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How to Choose the Right Summer Program for You

High school students have a baffling number of decisions to make every summer. Should you take time off? Work or intern? Enroll in a course? Tend to responsibilities at home? Apply for a summer program? There is no one-size-fits-all “right” answer, and the sheer variety of customizable summer programs out there does not make matters simpler. This blog will describe the different kinds of summer programs that you might want to attend and pose some questions to help you choose the right summer program for you. Read to the end, and you may gain some clarity as to your options, your method of decision making, and ultimately, your summer goals.


Different Kinds of Summer Programs


In Person v. Virtual


These days, there are just as many online summer programs as there are in-person options. In addition to the new options that were developed to support students during Covid-19, many of the most competitive in-person summer programs have created virtual options to broaden access to their resources. These new virtual options almost always cost less than the in-person version, and they are excellent resources for students who cannot dedicate a solid chunk of their summer to travel. If you’re a mathematician, for example, and you’re eager to take online classes but cannot travel all the way to BU for PROMYS or to MIT for RSI, check out this list of the ten best summer math programs, many of which are online. There are analogous opportunities for writers through the Iowa Young Writers Studio and the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. I could go on, but nearly every academic field has some kind of online program to support high school students who cannot leave their responsibilities at home to study a program location.


Official College Programs v. Independent Initiatives


On the other hand, many students are eager to get away from home and explore a new learning environment. Many in-person summer programs take place on college campuses, and if you’re considering applying for one, you should check out this blog on the benefits of attending an official college program. What that blog does not discuss are all the benefits of taking on a summer program not affiliated with a university. Have you ever heard of The New York Times? The Smithsonian? NASA? Well, all of these august institutions have stellar summer programs, beyond what a university can offer, in terms of on-the-job experience. For some non-university initiatives, the low cost can be a motivation to apply—NASA actually pays its high school research interns! You may also want to consider taking part in an initiative in which you are giving your time and energy to support a cause that you believe in, whether that’s a local library with summer programs for children or a political campaign that needs a student assistant.


Expensive v. Affordable


Summer programs can be costly, in terms of time and energy, and a high price does not necessarily indicate prestige. Many programs—which shall remain unnamed and are not featured in this website’s blogs—are “pay to play”. If you pay enough, you can attend. Whether or not this model of enrollment appeals to you, it’s worth thinking about whether you want to take on a financial burden before signing up for potential college debt. Take the price tag for what it is: a cost, not an indication of a program’s quality. Instead of applying to a brand-name program, you would be better served signing up for any of these free opportunities (which are designed to also include international students) and/or applying for financial aid to any of these top-ten summer programs.


Pre-Planned v. Customizable


The spectrum of summer programs goes from options that plan your entire day and choose your courses for you on a campus to completely flexible, online research support. There are many programs that exist in the middle of this spectrum, with some mandatory courses in the morning and free-time in the afternoon. Similarly, some programs will require you to take classes for 1-2 weeks and then give you 3-4 weeks to focus on your independent research, with fewer structured activities. There’s no “right” level of customization, but it may be helpful for you to know that you can choose to plan your summer entirely around your own needs or simply hand your calendar over to  an instructor who knows what they’re doing. Consider which level of guidance most appeals to your personal learning style.


Questions to Help You Choose Your Program


Now that you understand the big picture of how many different kinds of summer programs exist, pause and ask yourself these questions before applying:


  1. Can you realistically attend an in-person program? Consider the time commitment, opportunity cost (of having to whole-heartedly focus on one program at a time), and logistics (finances, time, responsibilities at home).
  2. How many weeks can you dedicate to a program in person vs. online? Could you do a longer program at home? Or do you have just the right amount of time to squeeze in, say, a two-week in-person program?
  3. Will you be genuinely happy studying online or away from home?
  4. Where would you like to spend your dream summer? Are you excited to explore a university? Waiting to rest at home or pursue local opportunities? Eager to immerse yourself in a particular company or city?
  5. Are you a city person, a small-town person, a countryside person, or a couch person?
  6. What level of financial aid do you anticipate needing? Remember, there are plenty of free opportunities, and most of the top-ten programs have financial aid options (and in some cases, free tuition).
  7. Do you want to spend your summer learning a new skill or subject area in classes? Or are you more excited to take on a research project? Are you interested in both classes and research?
  8. Do you prefer to learn one-on-one or in larger groups?
  9. What do you want to get out of the summer? For example, you may want to aim for work experience, a salary, a research paper, a new skill, a university mentor, experience applying to / living at a college, etc. Imagine your ultimate goal!