Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are designed by colleges and universities and distributed online by organizations like edX and Coursera.
As last summer began, Dan Akim, a junior at Manhattan’s ultracompetitive Stuyvesant High School, planned to attend debate camp, to study for the PSATs and to go on some family vacations.
Yet he felt that he could pack more into these months, so he also signed up for three online courses, in precalculus, computer science and public health. While on car rides with his family in Italy, he would sometimes use a mobile hot spot to chip away at one of the courses, while his mother asked why he was not soaking up the view instead.
“Why not multitask!” Akim says.
Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, were originally intended as college-level work that would be accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. But among the millions of people who have signed up for these classes, there are now an untold number of teenagers looking for courses their high schools do not offer and often, as a bonus, to nab one more exploit that might impress the college of their dreams.
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College admissions directors, as well as administrators of the Common Application used by many schools, say that such online classes — for which students are not likely ever to see credit — are popping up on college applications, adding to the list of extracurriculars, like internships and community service projects, that have helped turn summer vacation into a time of character and résumé building.
“We’ve noticed in the past few years, more and more students who apply to us mention they’ve taken online courses of various kinds,” says Marlyn McGrath, director of admissions for Harvard College. Lest anyone think, however, that MOOCs are a magical key to getting into Harvard, she adds:
“It falls into the category of very interesting things we’d like to know about you.”
The courses are designed by colleges and universities around the world and distributed online by organizations like edX and Coursera, where they can be taken free. No application is required, so anybody can sign up for “The Science of Happiness,” from the University of California, Berkeley, for example, or “American Government” from Harvardx, which is affiliated with Harvard University. More recently, MOOCs have also been employed to supplement high school Advanced Placement classes, including a project called Davidson Next.
Katherine Cohen, founder of an admissions counseling company in New York City called IvyWise, says the number of her clients who had taken MOOCs has been steadily increasing in recent years. Cohen says they give applicants the chance to take classes not offered at their own schools, like advanced math or a business course, and to “appear more scholarly” in their areas of interest.
These classes also offer high school students the chance to show that they did not just spend the summer playing Xbox and napping.
Last summer, just before his senior year, Musa Jamshed, an accomplished chess player who had spent several summers teaching at a chess camp in Manhattan, decided to augment chess with a couple of MOOCs.
“I didn’t really know exactly how valid or how common it was to put this kind of thing on a college application, but I had some open space in my summer,” Jamshed, 18, says. “I didn’t want it to seem like I wasn’t doing anything.”
A data science class he signed up for required several prerequisites he did not have, he says, so eventually, he dropped it and signed up for a social psychology class instead. That one, offered by Wesleyan University, he finished.
When it came time to fill out his college applications, he wrote about the data science class even though he did not finish the course, which he disclosed. That does not appear to have been a problem. Last month, he began freshman orientation at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.