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The How, When, and Why of Summer Programs for High School Students

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

Alright everyone, the holiday season is in full swing and winter break is just about here! The burning question on everyone’s mind:

“What am I going to do this summer?”

“But wait,” you say, “we haven’t even hit winter yet technically. Why do I need to know my summer plans?” A valid question, but if you’re a high school student, you actually might want to start thinking about how you’ll spend the summer months. That’s because there are tons of really interesting summer programs for high school students that require an application in advance, and many of those programs have application deadlines that are not too far off. To help provide a clearer picture of the when and how for summer programs, this post will touch on:

Read on!

When to Apply

Raise your hand if you made travel plans for the holidays that you’ve since had to modify or cancel altogether. Yeah, me too. If the last nine months have taught us anything, it’s that “tentative plans” is a redundant phrase; making a plan always means keeping an open mind about whether it will actually happen or not. With that said, the organizations that sponsor summer programs for high school students are generally proceeding as if they will still be holding events over the summer, albeit in modified form. That means the programs that require you to submit an application by a certain date are still observing those deadlines, but here’s the thing: each program has its own deadlines, so your timeline really depends on which ones you are applying to. In terms of general parameters, several programs have rapidly-approaching deadlines in January and February; so if you’d like to plan your summer with the full range of options to choose from (who doesn't love a diner where you can order breakfast at 11 pm or mashed potatoes at sunrise?), it’s best to begin your search now. If you happen to read this post in March or April, don’t fret: there are several summer programs that you will still be able to apply to, but your choices will be limited (also, how are things going five months from now?).

How to Apply

As with the deadlines, the application requirements vary depending on your choice of programs, but typically they might include:

  • Online application with personal and academic information

  • Application fee

  • High school transcripts

  • Essay or short answer responses

  • Resume or list of extracurricular activities

  • One or more letters of recommendation

It’s best to begin this process with a thorough review of the available programs that relate to your areas of interest. Once you have found some intriguing options, find out what their application requirements are and gather the necessary materials before beginning the online application. If you do need to submit letters of recommendation, it’s best to reach out to the teacher(s) or other recommender(s) as soon as possible; you should allow at least one month between when you request the letter and the deadline for it to be submitted. Also make sure to tell the person writing the letter all the details they should know (what it’s for, when it’s due, how to submit it when finished, etc.). If you have to write any essays or short answer responses, make sure to put care and thought into your work and get someone to proofread them for you. And if you’re not sure how to send transcripts from your school or write a resume, set up a meeting with your high school counselor.

Tips for Your Summer Program Search

What about the pandemic?

Let’s address the elephant in the room first: COVID-19. Many of these summer programs are designed with an element of travel built-in, and we can’t say with confidence in December 2020 that traveling between states, let alone flying overseas, will be advisable. With that in mind, many programs are already planning to be held virtually, as they were last summer. In the case of academic programs, this can typically lead to an easy transition to remote learning sessions, while programs that include a hands-on project might use video meetings to guide students through the project steps in their own homes.

How will travel-based programs work this year?

There is one type of summer program, in particular, that would be especially compromised by the inability to travel: cultural immersion/service trips, which can’t really function as intended without students being physically present at a given location. Many of these travel-based programs are still offering sign-ups to students for this summer, which could lead to a possible conundrum if a student pays a deposit in advance and the program ends up getting cancelled. My advice in this circumstance is to be well-informed before committing any funds to a program that requires travel: read up on the details provided on the organization’s website and find out what their refund policy is. If there is a contact email and/or phone number, talk to a company representative to make sure that you will be reimbursed should the worst case scenario come to pass.

Passion + Curiosity = Jackpot

What should you focus on when searching for summer programs? For several reasons, it’s best to prioritize your specific areas of interest, whether that be an academic subject or an extracurricular activity like outdoor recreation or service learning. If you’re a student with a clear subject of interest that you’d like to study in college, look for a program that would allow you to deepen your interest in that area.

On the other hand, many students don’t have clarity about what they want to study; fortunately, summer academic programs provide a perfect opportunity for those students to explore one or more subjects they are curious about. Finally, think about the courses available at your high school; there are plenty of subjects you can study in college that most high schools just don’t have courses in, like anthropology, marketing, and communications. Summer programs offer the chance to try these subjects out briefly to see what they are like and gauge your level of interest.

Is one program better than another?

Many colleges and universities offer what they call pre-college summer programs, which involve taking one or more short-session classes and often include on-campus housing and mentorship from an upperclassman student. Many of the most prestigious schools sponsor these types of programs, and I want to clarify that while there are several reasons to be excited about participating in a summer program at Harvard or Duke, gaining an advantage in admissions to those schools should not be your primary motivation. These programs usually have no direct connection to the admissions officers who review undergraduate applications and should not be viewed as a “pipeline” to admissions. A good rule of thumb when trying to determine the relative prestige of a pre-college program is its selectivity; if many students are accepted into the program and the criteria for admissions are relatively lax, it will not carry as much weight on a resume or activities list as a very competitive program with few spots available. This is not to discourage anyone from participation, I just want to make the point that your motivation should be to find value in the experience itself rather than in simply being able to put it on your college applications.

Should I enroll in a summer program hosted by a university?

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s briefly talk about the benefits of these pre-college academic programs. First, the chance to study a compelling subject taught by college faculty is a unique learning opportunity that can help students solidify their major/career interests or even just enjoy the experience in itself. In addition to the academic benefits, spending time on a college campus can help students get a sense of what college life is like. While on campus, you can scout out the environment to see if it’s a good fit; you can even learn through experience about college criteria like large, midsize, or small schools or urban, suburban, or rural settings. Finally, the opportunity to take these classes with other high school students who share an academic interest can lead to new friendships, not to mention networking opportunities with faculty.

One last point to mention, though, is that these pre-college academic programs are often very expensive, and there is a more affordable alternative for students who are more interested in the academic aspect than the “campus life” experience: community college courses. Taking a course at a nearby community college includes many of the same benefits, is generally more affordable, and does not require you to apply months in advance. If you decide against a pre-college summer program but would still like to take part in academic enrichment, consider the community college option.

Use your winter break wisely: research summer programs.

As we near the conclusion of 2020 and round the corner into a new year, uncertainty colors our perceptions of what the coming summer will look like. The good news for high school students is that they will still be able to participate in these summer programs to explore their passions and follow their curiosity. Although it might be tempting to hit the snooze button on summer planning and wait till April or May to figure out what you’ll be doing, I recommend taking advantage of your winter break freedom to research summer programs and maybe even apply to one or two. Coming up very soon, I will share my picks for some unique programs that you should consider as part of your search, as well as recommended resources for finding additional options, so stay tuned!

Good luck,


P.S. - Want to know William's picks for the best summer programs for students? Read part 2 of this blog post, "6 Summer Programs High School Students Should Know About".


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