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 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 not carry any weight whatsoever. 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 blown 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.  Most summer programs are nothing more than “cash cows” and will accept any high school student able to pay the bill. Participation in these summer programs will be viewed by your prospective colleges as evidence of wealth, rather than evidence of any special ability—even if these programs happen to be offered on the grounds of a prestigious university. On the other end, there are summer programs out there that provide immensely meaningful experiences and will make a positive impression on your prospective 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 are low-cost or free to attend; 3) elite colleges will actually factor your attendance into their admissions equation.

To give you an overview, let’s take a look at some of the top programs, by discipline, 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 2019 by category

STEM

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 8%. 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 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/Interdisciplinary

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 30% of the 4,500 who apply each year. Students from over 100 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 $6,250. 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.

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, there is absolutely no harm in attending a costly summer program. 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.