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Articles / Preparing for College / A Guide to Summer Programs for High School Students

A Guide to Summer Programs for High School Students

Written by Sam Jaquez | May 13, 2022
Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Are you looking for an academic-focused activity to participate in over the summer? If so, you might be considering a college-hosted high school program.

Summer programs are usually hosted at colleges and universities and they provide opportunities for high school students to take non-credit or for-credit college classes while participating in classes, projects, research, and activities. More recently, many colleges have been offering online summer programs, as well.

High school summer programs a popular activity for students as they provide guided glimpses into the academic and social norms of college and campus life. If you are on the fence about participating in a summer program, this article provides some insight on why a summer program may or may not be the right choice for you.

Reasons to Participate in a Summer Program

Sample Different Majors

Summer programs can be a great way for students to sample different study areas before deciding on a major. It’s a great opportunity to explore possible study paths and fields of interest without making a full commitment.

Maybe you are interested in business and biology. A great way to sample the type of material you’ll be studying would be to do a summer biology program to see if that is truly the right fit for you.

If you are unsure what you want to major in, a summer program can even provide you with an opportunity to explore a variety of possibilities!

Specialized Experience

If you already know what you want to study when you get to college, a specialized and/or competitive summer program for your intended major is a great way to get direct hands-on experience within a university setting. Such an experience could be beneficial by demonstrating that you have an extra interest and dedication to that specialty.

Tip: Competitive summer programs usually require an extensive application process and are often free or provide financial aid for students who need them. Competitive programs are a great way to show colleges that you are dedicated to a specific field of study.

Familiarize Yourself With a Campus Setting

Summer programs hosted at universities can be a great way to become familiar with a campus setting before college. While this might seem like just an added perk, building this familiarity can significantly ease anxiety about the unknowns of college that lay ahead. It might be good to consider an on-campus summer program if you are nervous about moving away from home or nervous about living on campus.

Student walking on a campus

Reasons to Not Participate in a Summer Program

Just To Strengthen Your College Application

If you are hoping to strengthen your college application with a summer program, it might be best to consider other options. While some summer programs may look good on a college application, most will not be a deciding factor for admission.

Former Dean of Admissions Sally Rubenstone explains: “There are far too many students choosing this option for it to stand out in the crowd at admissions-verdict time. In fact, admission folks are usually more impressed when an applicant has held down a menial job or has undertaken a personal project (e.g., conducted independent science research, written a novel, played saxophone in the subway), or done volunteer work close to home…”

So, if your primary motivation for attending a summer academic program is to increase admissions odds, you might be better off choosing an alternative summer activity such as volunteer work, research, or a personal project.

Usually, the more competitive a college is, the less a summer program will matter for the sake of an admissions decision.

There's one exception– if you plan to apply to the same college where you attended a program, spending a few weeks on campus can give you a lot of specific, and unique reasons to include in your "Why X College" essay, which may help your application stand out.

To Earn College Credit

Many programs will boast that their program includes taking for-credit courses, but few schools will accept those credits once you get to college. Sally Rubenstone notes:

“The ‘credit’ you receive from most summer programs will not be accepted at the majority of the more competitive colleges. It will be accepted at some places, but it is not nearly as widely recognized as typical program propaganda will lead you to believe.”

If your primary desire is to earn real college credits during the summer, it might be better to consider taking a class at your local community college.

If You're Not Excited by the Program

In an Ask the Dean question from a worried parent, Sally Rubenstone suggests that students follow their passion and, when it comes to summer programs, only do it if the student is interested:

“He should only attend this summer program if he really wants to… and not because he thinks it will look good on his applications. Admission officers are pretty adept at differentiating between applicants who are truly excited about a subject and those whose “interest” comes across as manufactured or mandated by Mom and Dad.”

To get the most out of a summer program, your primary motivation should be the experience. So, consider applying to programs that align with your academic interests or desired experiences.

If you want to see what it will be like living on a college campus, for example, avoid applying to online-only summer programs. If you are specifically interested in math, consider applying to a specialized math program or a program that will allow you to choose your subjects.

Harvard campus

Popular Summer Programs Still Accepting Applications

Brown Pre-College Programs: Brown offers programs that last from one to six weeks hosted on-campus, off-campus, or online. Students can choose a variety of subjects to study.

Harvard Pre-College Program: Participants deep-dive into one subject in this two-week program that provides a glimpse into college life without the pressure of grades.

Emory Pre-College Program: Emory hosts both for-credit and non-credit summer programs. The two-week non-credit program introduces participants to a single subject and allows students to enjoy a short on-campus experience.

Columbia University Pre-College Programs: Columbia offers a variety of for-credit and non-credit summer programs for high school students. Programs offered include on-campus and online options. They provide participants with a campus experience, academic insight, and summer events like film festivals, talent shows, and lawn parties.

Quinnipiac Summer Programs: Quinnipiac University offers a variety of summer programs for high schoolers that allow students to take college level courses without pressure, build a portfolio of work within a selected field, and more.

Competitive Summer Programs

Most highly competitive summer programs have early deadlines, but it doesn’t hurt to think ahead for next year. Unlike most common summer programs, highly selective summer programs are usually specialized and provide opportunities to build on a specific skill or interest.

MIT Women’s Technology Program: Each summer, only 40 students are chosen for this highly selective program designed for rising seniors who are interested in entering into an engineering major. The program is meant to be an exploratory opportunity for students with no prior engineering background and from schools with limited access to STEM classes.

Carnegie Hall National Youth Orchestra: This program is hosted by Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall and is a free summer-long program that requires a comprehensive audition process. Selected students will train with professional orchestra musicians and travel on tour as music ambassadors.

Boys/Girls Nation: Two students are chosen to represent each state in this week-long program that focuses on learning about government work, attending lectures, and meeting with state-elected officials.

Iowa Young Writers’ Studio: This competitive writing program selects just 144 students each summer. The Application process includes a specialized writing sample, statement of purpose, transcript, and letter of recommendation.

Alternative Summer Activities

If you ultimately decide that a summer program is not the right choice for you, there are many other activities that will benefit your college preparation. Here are a few options to consider:

Written by


Sam Jaquez

Sam is a freelance writer. She studied at the University of Massachusetts Boston where she earned a degree in English.

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