As 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!” Mr. Akim said.
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.
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,” said Marlyn McGrath, director of admissions for Harvard College. Lest anyone think, however, that MOOCs are a magical key to getting into Harvard, she added:
“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 at 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, said the number of her clients who had taken MOOCs had been steadily increasing in recent years. Dr. 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,” Mr. Jamshed, 18, said. “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 said, 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 week, he began freshman orientation at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Seth Allen, dean of admissions at Pomona College, said his school had seen online courses on applications from both domestic applicants and those abroad. In other countries, Mr. Allen said, some young people use the classes as a way to augment fairly narrow curriculums — in India or the United Kingdom, for example, students specialize quite young, he said. And even in the United States, some students use them as a way to study subjects not offered in their high schools, not just during the summer but year-round.
Anthony Liu, 17, who will be a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall, said he completed five MOOCs on topics like artificial intelligence. He estimates he tried out nearly 20 others that he did not finish.
“I come from a school that’s really humanities-focused, and I’m a math and science guy,” said Mr. Liu, who is from Daly City, Calif. When he signed up for the classes, he was not planning to put them on his college applications, he said, but then decided it could not hurt.
“They’re not going to view it badly,” he said.
Mr. Akim, the Stuyvesant High junior, said he took online courses because he was curious about the subjects and in fact, he was not sure whether he would include them on his college application because the classes were introductory. (He completed only one.)
“If I were to take something more high level,” he would be more inclined to include it, he said. “Whether they want to say it or not, everyone wants to put something overly impressive on their college application.”
But admissions officials cautioned that MOOCs are not necessary for already overburdened students, and that the number of applicants listing them at this point is still relatively small. (The Common Application, which is used by hundreds of schools, said it could not provide the number of applicants who had included online courses because there is more than one way to list the information on their forms.) Mr. Allen of Pomona said that when they become just another tool in the “education arms race,” he considers them neither productive nor persuasive.
“Where we put value on it is where it demonstrates curiosity rather than achievement,” Mr. Allen said. In some cases they display an impulse “almost like trophy hunting, just one more thing to make me appear to be this impressive student.”
The dean of admissions at Brown University, James Miller, said that while these online courses now sometimes appear on applications, the college does not give them much consideration.
“We don’t know enough to be able to discern their relative quality,” he said.
Indeed, it can be difficult to know how much a student gets out of MOOCs. Classes are a mix of video lectures, quizzes and projects, and though students must complete assessments in order to pass, nobody is watching to see if a student is marathon-texting throughout.
The courses also tend to have a very low rate of completion. Anant Agarwal, the chief executive of edX, said about 6 or 7 percent of students complete and pass the courses, but that since there is no barrier to entry, like an upfront fee or application process, that does not strike him as problematic. Among students who pay for a verified certificate of completion, which generally costs about $50, the pass rate is about 60 percent on both edX and Coursera, company representatives said.
Even at M.I.T., one of the founders of edX, the admissions office does not check that the classes have been completed.
“We have not looked to verify that, in the same way we don’t verify other activities,” as opposed to a class on an official transcript, said Stuart Schmill, M.I.T.’s dean of admissions.
But, he added, that may not always be the case.
“It depends on the direction it all goes and how central a part of the application it is,” Mr. Schmill said. “Now, it’s just one of many things a student might do. We’ll have to see in the future.”