’s much more convincing rhetorically to write, “I pursued my interest in Biochemistry through UCLA’s Summer Institute” than “I have always been interested in Biochemistry.” The second simply states an interest, but the first connects the interest with an experience.

Additionally, that experience of studying on campus can make an essay about why you want to attend that school extraordinarily compelling. For example, this year one of my students who had attended a Summer Institute program at the University of Pennsylvania explained why he wanted to study at Penn, and he was able to go into incredible detail about Penn’s programs and faculty based on his experience. (The admissions committee found his essays to be compelling too. He was accepted to Penn in April 2023.)

Of course, pre-college and dual-enrollment courses aren’t the only experiences that can create a powerful college essay. An internship, a passion project, an experience volunteering–all these can be brilliant raw material for a compelling essay.

To learn more about how pre-college courses can help you craft a strong college essay, or to plan your essays for this fall, contact me at Write Start Prep for a free consultation.