Once an unbreakable tradition of laziness and empty days, summertime has become an irresistible opportunity for college-bound juniors and seniors to stock up on college credit and perfect their college résumés.

Students are dropping baseball bats and cool glasses of lemonade for a sturdy backpack and some textbooks to spend three to six weeks studying on a college campus.

Think this is pure madness? It's actually an exceedingly popular trend as an increasing number of top colleges open their doors to help high school students get a running start toward college success.

Why go?
Summer sessions are held at colleges such as Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Northwestern and Brown—just to name a few. Programs consist of courses taught by esteemed professors, along with prep programs for college admissions and standardized tests.

Students can receive college credit for their efforts, along with a taste of college life. One of the most exciting aspects of summer programs is that they also attract teens from Europe, Asia, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia and South America, creating an atmosphere of social and cultural diversity.

How do I get in?
Admissions directors aren't looking only for whiz kids or child prodigies.
They want students who have a desire to learn and grow in every way possible, who are aware of what their futures can hold and who are willing to work a little harder to reach the stars.

It doesn't matter if you're not perfect—as long as you have the desire to learn and can answer a few questions about yourself on the application, there's a strong chance you'll be admitted to a summer program.

What do I get out of it?
Even if studying all summer doesn't appeal to you, there's much you can gain from attending a summer program.

Not only can you receive college credit, but you'll have the opportunity to live in a college dorm and get a feel for a campus.

When college application time rolls around, a summer program under your belt lets colleges know you're serious about your education.

Oh, and don't worry about getting bored—there's usually tons to do outside of the classroom with the friends you make. Going out to eat, going shopping, or joining a game of pick-up football are just a few things to do in your spare time. Summer college really isn't as nerdy as it sounds.

All in all, if you're looking for a place where learning is fun again, try attending a summer program.

Mira Patel is a Next Step Magazine intern from Webster, N.Y. She is a senior at Webster Schroeder High School.

I'm a summer program alumna
For two consecutive summers, I had the wonderful privilege of attending two different summer programs.

The summer after my sophomore year, I headed for Princeton University to attend a summer program held by Junior State of America, a grassroots bipartisan political organization run by politically active teenagers like myself.

I took AP U.S. government and speech communication, and I earned high school credit for both.

My learning experience was not confined to the classroom, but took place during nightly debates, workshops and in the dorms, where I made friends I’ll keep for a lifetime. Junior State of America holds summer programs at various Ivy Leagues annually; check out jsa.org to find out more.

In 2006, I attended a program at Cornell University (sce.cornell.edu/sc/index.php), where I chose to delve into the realm of medicine, science and its historical implications. Every morning, I absorbed loads of information at lectures held by a Cornell professor, and every afternoon I was intellectually stimulated during small group discussion sessions mediated by a teaching assistant.

I highly recommend attending a summer program. Not only have made friends from the United Kingdom, China and Brazil, but I got a feel for what a freshman/sophomore level college class is like and wrote my first college paper.

—Mira Patel

Need another opinion?
Who: Esther Park, Ann Arbor, Mich.; Cornell University Summer College
Why: Esther heard about Cornell Summer College from a friend. She found the course interesting and the application process not too difficult: two recommendations, background info and some short-answer questions.

After three weeks of study, she received three credits from Cornell and left feeling she had just had the “experience of a lifetime.”

Who: Leslie Dias, Lafayette, Colo.; Junior State of America Summer School at Princeton University and Stanford University
Why: Leslie received a packet in the mail about the summer program, and after a month of consideration, decided that such an experience would help her career goals.

During her stays at Princeton and Stanford, Leslie “got to see what the Ivy League life is all about.”

Leslie agreed to pay for half of the cost if her parents paid for the other half. After saving some money and receiving $500 in scholarships, she realized that the financial issue wasn’t really much of an issue at all.

Who: Professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg; teaches at Cornell Summer College
Why: Professor Brumberg likes working with high school students intensely over a short period of time “who are smart, eager and college bound.”

She feels that the heavy reading and discussions are great preparation for what college is like, and provides a taste of the Ivy League.

Who: Annette Riffle, general manager of Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions.
Why: Riffle says that entry into selective colleges is becoming increasingly competitive, so summer vacation is a great time for students to get ahead in admissions and test preparation.

Who: Evan A. Heltay, president and founder of mysummercamps.com
Why: “If a high school junior is interested in spending their summer at Harvard, USC, you name it, there are programs that offer courses,” Heltay says. “Some are for credit and some are not, so it’s important that they ask, and that gives them a chance to see what university life is like.”

Paraguay Bound
By Clay Reimus

As the last quarter of my junior year was winding down and dreams of summer were flying high, I became aware of a program called Amigos de las Americas.

I had really never done much with my summers—it became clear that I do something challenging, something radical, and perhaps most importantly, something that wouldn’t be possible in any of my future summers. I was scared.

I picked a project: a two-month latrine building and health education promoting trip to Paraguay.

During our two-month stay, my partner, a 16-year-old from California named Daniel, and I had three main responsibilities. First was assuring that all of the latrines in our community were constructed correctly—a certain distance from kitchens, and deep enough to use for months without emptying. Next on the list was giving Spanish-language health lessons at the school. Our last project was to renovate the school’s kitchen.

Now that the trip is in the books, I have a renewed appreciation of cultural differences. I also have a newfound respect for American immigrants trying to make a living in our country without the benefit of English. But I suspect that the impact of my experiences this summer are far-reaching and largely imperceptible to me.

This article is provided by The Next Step Magazine (nextSTEPmag.com), a publication that helps students prepare for life after high school.