Summer school insights from a former Harvard RA

Updated: May 19

For three summers during my undergraduate career, I worked as a proctor at Harvard Summer School. Although the term “proctor” is often used to refer to a person who monitors an exam, at Harvard Summer School, a proctor is essentially an RA (resident assistant). This meant that I lived in a dorm with around 30 students and enforced program rules, ensured the safety and health of my students, held events for them, and served as their mentor and confidant.

Stained glass inside Memorial Hall, which houses Annenberg, the dining hall where summer school students eat.
Stained glass inside Memorial Hall, which houses Annenberg, the dining hall where summer school students eat.

As a result of this job, I was able to observe a wide variety of students’ journeys and to discern what makes for a good summer school experience. Of course, this will vary quite a bit based on your interests, personality, and goals for summer school. However, I’d like to share a few takeaways that I believe are helpful across the board.


First, when it comes to course selection, please keep in mind that these are college-level courses! This may sound obvious, and it’s likely the reason that you wanted to sign up for a university summer school program in the first place. However, I found that many students I worked with were eager to take the most challenging courses possible simply because they felt that this is what they were supposed to do.

Taken from the second level of Annenberg, with several students pictured eating lunch on the lower level.
Taken from the second level of Annenberg, with several students pictured eating lunch on the lower level.

In reality, these students were often the ones who felt least fulfilled by their experiences. When my students chose difficult courses simply for the sake of “proving” themselves, and not because the courses were genuinely the right fit, they ended up needing to spend all their waking hours on coursework and class projects. This prevented them from taking advantage of the countless benefits of a summer school program that exist outside of courses, such as musical, athletic, cultural, and social activities.


The students who appeared to be the most satisfied with their experiences, in fact, were often those who made strong connections with their roommates and classmates. One of my greatest joys as a proctor was strolling through Harvard Yard and seeing large groups of my students sprawled out across the grass or forming semicircles with the yard’s signature colorful chairs, laughing as they recounted stories to one another. Many of these students still stay in contact with each other today and have remained friends despite living oceans apart.


So, don’t force yourself to pick Organic Chemistry or Intensive French just because you feel it is necessary to challenge yourself to the maximum extent. Even college students tend to struggle in these courses, and the reality is that practically any summer school course you take will be challenging, because they are intended for older and more experienced students! You will return home feeling much more content if you choose a course that better fits your experience and skill level, as this will give you time to make connections with the wonderful students you’ll meet.

Former educational consultant Amy Morrisett pictured here with a few fellow proctors after the Harvard Summer Chorus’s 2017 concert (we were performing Mozart’s Requiem). Summer school students, college students, and local community members were all invited to sing!

On the flip side, however, don’t take an introductory course just to get an A if you already know the material. It is true that the grades you get in your summer school courses can be used to help bolster your college applications, but that doesn’t mean that grades should be your only focus for the summer. My students who took courses that were too easy also ended up regretting their choice, because they missed the opportunity to broaden their horizons and dive deep into a subject that fascinated them.


Ultimately, you should pick courses that will allow you to grow, but that will not prevent you from getting to enjoy the vast array of opportunities that summer school programs offer outside of classes.


Additionally, although I’m surely biased in this advice, I strongly encourage all summer school students to get to know their proctor or RA! This person is bound to have a great wealth of knowledge to share with you about university life and education.


Throughout my time as a proctor, I had students ask me about topics like how to choose a major, how to make connections with professors, and what studying abroad is like, just to name a few. Each time, I was incredibly grateful to be able to share my wisdom with them and to play a small part in guiding them on the path towards a thriving future college experience.

These are some snacks Amy served at one of the study breaks she held for my students (funded by the summer school)!
These are some snacks Amy served at one of the study breaks she held for my students (funded by the summer school)!

One interaction in particular that stands out was when one of my students (I’ll call him Rob -- this is not his real name) came out to me as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Rob had not yet felt ready to fully explore his identity in high school, so he wanted to know what his college life might be like and the resources that would be available to him on a college campus. He told me that asking these questions was a unique opportunity for him, as he didn’t regularly interact one-on-one with college students who would be able and willing to share these kinds of insights.


During the conversation I discussed my own experience as a bisexual college student, as well as the information and perspectives I’d gleaned from other LGBTQ+ friends. I was touched by Rob’s vulnerability, and gratified to hear him say that he had left the conversation feeling more confident about the connections and opportunities that lay ahead of him. So, although I would never encourage someone to open up about something so personal before they are ready, I do encourage you to ask your RA any burning college-related questions you feel comfortable asking. You never know what new advice or perspective they may have to share.

The summer school also held a cake decorating competition with students and proctors as contestants, and the theme this particular year was superheroes. This is a Wonder Woman-themed cake that Amy's team made!
The summer school also held a cake decorating competition with students and proctors as contestants, and the theme this particular year was superheroes. This is a Wonder Woman-themed cake that Amy's team made!

Additionally, proctors/RAs can serve as a wonderful resource even after the program is over. I’ve had several students reach out to me later for advice on which college to choose, or to ask me to be a reference for an award or internship application. When these students had made an effort to get to know me during the program, it was much easier for me to write a glowing recommendation. So, although it can be intimidating, do your best to make that connection during the summer!


Finally, university summer school programs can go by really quickly -- you’re often learning material in a matter of weeks that would typically take months to complete. So make sure that you’re taking the time to appreciate the personal growth and progress you’re making, and the bonds you’re forming with your fellow students. Hopefully, these summer memories will stick with you long after the summer is over.