The summer is still six months away, and for most high school students, planning it is furthest from their mind. But deadlines for many of the more selective and free programs fall in December and January and early planning will ensure that your summer is filled with a variety of valuable and worthwhile activities.
So what should high schoolers be looking at doing to fill their summer vacation? Academic programs, research, community service, community classes, SAT prep classes? The options are unlimited and some activities are best suited to some age groups over others.
Summer academic programs
One option that is advertised widely is academic summer programs. Many colleges, particularly the most exclusives ones, offer these programs to high school students. The majority are offered in a traditional classroom setting with a lecturer providing face-to-face instruction to students.
These programs appeal to many because rather than being run at a high school they are offered on a college campus, giving students a taste of campus life and potentially the prestige associated with the college.
But I’d approach these programs cautiously. Firstly, the majority come at a steep price costing upwards of $3,000 for one or two weeks. For example, the tuition fees to attend Columbia’s three-week immersion program are over $11,000 (accommodation included) and $5,600 (commuter). Secondly, some parents think that by sending their kids to a prestigious college their chance of undergraduate admission will increase. But this increase is minimal if at all, as Robin Rose at Brown University notes in this Forbes article. And thirdly students have spent nine months in a classroom and the idea of spending their summer doing the same just isn't appealing to most.
If you do decide to enroll in this type of program, apply to those that give you college credit. That way your time and money can at least contribute towards your college degree. Also look for programs that involve hands-on learning, meeting professionals working in the area you’re studying or field trips, rather than just classroom learning.
So if expensive summer programs aren’t the best use of one’s time what are the alternatives. What activities provide for a fun and fruitful summer without a hefty price tag?
Activities that allow students to applying their knowledge and put what they have learnt in the classroom, into practice, can be enriching and rewarding experiences. Activities that come in the form of hands-on learning - in a lab, doing research, helping in a hospital are good examples. They can deepen a student's knowledge, expose them to the working world and add bonus points to your resume.
Research programs and internships
Research programs like the Summer Student Program at the Jackson Laboratory or RISE Internship / Practicum at Boston University are fantastic opportunities for students to put their knowledge into practice, learn new skills on the job and be mentored by researchers and academics. For the most part, these programs are free but also incredibly competitive to get into - admission is based strictly on merit and in some cases high school students must compete with undergraduates for a spot. Applications require more time and effort, including short answer questions and teacher recommendation letters. Also deadlines tend to fall earlier in the year (December - February) than other less competitive academic programs. So its pays to start preparing your application for these programs now! Juniors and seniors in particular should apply, as many tend to be targeted at this age group (16 years+).
For many though, these top STEM research programs are ambitious at best and unattainable at worst. I’d encourage students to apply to a few but have a back-up plan with plenty of alternative options. And don't forget that your alternatives can be just as enriching and fulfilling as a structured program. Here are just a few alternative options.
Arrange your own internship in a lab
High school students can look for a summer research opportunity in a professor’s laboratory. Many opportunities are gained through personal connections and family friends but if you don’t know anyone it’s still possible to find a position. We’ve had some of our students land their own internship by reaching out to potential academics. This article offers some practical tips on finding such a position. Note that like the research programs, most professors are reluctant to take on a student younger than 16 years because of insurance liability issues.
Volunteering is another great use of your summer time. It builds character, gives you real world experience, and allows you to help others in your community. Look for volunteer opportunities that align with your interests. You may just make the connections that will lead you to a paid internship or even a job further down your career path.
Work on your own project
Perhaps you could use this time to develop your own project like build a web page or write a blog. It takes self-discipline and determination but the two combined can take you far. Some of our students have built mobile apps, published children’s books and research papers and built homes for undeserved communities in Africa and Asia. We've even had one of our students who loved to solve tricky AI problems land an internship with a well-known AI research company and go on to study at MIT. The options are endless.
Take up a summer job such as a lifeguard, camp counselor, waiter/waitress. A job teaches you life skills, gives you a foot in the door for part-time work during your university studies and you earn your own money! Just make sure you are over the minimum working age before you apply.
Do a variety of activities
Don’t forget to mix it up - unlike the academic year where most of your time is spent sitting in a classroom, you can spread your time doing a variety of activities. Just make sure you include free time and rest in the mix of it!
Want to learn more about making the best use of your summer? Sign up for our webinar this Sunday!