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I'm working on an application for a summer school. In the letter, I am explaining how I have been preparing to get into the field in question and how the summer school would further help me with that and I just typed, without thinking too much:

The XY summer school would not only give me a head start in this regard [in preparing for a career in this field] and help me further prepare but also allow me to connect with researchers from the field as well as like-minded people from all over the world.

However, is this usage of "head start" idiomatic? Am I implying that I would like to get an "advantage" over someone else (which is not what I'm intending to write, of course)? I am sure I have seen "head start" being used simply in the context of "helping you get started effectively" (as in "Doing X and Y will give you a head start when it comes to preparing for your exams"), without reference to anyone else. But I'm now starting to doubt my (purely contextual) understanding since I had never explicitly looked up "head start" in a dictionary and all dictionaries seem to consider "head start" to imply a competitive context.

Also, if I am indeed wrong, I would be very happy to receive comments with suggestions on what other idiom / expression I could use instead.

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  • "running start" would be closer to what you mean and is a common enough phrase .. although I think you are not alone in trying to use 'head start' that way . I think running start might have had more to do with antiquated competitions
    – Tom22
    Mar 27 '18 at 2:23
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The term "head start" presumably (I can't find any etymology) comes from sports activities like horse racing. A specific competitor might be given a "head start" by literally having his horse line up one head's length ahead of the other competitors, as a sort of handicapping process. A similar advantage in a foot race would involve having the advantaged runner have a starting line some distance (maybe inches, maybe yards) ahead of the others.

This concept has generalized to the point that "head start" refers to any advantage given to a competitor at the start of a "race" or competition (real or conceptual). Thus, a preschool education program in the US is known as "Head Start", and the term is often used in the context of explaining one individual's educational attainment vs others in his cohort.

And the term has generalized from there to often simply mean "starting before the others", as in "Bill and Fred have a head start on this job you'll be working on, so you should ask them to help with the messy details."

The only way that your use of "head start" in your proposed statement is not idiomatic is that it fails to acknowledge that "allow me to connect" is also a form of "head start".

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  • Thank you for this thorough response! Indeed, since I was intending to use "getting a head start" only in the sense of "It would help me extend my knowledge about the field" but this is not the only thing it can mean, contrasting it with "connecting with others" seems artificial, if not odd. I think this might have also been the reason that triggered my doubts in the first place. Thanks for pointing it out, though, and really putting your finger on it! I think I will now go with Samuel Shopp's suggestion ("foundation"), just to be on the safe side.
    – balu
    Mar 27 '18 at 10:38
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This is a tough one, in my opinion. Certainly the term does originate from a context of trying to gain an advantage over someone, but I think it has taken on a much more benign meaning colloquially. My opinion is that you can almost definitely use the term "head start" without any concern.

As an alternative, you could maybe just say that it would give you an "excellent start" or a "good foundation."

Anyway, good luck!

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  • I totally forgot about "foundation" – I like that one! I will see what other people say and then decide what to use. I'm glad, though, I've got an alternative, now! Thanks!
    – balu
    Mar 27 '18 at 2:05

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