The Best Competitive Summer Programs for High School Students: The Complete Guide

Searching for summer programs to create a competitive college application? Check out our College Planning Boot Camp. Submit your best application!

Most people think of summer as the season for lazy days by the swimming pool, melting ice cream cones, beach trips, and sunburns.

But for some of the United States’ top high school students, summer is also the time for enriching educational experiences that can give college applications a boost.

With thousands of summer programs clamoring for the attention of high school students, how can you choose the best program for you? And once you choose a program, how do you apply? Which programs will actually impress admissions officers—and which won’t?

In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions and more!

Benefits of Summer Programs

Participating in a summer program will give you the opportunity to:

  • Expand your knowledge in an area of interest
  • Engage in hands-on exploration of the subjects and careers that fascinate you
  • Complete a “trial run” of the college experience
  • Build friendships with people who have similar interests
  • Gather interesting anecdotes for your college application essays
  • Impress admissions officers

Of course, to get the most out of these benefits, you’ll want to find the best summer program for you.

What Makes a “Good” Summer Program?

Try to select a summer program that is:

  • Geared toward a discipline or career that interests you
  • Selective and merit-based, not just costly
  • Able to provide you with unique, hands-on experiences

Obviously, you’ll want to attend a summer program that will help you explore your talents and passions. And with the countless options available, you’re sure to find something that sparks your interest.

  • In terms of impressing admissions officers, it’s also good if the program you choose fits the overall narrative of your college application.
  • If a key focus of your application is your passion for STEM, further demonstrate your motivation and enthusiasm by participating in a STEM-related summer program.

And if you really want to impress colleges, be sure to choose a program that is selective and merit-based, not just expensive.

Why?

Colleges know that many students can’t afford these pricey programs, and the truth is that many expensive programs will accept anyone who’s willing to pay. Ultimately, attending these programs tells colleges more about your resources than about your abilities.

  • Instead, try to find a selective program that accepts a limited number of students based on merit. While some of these programs may still carry a price tag, many will be low-cost or even free.

Now, let’s take a look at some great summer programs that fit the criteria above. We’ll discuss the benefits of each program, as well as the type of students they’re looking for and how to apply.

And to help you find the best fit for you, we’ve separated the programs into areas of interest!

STEM

Research in Science and Engineering (RISE) Program at Boston University

The RISE program at Boston University is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and it’s helped kick-start the careers of scientists, researchers, and professors for decades.

This six-week program has two tracks: Internship and Practicum. If you choose to complete an internship, you’ll tackle hands-on research projects designed by a mentor who has been assigned to you. You may choose to do research in:

  • Astronomy
  • Biology
  • Biomedical engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Electrical and computer engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Medical laboratory research
  • Neuroscience
  • Physics
  • Psychology

On the other hand, practicum students “conduct group research in a university setting under the guidance of a Boston University instructor.” This track focuses specifically on computational neurobiology.

One day each week, practicum and internship students come together for workshops designed to build academic and professional skills.

Although this program is more costly than others mentioned here, it typically selects less than 100 applicants annually and has a proven track record of success.

Benefits:

  • Enriching research opportunities
  • Networking in the science and engineering fields
  • Participating in social and recreational activities at BU and around Boston
  • Learning from esteemed scientific minds
  • Building a better understanding of research and the scientific process

Who Should Apply?

The program is intended for students who are passionate about science and who are entering their senior year of high school.

How to Apply:

Students apply through Boston University’s website. The application includes three short essays: one about your field of interest, one about your background, and a third on why you’re interested in the RISE program.

You’ll also need to submit two letters of recommendation, standardized test scores, and your high school transcript.

Searching for summer programs to create a competitive college application? Check out our College Planning Boot Camp. Submit your best application!

Research Science Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

The Research Science Institute (RSI) at MIT accepts 80 of the world’s most accomplished high school students annually.

Students first participate in a week of STEM classes with accomplished professors. Then, they engage in a five-week internship in which they conduct individual projects under the tutelage of experienced mentors.

Each student drafts a detailed research plan, carries out the plan, and delivers conference-style oral and written reports on their results.

Benefits:

  • Hands-on experience with the research process
  • A combination of on-campus coursework and off-campus research opportunities
  • Networking with and learning from accomplished researchers, scientists, and professors
  • Living at MIT for six weeks
  • It’s free!

Who Should Apply?

High-achieving rising seniors with a strong interest in the STEM fields are a good fit for the RSI. You must also be willing to conduct individual research and present your findings to others.

The website states, “It is recommended that PSAT Math Scores be at least 740 or higher and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score be 700 or higher. ACT math scores should be at least 33 and verbal scores at least 34. Lower scores must be offset by strong indicators of mathematical, scientific, and academic potential exemplified in recommendations, high school grades, and science activities.”

How to Apply:

You can apply through the RSI’s website (linked above). The application must include:

  • Responses to essay questions detailing your goals in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics
  • Two recommendations
  • Official high school transcript
  • All scores from nationwide standardized tests (Students applying to RSI are “strongly encouraged” to take the PSAT.)

Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists (PROMYS) at Boston University

PROMYS is a six-week program at Boston University for mathematically gifted high school students. Only about 80 participants are selected annually: 60 first-year students and 20 returning students.

First-year students attend lectures daily, but they’re also given large amounts of unstructured time. This time is most often devoted to engaging in open-ended exploratory labs and working on extremely challenging Number Theory problem sets, either individually or collaboratively.

Per the PROMYS website, “The problems will encourage students to design their own numerical experiments and to employ their own powers of observation to discover mathematical patterns, to formulate and test conjectures, and to justify their ideas by devising their own mathematical proofs.”

Advanced and returning students attend higher level seminars and work on research projects, mentored by professional mathematicians.

Trips to laboratories, museums, and science centers are common. There’s also an annual Ultimate Frisbee match against RSI at MIT (mentioned above).

And although this program isn’t necessarily cheap, it is merit-based, so full and partial financial aid awards are available.

Benefits:

  • Practice the art of mathematical discovery
  • Engage in intensive and challenging problem-solving with other mathematically gifted students
  • Experience college life
  • Enjoy a richly supportive learning environment among talented mentors
  • Network with research mathematicians and scientists
  • Attend diverse weekly lectures and seminars

Who Should Apply?

Ambitious, mathematically gifted students ages 15-19 may apply for this program. Because the bulk of your time will be spent solving unusually challenging math problems, a real passion for math is a must.

How to Apply:

Apply on the PROMYS website with:

  • Your solutions to a set of mathematical problems
  • School transcript
  • Recommendation form from a mathematics teacher
  • Application that includes essay questions about your mathematical experiences, your other interests and hobbies, and what you hope to gain by attending PROMYS.

Business and Economics

Economics for Leaders (EFL)

EFL is a selective program that teaches student-leaders “how to integrate economics into the process of decision-making in a hands-on experiential environment.”

The program is held at a variety of college sites, including Cornell, Rice, Yale, UCLA, Wake Forest, and the University of Michigan. Only 30-40 students are accepted at each site. EFL is led by economics professors and leadership instructors.

Each morning, students engage in a variety of economic-based discussions, activities, and interactive sessions. In the afternoon, the focus is on leadership, and students apply leadership skills in “a fun-filled series of tasks and dilemmas.”

Benefits:

  • Enhancing both leadership and economic skills
  • Applying these skills to hands-on activities
  • Getting a preview of college life
  • Connecting with professors and leaders in your field

Who Should Apply?

Students who have completed their sophomore or junior year of high school are eligible to apply. Decisions are based on “leadership potential, maturity, and the applicant’s vision of their future.” If you’re interested in economics—particularly public policy—and you value leadership, then this may be the program for you.

How to Apply:

Apply through the EFL website by completing the student application form, which requires you to submit your current GPA.

You’ll also need to write an essay about your leadership abilities, which is limited to 750 words.

Young Women’s Institute at Indiana University

The Young Women’s Institute selects young women from around the country to spend a week at Indiana University, where they will prepare a real-world business case project and participate in workshops with top Kelley School of Business faculty.

This program is highly selective, and a minimum GPA of 3.5 is required. Because it’s funded by the Kelley School of Business Undergraduate Program and corporate partner EY, the program is free.

Benefits:

  • Interacting with and learning from top business professors
  • Experience preparing a real-world business case project
  • Building leadership and communication skills
  • Connecting with like-minded women with an interest in business

Who Should Apply?

This program is open to young women who are rising seniors. Applicants should have an aptitude for and interest in business, as well as a history of strong academic performance.

An interest in the Kelley School of Business isn’t required. But if you are interested in Indiana University’s business school, this program will introduce you to faculty and alumni, as well as the campus, its curriculum, and other resources.

How to Apply:

You can apply through the Kelley School of Business’s website. Your application must include:

  • A completed application form
  • High school transcripts
  • Standardized test scores
  • Responses to three essay questions about opportunities for women in today’s business world, your extracurricular activities, and your interest in the program

LaunchX

LaunchX is a four-week entrepreneurship program for high school students. Sessions take place at MIT, Penn, Northwestern, and UT-Austin.

The program supports students in creating their own viable startup. Students learn from industry experts and work with peer cofounders to build real products and solve meaningful business challenges. Curriculum topics include customer research, pitches, product and market fit, prototyping, customer acquisition, entrepreneurial leadership, business logistics, and more.

The program closes with a Demo Day, in which you’ll pitch for a guest panel of startup founders, growth experts, and industry professionals.

At least 50% of LaunchX alumni continue to grow their startup more than a year after participating in the program, and $500K in funding has been raised by student startups.

This program is on the costly side, but it’s highly selective and both financial aid and scholarships are available.

Benefits:

  • “Test driving” college living
  • Learning from and networking with industry experts
  • Building relationships with other business-minded students
  • Gaining hands-on experience developing a startup and navigating business challenges
  • Leaving with a plan for a viable start-up

Who Should Apply?

LaunchX is looking for students who are entrepreneurial, committed, impact-oriented (care about creating results), and able to work well with others. Because the program is both selective and rigorous, you’ll need to have a passion for business, as well as business skills and preferably experience.

How to Apply:

Apply at LaunchX’s website, where the application includes:

  • General information
  • Extracurricular activities and experiences
  • Transcripts
  • Short answer questions about your drive for entrepreneurship, the skillset you’ll bring to a team, how you learn and work with others, and your interest in the program
  • A video introduction to you and your interest in entrepreneurship

Journalism

The Princeton University Summer Journalism Program

Princeton’s summer journalism program is an intensive, 10-day seminar on journalism for low-income students who want to pursue careers as journalists.

Classes at the program are taught by reporters and editors from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, CNN, and other media outlets.

Students will:

  • Tour the headquarters of various media outlets
  • Cover a professional sports event
  • Cover news events in the Princeton area
  • Film and produce a TV segment
  • Conduct an investigative project
  • Author a group blog
  • Report, write, edit, and design their own newspaper, which is published on the program’s final day

The program is also designed to prepare students to apply to top colleges. They meet with Princeton professors, as well as the school president and the dean of admissions. Participants also attend seminars on every aspect of the college admissions process and take a diagnostic ACT or SAT.

Benefits:

  • Gaining hands-on journalism experience
  • Meeting professors, admissions officers, and the president at one of the nation’s top universities
  • Experiencing college life at an Ivy League school
  • Learning skills related to the college-application process
  • Networking with editors and reporters from top news outlets
  • All expenses are covered, including transportation to and from Princeton.

Who Should Apply?

Applicants must be committed to pursuing a career in journalism and have excellent academic records. You must be a rising senior with an unweighted GPA of at least 3.5, and your parents’ combined income can’t exceed $45,000.

If your family’s income exceeds this amount, you may still apply, along with an explanation of why your family qualifies as financially under-resourced.

How to Apply:

You can apply here by completing the program application, including information about your family’s finances. You’ll also write a sample article and respond to two short essays about an article or piece you’ve read lately that has impacted you, as well as your interest in journalism.

If you’re selected for the second round of the application process, you’ll also submit:

  • Transcripts
  • A recommendation letter
  • A high school profile from your guidance counselor
  • Clips from your high school newspaper or other publication (if you have them)

Finally, a select round of students will be invited to interview via video conference. From this final round, 30-40 students will be selected for the program.

Summer Journalism Institute at Arizona State University

For two weeks each summer, the Cronkite School brings top-performing high school students to ASU for “intensive, hands-on experiences in broadcast and digital journalism.”

Students visit television, radio, and print newsrooms, learn from award-winning Cronkite faculty and staff, listen to guest lectures from journalism professionals, and gain experience with reporting, social media, web production, shooting and editing video and photos, and producing and directing a student newscast.

While most costs are covered by sponsors, students must provide their own transportation and cover the cost of incidentals.

Benefits:

  • Hands-on journalism experience in a wide variety of mediums
  • Learning from journalism professionals and esteemed journalism professors
  • Connecting with other journalism students from around the country
  • Visiting professional newsrooms and working in state-of-the-art Cronkite newsrooms, studios, and labs
  • Gaining college living experience in ASU’s dorms
  • Low costs

Who Should Apply?

High school students with a passion for journalism and a strong academic record are encouraged to apply.

How to Apply:

Complete the application on the program’s website, which includes:

  • An application form
  • Letter of recommendation
  • High school transcript
  • Recent photograph (This will be used for your media pass if accepted to the program.)
  • Work samples
  • Short answers about your experiences and interest in journalism, as well as your interest in the program

Undecided

If you can’t decide on one area of interest, here are two interdisciplinary programs that might interest you!

Clark Scholars Program at Texas Tech

Highly qualified high school juniors and seniors can participate in the Clark Scholars Program, an intensive seven-week summer research program.

Participants will attend field trips, weekly seminars, and fun activities while engaging in a hands-on practical research experience with experienced faculty. Research opportunities are available in all academic areas, so it’s okay if you don’t have just one subject or career of interest.

The program is free, and participants also receive a $750 tax-free stipend. Admission is extremely competitive, with only 12 students accepted to the program last year. Among these students, the average SAT score was greater than 2276.

Benefits:

  • Engaging in hands-on research experiences in almost any academic discipline
  • Learning from experienced Texas Tech faculty
  • Experiencing field trips, seminars, and fun activities
  • Gaining college living experience in Texas Tech’s dorms
  • Developing critical thinking abilities and career interests
  • Free of charge, plus a stipend

Who Should Apply?

If you’re a gifted rising junior or senior with an interest in academic research, the Clark Scholars Program might be for you.

How to Apply:

Complete the application form on the program’s website, and send:

  • Transcripts
  • Test scores
  • Three letters of recommendation

Yale Young Global Scholars

The Yale Young Global Scholars program offers seven interdisciplinary pre-collegiate experiences:

  • Politics, Law, and Economics
  • International Affairs and Security
  • Sustainable Development and Social Entrepreneurship
  • Applied Science and Engineering
  • Biological and Biomedical Science
  • Frontiers of Science and Technology
  • Asia in the 21st Century

All sessions are held at Yale University with the exception of Asia in the 21st Century, which takes place in Beijing, China at the Yale Center Beijing.

At all seven sessions, students are given “opportunities to recognize and understand contemporary global issues, strategize responses, and innovate solutions.” The rigorous schedule includes lectures from Yale faculty or field experts, small-group meetings, and discussion seminars.

Students complete a writing, research, and presentation project with a teamwork component. The program is more expensive than many others listed here, but financial aid and scholarships are available. Admission is competitive, with only about 24% of applicants being selected for the program.

Benefits:

  • Honing abilities to think critically and flexibly
  • Engaging productively with a diverse group of talented peers
  • Exploring new and exciting ideas
  • Networking with distinguished scholars, professors, and practitioners
  • Developing key communications and teamwork skills
  • Gaining experience with life at an Ivy League college

Who Should Apply?

The Young Scholars program is open to rising juniors and seniors from any country in the world. You should have a strong academic record, an interest in one of the interdisciplinary areas listed above, and the ability to think critically and work well with others.

How to Apply:

The application, available on the program’s website, requires:

  • A resume and activities list
  • Official school transcript
  • Two recommendations
  • Standardized test scores, if available
  • One 500 word essay and two 200 word essays

Conclusion: Finding the Most Competitive Summer Programs

We hope we’ve given you a helpful overview of some of the nation’s top summer programs for high school students!

If you didn’t find a program that captured your interest here, there are thousands of others available around the country. Be sure to find a program that fits your abilities and passions and is highly selective.

College admissions officers will be impressed by not only your acceptance into a competitive summer program, but also your motivation, passion, and hands-on experience related to your academic and career field.

And if you’re interested in gaining an edge in college admissions essay writing, check out our college essay boot camp.