An honor or a scam?

It happens to thousands of families every year.

A student receives a large envelope in the mail with an embossed, gold-sealed certificate of congratulations for being “selected” to attend a reportedly exclusive summer program. The language lauds the student, claiming, “You and your parents should be very proud of this recognition and unique honor.” Then it closes with the kicker—all the family needs to do to fulfill this honor and allow their student to attend the program is to fork over thousands of dollars. (Operators are standing by!)

Before I rant on this, I’m not commenting on these programs’ offerings or their quality. I’m sure there are some students who have attended and return raving about the experience.

But the marketing is an outright scam.

These companies purchase mailing lists of teenagers’ information, then craft their marketing messages to dupe families into believing that this is a selection rather than a sales pitch. There is no unique honor being bestowed. There isn’t even a selection process. It’s just a far more expensive version of those print ads that masquerade as news articles. It purports to be one thing when it is in fact something entirely different. And worst of all, these companies intentionally prey on families’ college admissions anxiety.

I’d hate to think how many families sacrificed thousands of dollars not because their student was genuinely interested in the program, but rather because they were hoping that the “honor” of attending would somehow be recognized during the admissions process.

I’m not against students attending these or any other summer programs. But families deserve to make fully informed choices about what they’re paying for and what they’re getting in return.

Here are a few good reads to help:

A 2009 New York Times article, Congratulations! You Are Nominated. It’s an Honor. (It’s a Sales Pitch.)

A past post cautioning families on paying for recognition.

Another one about whether or not you’ll receive an admissions advantage by attending an expensive program (whether or not that program uses deceitful marketing practices).

And while we’re hard at work updating our free guide to summer programs, you can still find a lot of good advice in last year’s version, available with our other free resources here.