college admissions Insider Tips Ivy Admissions Ivy League Admissions Summer Top Tips

Prestigious, Tuition-Free Summer Programs

As we’ve mentioned before, summer offers an opportunity not just for rest and relaxation, but also for intellectual exploration. College admissions officers want to admit active, enthusiastic learners, so they look carefully at how students spend their time away from school. For students, this means that it’s important to use the summer to explore an area of academic interest. Advancing their research background or tackling college-level coursework not only allows students to develop a strong background in fields that intrigue them, but also helps them to stand out in an increasingly competitive admissions process.

One particularly easy way to stand out from other prospective college applicants: attend a selective summer program known for its rigorous academic offerings. While the application deadlines for some elite summer programs have already passed, there are still quite a few that are accepting submissions. Below, we’ve listed some of our favorite options — and, as a bonus, all of them are tuition-free!


  • Anson L. Clark Scholars Program: Based at Texas Tech, this summer research program allows qualified juniors and seniors to carry out research in almost any academic area, including the humanities, fine arts, social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics. In addition to working one-on-one with faculty on collaborative research experiences, admitted students spend seven weeks attending seminars, discussions, and field trips. Scholars receive a $750 stipend for attending the program, as well as free room and board. Applications due February 10th.
  • Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program: This free, online, highly selective program pairs experienced writers with high school students hoping to learn about the creative writing process. The program itself is flexible and often takes place through informal correspondence, but admitted students have a chance to share their work with mentors and peers on a weekly or biweekly basis. Application not yet open.
  • MITES: MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Sciences (MITES) program offers six weeks of academic enrichment programming for rising high-school seniors with an interest in science and engineering. Admitted students take free courses in math, life sciences, physics, and humanities. The program especially encourages applications from Hispanic, African American, and Native American students, underserved students and students from rural or predominantly minority high schools. Applications due February 1st.
  • Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy: Advanced high school students can apply to participate in City of Hope’s summer research program, which allows students to spend ten weeks working as part of a biomedical research team. Summer Academy students design and work on their own research projects, assisted by physicians, scientists, and post-doctoral students. In addition, students attend weekly seminars and workshops to share their research findings and discuss topics ranging from poster presentations to biomedical ethics. Most students are paid a $4,000 stipend for their work during this internship. Applications due March 9th.
  • Wistar High School Fellowship in Biomedical Research: The Wistar Institute, which focuses on early-stage discovery science in cancer, immunology, and infectious disease, offers Philadelphia-area students an opportunity to carry out biomedical research. During this seven-week program, students are integrated into a research lab and work on unique projects under the guidance of a team of mentors. They also attend weekly seminars and take part in an introduction to library research skills. Applications due March 27th.

Struggling to figure out what you should do this summer? Worried that you’ve missed the boat on applications? Consider enrolling in our Application Boot Camp program, which offers a personalized Admissions Report to guide you in selecting courses, preparing for standardized tests, identifying important extracurricular opportunities, and, yes, crafting a high-impact plan for the summer months. Let us help you as you navigate this process!

Admissions college admissions Summer Sustainability

Colleges with Green (Sustainability) Programs

We love working with our students in Application Boot Camp and Private Counseling, to help them explore and deepen their academic interests –and for a growing number of students in recent years, that field has something to do with the environment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that the employment of environmental scientists and specialists is projected to grow 11 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. We believe colleges (and the students applying to those colleges) are taking note.

Our thoughts are with those in Mozambique given the recent massive destruction from tropical Cyclone Idai, those impacted by flooding in the Midwest, mudslides and unprecedented wildfires in California, hurricanes devastating so many, the list goes on –and that’s just in the past year.

As Dr. Brad Sageman, a professor for Northwestern’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences department stated, increasing environmental disasters including floods, hurricanes, and more are highlighting the need for studying all things green. As he noted to the Chicago Tribune, “I suspect there is truly no way but for (sustainability) to become a critical part of everything we do. We’ll be hitting it everywhere we can.”

Some of us here at Top Tier Admissions have read David Wallace-Wells’ book, The Uninhabitable Earth, and it’s brought data and fact to a spinning reality.  Read it if you haven’t.

Researchers and faculty at Brown concur, noting that “Many of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century are environmental ones. We must find ways to feed a growing human population while maintaining the natural life support system provided by the Earth’s ecosystems.”


Colleges and universities around the world have been taking major steps to enhance and grow their environmental science/sustainability studies college majors and specialization options in areas such as: Environmental Analysis (Pomona College), Environmental Sciences and Engineering (UNC Chapel Hill), Geosystems Engineering and Hydrogeology (UT Austin), Forest Science (UWisconsin-Madison), and Environmental Studies major with a concentration in Land, Water and Food Security (Brown). Many high school students who have an interest in green studies are crafting scholarly opportunities during summers and seeking out, with our help, unique academic opportunities to propel them forward as sustainability scholars.

Cornell University recently launched the Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture (CIDA), a new program that aims to address today’s environmental issues with unique sustainability efforts meshed with digital innovation. CIDA hosted their first ever 36-hour hackathon recently where over 200 students worked to answer the question “How do you feed 10 billion people by 2050 without destroying the world?” Topics including digital agriculture, dairy technology and fish farming were highlighted in the hackathon.

It’s not just students who are already AT top universities like Cornell and Northwestern who are studying sustainability at national levels, but also many high school students, including juniors who will soon prepare their Common Applications and essays. We have seen our students take part in cutting edge research on water studies and digital agriculture.

sustainability studies

So… what do you do if YOU are working to become a sustainability scholar at the high school level and you’re targeting top colleges? Check out some of the above innovative major and concentration options, reach out to faculty in your targeted programs in advance of campus visits, and pursue a scholarly summer and fall that will allow you to pinpoint the main academic interest you’re presenting to colleges.



Earn college credits from the likes of Cornell in courses like their Younger Dryas Tree-Ring Field Research at Bell Creek in Upstate New York. Their program includes on-site fieldwork, tree-ring analysis, and faculty lectures on paleoclimatology.


Enter contests similar to the Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Annual Contest. Create a piece about a coastal/marine species, place, or system that will be threatened, altered, or lost due to climate change. Submissions can include visual art, poetry, prose, film, music. It’s open to students ages 11-18.


Register to take courses like this Coursera-U Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Introduction to Sustainability online, noncredit 8-week course. The professor is Dr. Jonathan Tomkin, the Associate Director of the School of Earth, Society and Environment and a research Associate Professor in the department of Geology at U Illinois.The course is graded and you can earn a course certificate upon completion, which can then be noted on your Common App.


If you live near DC, apply to become a Field Naturalist and Environmental Steward at the 400-acre Riverside Park in Great Falls, VA. You will assist with resource management projects and research, watershed cleanups, conduct wildlife surveys and more. This would be a big boost in terms of your research foundation AND community leadership.


Register to attend conferences like the American Water Works Association’s Annual Conference (even just 1 day). 2019’s theme was ‘Innovating the Future of Water’ and conference sessions were focused on asset management, utility risk and resilience and water quality challenges. In the past, student registration for the conference was just $35 and you gain access to industry and academic leaders in water studies and sustainability, learn about new technologies and innovative environmental science solutions, and much more.

The above 5 ideas are just a small sampling of what high school students can do to stand out among their peer applicants. We’d love to confer with you more on yourspecific academic interests as there are a mountain of research and community leadership opportunities out there –let us help you decide which to pursue!

Summer Top Tips

Best Books for Summer Reading

Summer vacation provides a wonderful opportunity to visit new places, to explore interesting summer programs, and—no matter where you are—to dive into new and exciting books. It can be hard to carve out time for free reading during the school year, but the summer offers a chance to tackle a wide variety of narratives, ranging from light beach reads to complex, provocative classics. In the following list, we’ve rounded up some of our top reads for the end of the summer.


Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens: Equal parts coming of age story, romance, and murder mystery, Owens’s novel takes readers to the marshes of North Carolina, where young Kya Clark grows up alone among the gulls and bullfrogs. When a murder occurs in a nearby town, local suspicion focuses on Kya, whose isolation inspires confusion and distrust. Naturalists will appreciate Owens’s evocative depictions of marsh creatures and landscapes, while mystery aficionados will enjoy trying to solve the murder.

Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl: In this memoir, Reichl chronicles her experiences as the restaurant critic for the New York Times. As a recognizable writer for a well-known paper, Reichl quickly discovers that she has to visit restaurants in disguise in order to have a “true” dining experience. Intercut with recipes, reviews, and lavish descriptions of incredible foods (don’t read this book hungry!), Reichl’s “undercover” experiences are by turns hilarious and poignant. (Bonus: if you like this book, check out Reichl’s newest memoir, Save Me the Plums.)

Circe, Madeline Miller: The nymph Circe has a small role in The Odyssey, where she is best known for turning Odysseus’s men into pigs. Here, she gets an entire narrative to herself, as Miller reworks a series of Greek myths to tell the story of Circe’s life. Classics-focused students will particularly enjoy the many appearances by famous figures from Greek mythology, but readers won’t need a nuanced understanding of ancient history to appreciate this story about witchcraft, vengeance, and self-discovery. 

Two Can Keep a Secret, Karen M. McManus: A young adult murder mystery that will keep you guessing, McManus’s second novel takes place in Echo Ridge, VT, a small town known for its scenic beauty and for the girls who disappear or are killed every few years. When true crime buff Ellery moves to town for her senior year of high school, she’s determined to solve the mysteries — but it starts to look like she might be the next girl to vanish.

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan: Both an adventure narrative and a meditation on racism and identity, Washington Black tells the story of George Washington “Wash” Black, an eleven-year-old slave growing up on a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830. After being named the prime suspect in a murder, Wash flees the country with his eccentric new master, traveling to the US, Canada, and a remote Arctic outpost. Full of beautiful prose and fantastical adventures, Edugyan’s novel will appeal to history buffs and literature enthusiasts alike.

The Power, Naomi Alderman: We’ve recommended it before, but it’s worth mentioning again: The Power is a high-intensity Handmaid’s Tale for the modern era. Alderman’s novel has a simple premise: women around the world suddenly gain the ability to shoot electricity from their hands. This one change, which gives them exceptional physical power, has the potential to upend everything from gender norms to political systems. The ways it does—and, even more interestingly, does not—change women’s lives forms the basis of Alderman’s provocative page-turner.

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott: Ideal for aspiring authors, students who struggle with writing assignments, and everyone in between, Lamott’s book is an insightful, hilarious guide to tackling all kinds of writing projects. With advice on everything from first drafts and false starts to how to know when you’re done with a project, Bird by Bird is full of seasoned writing advice, fun anecdotes, and lots of good ideas.

Have you enjoyed these books? Do you have other works you’d like to recommend? Please let us know in the comments!

Do you want to improve your writing skills? Join us in our TTA Writing Center  before school begins to get a boost on your writing abilities.

Summer Top Tips writing

Top Tips for Improving Your Writing This Summer

We’ve written in the past about the importance of using your summer months to meet academic goals. For years, we have encouraged students to take advantage of the break from school to explore enrichment programs, carry out research with local professors, and prepare for upcoming standardized tests. For many students, however, the summer also presents an ideal opportunity to reinforce fundamental academic skills. Writing, in particular, is crucial for success in high school and college (and in the college admissions process), but students often don’t have time to practice it extensively during the busy school year.

If you struggle with writing, we recommend taking advantage of the summer break to boost your skills.


Read Extensively

The best writers are invariably great readers. Reading widely introduces you to new words, new writing styles, and new ideas. We’ve put together lists of recommended books on our blog in the past — you can find some here and here —and your school may have given you a list of suggested summer reading. During the coming months, we encourage you to explore a variety of classic novels, young adult favorites for younger students, nonfiction and biographies, and fun beach reads. Sampling widely will ensure that you encounter lots of different styles and help you find the genres that most appeal to you.

Take a Writing Class

The summer presents an ideal opportunity to explore writing in depth, addressing any issues in your current prose style and expanding your knowledge of writing techniques. There are lots of great writing classes available to interested students, ranging from in-person courses at high schools and colleges to online courses through programs like CTY. Join us this summer in  Top Tier’s Writing Tutoring Program, where you will carry out a series of targeted, one-on-one lessons to help prepare you for the coming academic year. If you’d like focused, in-depth help, this could be a good fit for you as it has been for many students in the past.

Try Journaling and/or Creative Writing

When it comes to writing, many students suffer not from a lack of skill, but from a lack of confidence. Especially if you don’t write frequently, putting words on paper can be a very uncomfortable process. The easiest way to take the stress out of writing is to make writing itself a more familiar exercise. This summer, try keeping a journal or writing a few short stories that you add to several times a week. The goal is not to produce beautiful, publishable prose —in fact, you don’t need to share these pieces with anyone! By writing regularly in a low-stakes format, however, you will find that writing itself becomes a more comfortable, less stressful act.

Review Grammar and Style Guides

Grammar is a key subject on many standardized tests, and a clear understanding of grammatical rules often separates good writers from bad. Schools today rarely have time to teach grammar in depth, though, meaning that interested students generally have to review this subject on their own. If you are committed to improving yourself as a writer, we highly recommend picking up a copy of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style or the Bedford Handbook and studying it over the summer. Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style also offers an engaging set of guidelines for some of the most basic (and most commonly misused) aspects of grammar and vocabulary.

Writing skill for college admissions

If you’d like to spend the summer improving your writing abilities, we hope that you’ll be able to take advantage of some of these ideas. Need more help figuring out which options would be best for you? Feel free to contact us!

college admissions College Application Secrets high school students Insider Tips Ivy Admissions Ivy League Admissions Summer Top Tips

Top Tips for Selecting High-Impact Extracurricular Activities

Today’s students have to balance many competing obligations. With rigorous course loads, standardized test prep, family obligations, and after-school jobs, they often don’t have much time for extracurricular activities. Yet, as we’ve noted before, extracurricular commitments are a crucial part of the college admissions process. With limited time and energy, students (and their parents) often ask us, “How can I identify high-impact extracurricular options? What activities can I carry out that will make a real difference in the college admissions process?”


The answers to these questions are, of course, different for every student. There are, however, several useful rules of thumb that students can use to determine whether their activities will have a significant impact during the college admissions process. When assessing extracurricular activities, we’d recommend asking yourself the following questions:


Admissions officers see countless students who participate in Key Club, write for their school newspaper, or are members of their school’s Robotics Team. As a result, while these activities can provide helpful evidence of your interests and involvement in your school community, they generally won’t excite admissions officers. 

This isn’t to say that you need to give up these activities, especially if they are important to you! That said, you should ask yourself whether you could explore your interests by taking on more unique activities. Could you launch a service project to address a local issue or support an underserved community? Apply to be a freelance writer for your city’s newspaper? Carry out an independent research project on robotics, with an eye towards publishing your work? Pushing yourself to look beyond school clubs and to be creative with your activities will help you to stand out from the crowd during the admissions process.


As we’ve noted before, admissions officers are looking for evidence of students’ passion for particular academic subjects. By developing an especially strong extracurricular background in one or two disciplines, students can provide evidence of their love of learning and give admissions officers a sense of their possible college majors.

For this reason, we recommend that students pursue activities that align with their passions. Do you like creative writing? If so, why not attend writing-focused summer programs, edit your school’s literary magazine, and submit your own pieces for publication and awards? Or perhaps you prefer international relations. If so, Model UN, an internship at an embassy, and a published research project on the dynamics of an international crisis would provide great support for your stated interests during the admissions process.

extracurricular activity quality


The most impressive activities are often highly competitive. After all, everybody wants to take part in them! Participating in selective extracurricular activities — whether that’s competing on a national academic team or obtaining a high-level research position — allows you to impress admissions officers with your commitment to a particular subject and makes it easy for admissions officers to identify you as a top student in that field. Keep in mind: while all selective activities can be helpful, there’s a big difference between activities that are selective within your school and activities that are selective at the state or national level. From an admissions perspective, the larger the applicant pool, the more impressive your involvement.


Awards and publications can also help to differentiate you from the many other students interested in a particular area. When faced with numerous college applications from students interested in biology, for example, admissions officers are likely to prioritize students who have won science fairs and published articles in peer-reviewed science journals over students who have simply enjoyed their biology classes. As with selectivity, admissions officers distinguish between small-scale awards (winning school essay contests, publishing on a blog) and high-level awards (winning national competitions, publishing original research in peer-reviewed journals). 


Admissions officers want to put together a class of engaged and inspiring students who are likely to do great things. To this end, they often look for students who are natural leaders, actively pursuing subjects that are important to them and encouraging others to join them. Students applying to college can demonstrate their leadership potential by serving as president of their class, school clubs, or local organizations. They can also launch initiatives that are important to them, founding clubs and service groups or developing free workshops for underprivileged students. In addition, students can demonstrate leadership by carving out space for themselves in local or national organizations, serving as teen liaison to the town council or spearheading a movement to get young people involved in a political group.


While it’s wonderful to help people in need around the world, admissions officers pay particular attention to students who work to improve their local communities. After all, college campuses are communities in and of themselves, and admissions officers want to enroll students who will make their campuses more supportive, inclusive, and productive. 

With this in mind, we encourage students to look for opportunities to help out the people around them. Is your community facing a significant environmental threat? Are you living in a food desert? Are families in lower socio-economic brackets going without important resources? Once you’ve noticed an issue, come up with some ways that you might help to improve it and put them into action. If you can substantively better your surroundings, admissions officers will take note.


As we’ve discussed before, recruited applicants have a significant advantage when it comes to admissions. Because they have a talent that the school needs, they are given priority during the admissions process and are sometimes admitted despite lower grades and test scores. As a result, pursuing activities that can lead to recruitment (such as athletics, debate, etc.) can be very rewarding.

It’s worth noting that, in order to reach the level of official recruitment (especially for athletes), students have to devote significant time to that activity, often participating in multiple leagues and attending tournaments and camps. This extensive commitment to one activity can certainly pay off, but it can also lead to lopsided extracurricular records that disadvantage students who are not ultimately recruited.


In providing this list, we hope to give students some general guidelines to use when navigating the extracurricular landscape. We’re not encouraging students to give up activities that they enjoy, but we hope that asking these questions will lead students to enhance and supplement their profiles in productive ways. As for students who would like personalized guidance on developing a strong extracurricular background: we’re here to help!