In the 1990s, while the rest of society was busy squirting each other with Super Soakers, listening to the Gin Blossoms, and carving Nike swooshes into their hair, colleges suddenly realized, for the very first time, that their campuses were completely deserted during the summer. That’s when an administrator at a prestigious university had a revolutionary notion – “What if we filled up our dorms with high school students whose parents are caught up in the admissions hysteria and charged triple our normal tuition rate for the privilege?” Hence, the college summer program for high school sophomores and juniors was born.

Cynical, pseudo-historical accounts aside, the merit of summer programs varies greatly from campus-to-campus and it is important to do your homework before reaching for that Visa card. Some selective summer programs will absolutely benefit you come college admissions time, while many others, even some located at Ivy League universities, will carry very little weight. The article that follows will help you become a more discerning summer program consumer.

Will they help my child’s chance at admission?

An increasing number of selective colleges are indeed beginning to scrutinize how applicants spend their summers during high school. In response to this trend, countless parents have spent thousands of dollars on summer programs that may provide for an enriching experience, but do little to distinguish their child from the rest of the applicant pool. Today, the majority of competitive colleges offer at least one pre-college program inviting high school students to explore campus, visit with faculty, and even take courses during the summer months.

It is critical to understand that certain summer programs are viewed more favorably than others in the admissions process but, in short, the most important thing is that the program that you pick aligns with your future academic and professional aims. Even if an aspiring physician doesn’t gain acceptance into a highly competitive pre-med summer program with a national reputation, enrolling at a local med school or hospital’s pre-med/pre-health program can still provide a boost to that future applicant’s profile. That said, most teens want to aim for the top-shelf programs that will impress admissions officers at selective colleges.

How do I know which ones have admissions-related value?

The easiest way is to consult College Transitions list of Top Summer Programs for High School Students. We’ve already done the hard work for you of evaluating hundreds of summer programs, skimming off the cream and tossing aside the rest. The programs on our list generally meet three criteria: 1) they are highly-selective and selection is merit-based; 2) many (but not all) are low-cost or free to attend; 3) elite colleges will actually factor your acceptance/attendance into their admissions equation.

To give you an overview, let’s take a look at some of the top programs in various disciplines and examine a few exemplary programs in detail to further illuminate the qualities that make a summer program a truly worthwhile pursuit.

Competitive Summer Programs for 2020 by category


Students interested in STEM have a bevy of excellent choices including Michigan State’s HSHPP Program, the MIT: Minority Introduction to Science and Engineering, or the PROMYS program at Boston University. Math-specific programs such as the Ross Mathematics Program at Ohio State or MathILy ay Bryn Mawr College are worthwhile pursuits for the quantitatively-inclined.

The RSI Program, put on by the Center for Excellence in Education on the grounds of MIT, is a cost-free program with an acceptance rate of approximately 3%. The roughly 80 accepted high school students spend five weeks going through an entire research cycle, reading current literature in their field, drafting a research plan, and sharing their findings at a seminar. Accomplished professors teach and mentor the students through the process. Participation in the RSI program is a highly-impressive credential for any student looking to apply to an elite undergraduate STEM program.

Business & Leadership

Those pursuing study in the field of business or in enhancing their leadership capacity would do well to check out Wharton’s Leadership in the Business World program, Economics for Leaders which is hosted by a number of different schools, or Indiana University’s Young Women’s Institute.

The Bank of America Student Leaders summer program is as competitive as it gets, boasting an acceptance rate of under 4%. The 225 high school juniors and seniors that make the cut spend eight week as a paid intern at a non-profit organization, receive mentorship from BOA employees, and participate in the Student Leaders Summit in Washington D.C. Volunteer opportunities are available all across the United States allowing participants to remain at/near home if they so choose.

Journalism/Liberal Arts

Those interested in becoming the next generation of investigative reporters would do well to seek out the Princeton University Summer Journalism Program or the Cronkite Institute for High School Journalism: Summer Journalism Institute at Arizona State University.

For those unsure about their exact area of future study, programs like Texas Tech’s Clark Scholars offer a wide array of subjects from Advertising to Plant & Soil Sciences. The Yale Young Global Scholars Program has a less intimidating acceptance rate than many other elite programs—it accepts roughly 25% of the 6,500 who apply each year. Students from over 125 countries flock to New Haven, Connecticut for one of three two-week blocks offered from June through August. This program is on the pricey side; each session costs $3,500. Yet, for those who can afford it, this program allows students to live in Yale’s Residential Colleges, hear lectures from accomplished faculty members, complete a capstone project, and collaborate with bright minds from around the globe.

Impact of Coronavirus on 2021 Summer Programs

Of course, we can’t ignore the humongous pachyderm in the living room–the COVID-19 pandemic which has just entered its deadliest phase to-date. While there is reason for long-term optimism with the imminent distribution of several effective vaccines, face-to-face activities for summer 2021 remain less than a certainty. Last year, the vast majority of summer programs were forced to either cancel altogether or move to a virtual format. Some specific programs have already made announcements regarding the status of the 2021 sessions, while others have warned that the situation remains fluid. If the program(s) that your teen is eying are accepting applications, we certainly recommend moving forward in the process and planning for the best-case scenario. We’ve all learned to be highly adaptable over the course of this pandemic, and this venture will require that same level of patience and acceptance of uncertainty.

College Transitions’ Bottom Line

It is important to note that participation in an elite summer program is not an essential step in one’s quest to earn admission into a selective college. If you have unlimited resources and your son or daughter feels they would benefit from the experience,  attending a costly summer program can absolutely be beneficial. However, it is important to be realistic about what you’re paying for. Some “elite” programs accept as many as 80% of applicants. Again, we recommend first exploring more selective, cost-free programs that are merit-based and geared toward a discipline of genuine interest. And, if all else fails, don’t underestimate the value of a normal teenage summer experience like working a job, volunteering locally, or pursuing one’s artistic, athletic, or other recreational passions.