8 Free Summer Programs for High School Students (2021 Updated)

Are you a high school student looking to further your education this coming summer? Do you want to develop your knowledge on a topic that interests you?

Summer programs are the perfect solution for you. These programs offer you a first-hand experience of college life, while allowing you to explore your interests. Plus, you will meet other high school students who share your interests.

Nothing pushes your knowledge harder than talking with other people who share the same interests as you. You learn as much from your peers as from books and teachers. Sometimes more.

Some summer programs are expensive, but in this article, I’ve only picked free ones. We strongly believe education should be accessible to everyone, and not gatekept by wealth.

Keep reading this article to find out what to look for in a summer program.

Why Opt for a Summer Program?

You may think that summer programs are only for people who must get up to speed to join certain colleges. That is not entirely true. Joining a summer program is a great way to explore a topic.

Let’s say you are interested in a writing career. You set your eyes on a college with an enticing writing program, but are unsure if you’re actually that interested in writing.

By joining a summer program that teaches writing, you’ll be able to know if you like it without committing to a multiple-year’s course. If you end up not enjoying writing, you’ve learned a lot about yourself and your passions. If you realize you like writing thanks to the program, you’ll be better prepared for college.

In fact, summer programs will make your college application much stronger, because you’ll prove that you are:

  • Interested in the course’s topics
  • Willing to go the extra mile to learn

Imagine you’re a committee and you get two applications with comparable skills. You’d pick the one with the summer programs that align to your college over the other.

Why Pick a Program over Another?

The primary reason to pick a program should be personal interest. Pick a topic that interests you, and look for a summer program that talks about it.

But not all programs are created equal. Here is a list of factors to consider when you are looking for a summer program:

Goal

Your goal is the first thing you must consider before searching for a summer program. Do you just want to learn more about a hobby of yours? Do you want to improve your college application? Perhaps you just want to meet other like-minded students who share your passion.

Whatever the case, you must first establish your goals. They will be your primary guide in picking the right summer course for you.

Topic

The course’s topic must interest to you. There has to be a reason for you to pick a summer program. Even if you end up dropping out of a program you don’t enjoy, at least you will have learned something about yourself.

Make sure you don’t waste your time.

Location

While most courses moved to online because of the pandemic, the country is gradually reopening. It’s not unreasonable to expect at least some programs to go back being taught in person. You must consider whether you are willing to relocate to follow a specific program, and if not, look for something closer to you.

Prestige

If you are attending summer programs to bolster your college application, pick a program that will impress the school’s administration.

The more restrictive the program, the more prestigious they are. Being selected for a program that only allows few students to take part in them is way more valuable than a summer program that lets anyone join.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that money = prestige. There are plenty of programs that are valuable and free.

Selectivity

This point is strictly linked to the previous one. Selective programs are better on an educational and career standpoint, but they might no be what you are looking for. It all depends on your goals, and how much effort you are willing to put in.

The 8 Best Summer Programs

Making this list was hard. I don’t personally know your goals or interests. Thus, I focused on making it as inclusive as possible. You’ll find many different courses on this list that focus on a plethora of topics.

There’s something for everybody on this list. As an added bonus, I’ve added a section after this list that will tell you good alternatives to summer programs that will give you comparable benefits, although some of them aren’t as formal.

Warning: while the programs on this list are free to attend, some will require you to pay a small fee when you get accepted, usually of $50. I’ll state clearly which ones have an admission fee and which ones don’t.

Annenberg Youth Academy for Media and Civic Engagement

  • Admission fee: free

The Annenberg Youth Academy is a highly selective program where students learn about writing, public speech and debate, critical thought, and other subjects related to communication, with a focus on mass media and journalism.

What makes this program so valuable?

It’s an intensive three-weeks summer camp that is very selective. Only 28 students are accepted in it each summer. Students are picked from 5 counties in the Los Angeles area. The program will drastically improve the students’ abilities in the field of communication.

Because of the pandemic, the campus will be conducted online rather than in person.

Warning: applications for 2021 are closed.

PennState Business Opportunities Summer Session (BOSS)

  • Admission fee: $50 (only if accepted)

If economics and business is what interests you the most, then PennState’s BOSS course is right up your alley.

This is a one-week virtual program for high school students interested in embarking on an academic journey to learn more about business. It’s a great starting point for those looking to learn more about the current economic climate and business administration.

This is the only course on this list with an admission fee. I still included it because it’s quite low, and you only have to pay it when you get accepted.

Getting admitted into this program is no easy feat. Applying to this program is like writing a mini college application. You have to submit a statement of purpose, provide your high school transcript, and even a letter of recommendation from one of your high school professors.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Summer Academy for Math and Science (SAMS)

  • Admission fee: free

SAMS is a program focused on teaching scientific topic to its attendees. Topics include biology, mathematics, and physics. The program is a great introduction to a potential career in STEM.

What makes SAMS so great is its focus on scientific topics without neglecting topics like writing. Attending SAMS will vastly improve any student’s reasoning skills, while also offering them a great introduction to STEM disciplines. Students who successfully complete this program often end up as excellent STEM scholars.

Another perk of attending this program is the hands-on experience: while this year the course will be held online, there will still be workshops in the second week of August where students will meet with alumni and other students, and will work on STEM-related projects.

Sounds great? We aren’t finished yet. From the workshops until December, students will receive further academic support from the staff. What’s there not to love?

The program is completely free, but you will still have to buy books and supplies. However, if you are in poor economic conditions, you might have access to funds for these.

Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS)

  • Admission fee: N/A

Including this is a bit like cheating, since it’s a collection of many different summer programs. Nonetheless, if you are unsure of what you want to do this summer, it is worth to check out this list.

NYU Tandon School Computer Science for Cyber Security

  • Admission fee: free

Cybersecurity is a hot topic nowadays, so if you have an interest in computers and are curious about the world of ethical hacking, cryptography, and cybersecurity, you should absolutely apply for this program.

You don’t need any prior knowledge of the topic to get the most out of this program. All you need is a pc or laptop, a decent internet connection, and a willingness to learn.

There is a lack of cybersecurity experts in the US, so the job market is always looking for more qualified people. The field also pays well.

The program runs for 3-weeks, 5 days a week, from 9 AM to 2 PM. It offers a solid introduction to the world of cybersecurity and computer science. You are eligible to apply if you live around New York City, and can demonstrate your commitment through your application.

Warning: applications for 2021 are closed.

JCamp

  • Admission fee: free

If you’re interested in journalism, you can’t go wrong with JCamp. It’s a 6-days training camp where students learn from veteran journalists and media thought leaders.

The program teaches topics such as fundamentals of leadership, journalism ethics, the importance of diversity in media coverage. There is a strong focus on diversity and listening to different voices and opinions coming from different cultures.

Despite the association’s name, the program is not limited to Asian Americans students. All you need is to be a high school student and have a strong interest in journalism. Applying is free, and so are the costs of the program, of lodging, and traveling to the place.

Editor’s note: Since the 2020 edition of JCamp was canceled because of COVID, 2021’s edition will be held online with the students who were selected for 2020. This means you’ll have to wait for 2022 before applying.

GirlsWhoCode Summer Immersion Program

  • Admission fee: free

This is a bit of an outlier compared to other programs on this list because it focuses on girls. It is held by a non-profit whose mission is to empower women to enter technology jobs.

This is by far the most intensive program, as it lasts a whopping seven weeks, and focuses on computer science and coding.

What’s great about this program is that it is available in multiple locations around the US, so you should be able to find one close to you. The downside? It’s only for girls, so if you are a man, you’re out of luck.

This camp is an excellent intro to computer science, so if you’re a woman looking to improving your skills in the technological field, you should absolutely apply for this one.

Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP)

  • Admission fee: free

TASP is one of the most respected summer programs in the country, so I had to include it on this list. Unfortunately, it is suspended for 2021 and will resume operating in 2022, so I had to place it last. If this course was open, it would absolutely be in the top 3, perhaps even in the top 1 of this list.

It is a six-week seminar where students are encouraged to learn via discussion, rather than lecturing. The program distinguishes itself from others because of the quality of the education it offers. When you join TASP, you can expect to get assigned intellectually challenging articles and writing assignments.

TASP is highly sought-after in the college admission world. Taking part in this program gives you a powerful advantage over the competition.

Warning: TASP is closed for 2021. Operations will resume in 2022.

Alternatives to Summer Programs

If what you’re after is experience and don’t particularly care about standard academic learning, there are other ways to gain experience in your field of choice.

For example, if you were interested in writing, you could take the matter into your own hands and start writing online. Open your blog, publish articles on Medium, or you can even attempt to work with magazines or local newspapers. The sky is the limit.

Another grand avenue to gain relevant experience is volunteering. Internships/summer jobs are also useful, though it might be hard to get the type of work you are looking for. They offer you relevant real-world experience, and will look great on your future college applications.

Have an interest in biology? Offer to volunteer at a zoo, or a marine park. There are always ways to progress your education that don’t require formal academic training. Think about your goals, and how you can reach them. Start from the end and work your way backwards to figure out the right steps to take.

Conclusions

There you have it, a list of the best free summer programs for high school students. No matter what you want to do, you’ll find something that catches your interest on this list.

Remember, always start with your goals. Do you want to explore a topic? Or are you actively looking to improve your knowledge in a specific field? Are you looking to strengthen your eventual college application?

You’ll want to answer all of these questions before applying for any summer program. Some students are looking for a more casual experience, while others are all about future academic success. There is no right or wrong answer in this case. It’s your life. Make your own choices.

So what are you waiting for? Enroll into a free summer program today, and level up your academic career!

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