17/08/2011 12:46 BST | Updated 15/10/2011 06:12 BST

Are Summer Schools For Students Worth The Money?

Each summer British students give up their summers to attend top-up classes at schools either at home or abroad.

Many of the top-rated Russell Group universities have started to offer their own summer programmes; but are they just a canny way for cash-strapped universities to make money, or do they have tangible benefits for children competing for those gold-dust university places?

For some students, spending August engrossed in academic work is a tough sell. The idea might not be particularly appealing for the parents either, given the price tag.

Residential programmes can be extremely expensive, particularly if they are abroad. A two-month residential course at Harvard Summer School can set you back around £6, 300, before taking into account flights and living expenses, whereas Yale Summer School for 10 weeks of residential teaching, including food, costs £6, 400.

And the most prestigious university summer schools are not for the intellectually faint-hearted. Just because they are taking place over the holidays, does not mean that the pressure is off. At the Harvard Summer School, approximately 20 percent of the students are Harvard students fulfilling their degree requirements, so school-aged students are doing the same work as them, and being marked with the same criteria.

Such courses are particularly useful If you are considering doing your degree at an American university.

Lizzouli Rojas, a student from Mexico who went Harvard Summer School a few years ago, agrees "no prospectus is going to give you the same insight as doing a semester at your chosen university. There's no better way to find out if it's really where you want to go".

In applying for American universities, a lot of British students can come unstuck because they do not understand the different emphasis in what Ivy League universities are looking for. Alice Lloyd-George, who went to Princeton from a British school, observes "'a lot of schools here are just not geared up to help students with the American application process, so a summer school can really help British students understand how American universities work, and what they're looking for".

The courses, because they are usually university level, rather than school level, can really stimulate a child's intellect beyond the the A-Level curriculum. Often there is a bewilderingly diverse selection of courses to choose from. At Berkeley for example, you can study everything from Dutch to Landscape Architecture to Native American Studies. It could point you in the direction of a subject you would never have thought have doing - and with that, the chance to find something you're really passionate about.

With so many A Level students getting the top grades, it helps to distinguish candidates from on another amid an increasingly tough environment for university applicants and graduates. Even without the academic boost, it gives the candidate an opportunity to show a certain maturity and independence of mind because they took the initiative to meet others from outside their immediate school and demonstrate the level of their enthusiasm for academia.

It is not only well-off parents who can take advantage of summer schools to help their children get ahead, there are also specific bursaries and courses for underprivileged children. UCL, for example, runs summer courses exclusively for non-selective state school pupils. In these cases, a summer programme can demystify elite universities and give students the confidence to apply for the most demanding of degrees.

According to research from the Sutton Trust, summer schools are extremely effective in supporting pupils on a route to a highly-selective university course. Sutton Trust students, who had bursaries to attend summer schools at Bristol, St Andrews, Cambridge and Nottingham were three times as likely to apply to one of those universities, as applicants from similar backgrounds, with similar levels of attainment. A further 60 percent went on to degrees at a Russell Group university.

Shopping around for a good value summer school will mean that students from both high and low income backgrounds can give themselves the edge in such a competitive market. As Dr Penelope Griffin, Head of Widening Participation at Nottingham University, explains, "when there are so many applicants with little to set them apart from each other in terms of grades, summer school attendance as evidence of commitment to their subject, and an extra academic distinction, is certainly a plus point we take into consideration".