For today’s high school students, admission to college and entry into the workforce is increasingly competitive. Attending a pre-college program can be an excellent way to help your application stand out. But choosing the right college prep program—and one that will offer the benefits you want—can be a challenge.

Savvy students are exploring opportunities earlier in life, with many seeking out internships, college prep programs, and other enrichment opportunities while still in secondary school.

If you’re a high school student, such opportunities can help you:

  • Explore potential academic and career fields.
  • Enhance your college application.
  • Gain real-world insights that can help you succeed in college.
  • Build a network of contacts for future opportunities.

Over the past decade, college prep programs have become one of the most popular types of enrichment programs for college-bound high school students. And today, there are literally thousands of programs to choose from. So how do you choose which college prep program is right for you?

To guide your search, we’ve compiled a list of criteria you should consider when thinking about pre-college opportunities.

What Is a Pre-College Program?

Also called pre-college, a college prep program is a program offered by colleges and universities geared toward secondary school students.

A college prep program is usually an on-campus experience where you can explore academic interests, meet faculty or professionals, experience college life first hand, and familiarize yourself with the concepts of college. However, many programs are also now offered online.

Some programs are highly specialized. Ideal for students who believe they know where they’d like to focus in college, these programs specifically offer courses and projects tailored around a particular field. There are programs focused on STEM, the arts, theater, journalism, athletics, sustainability, and social justice, to name just a few.

For students wanting to explore potential majors, you may want to choose a college prep program that provides a broad range of courses in a variety of academic areas.

What to Consider When Choosing a Program?

Given the plethora of pre-college programs, choosing the right one for you can be a challenge.

It is important to be clear about your goals, because the right program for you will be the program that meets those goals. It will take some research on your end to narrow down your choices. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Admission requirements. Some programs are open to anyone who is interested, while others have strict admission criteria. If you want a rigorous academic program, you may want to consider a more selective program. It is important to review the admission requirements in advance, as well as any application deadlines.
  • Specialization. Do you want to delve deeply into one particular subject or try out a variety of potential majors? Is a traditional in-classroom experience more important, or are you seeking a more hands-on approach?
  • Credit or non-credit. Does the program enable you to earn college credit that you may be able to apply toward prerequisites or a future major? While college prep may offer this opportunity, other programs allow you to explore academic areas of interest without worrying about earning credit.
  • Location. Your choice of program may depend on whether you want to travel or stick close to home, or even stay fully online. Students who want to explore a specific college campus as a potential application option may want to explore whether that campus offers a summer program.
  • Time commitment. College prep programs range from one week to the entire summer. How much of your summer you want to devote to a pre-college experience is really up to you and your family.
  • Cost. It is important to research and fully understand the cost of every program you research, including any fees, room and board, required materials, and travel. As with duration, cost can vary widely depending on a variety of factors, so you will need to do your homework.

What is “the best” pre-college program? The short answer is whatever checks all the above boxes for you. It’s not always the prestige of a school that matters, but what you take away from it. For example, a prestigious program might not be worth it if it will stretch finances or cause you to fall behind on other responsibilities.

What About Online Courses?

The cornerstone of any college prep program is the opportunity to experience academics at the college level. But a pre-college program is not the only way to achieve that experience.

If the academic experience is your only goal, you may want to consider taking one or more online college courses instead of attending a full-scale summer program. Many community colleges and even some universities allow high school students to take online classes over the summer.

And if finances are an issue, there are a plethora of free online courses in many areas of study, making it increasingly easy for you to try before you buy. By taking free online courses, you can easily sample departments and majors before you step onto a college campus.

And as with paid online courses, there are plenty of choices when it comes to free offerings as well. Harvard offers free course content via edX. Khan Academy and Coursera are other popular options.

What If Pre-College Programs Aren’t For Me?

Attending a college prep course is not the only way to enhance your college application. And the truth is, it may not be the right choice for everyone.

There are many different types of summer activities that can make your college application stand out.

In other words, the key to making your college application unique is to highlight your unique story. For some students, a summer job or service project will showcase their strengths. For other students, a college prep program can provide the opportunity for exploration and academic achievement.

Whatever choice is right for you, smart planning and a little creativity can help you map out a successful, rewarding future.