What Makes A Summer Program Worth My Time?

[fa icon="calendar"] 2/8/20 9:00 AM / by Farah Weheba

Farah Weheba

You have so many choices of summer programs for high school students. Some of them are high profile and highly competitive. Others are lesser known, less competitive, but pricey. What's up with that? How do you choose what you want to do over the summer, and how do you narrow down your list of worthwhile summer programs for high school students? Empowerly's gotcha covered. 

Happy volunteer family putting their hands together on a sunny dayHow do you determine the value of summer programs for high school students in terms of college admissions boost value? We’re here to help. Here’s the hierarchy.


  1. Summer programs for high school students that are free to attend and require a nomination or competitive application– and have an acceptance rate under 20%– are the most impactful. Totally worth it. Examples include: TASP,  Boys Nation, and the Research Science Institute.
  2. Second place– Summer programs for high school students that are paid but also require a competitive application follow their free counterparts in prestige. There are a couple of exceptions here: the Summer Science Program (SSP) and the Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists (PROMYS) are both paid but are on par with their free counterparts.
  3. Summer programs for high school students that are paid but still have an application process with an acceptance rate under 60% rank next.
  4. Paid summer programs for high school students that are generally hosted by a university and require an application rank next in line.
  5. Paid summer programs for high school students that are hosted by a private organization rank just below.
  6. Up next, we've got summer programs that involve travel or organized community service.
  7. Finally, paid summer programs that are open to all like the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) and National Young Leader State Conference (NYLSC) rank last. Participation is still a useful extracurricular activity to engage, but impact as a summer program specifically is low. 


Top Tier Summer Programs

These are the most prestigious, selective, and admissions-pack-a-punching summer programs for high school students: 

Summer can also be a great time for students to start a self-driven project or research. Beyond getting admitted to one of the top 20 most competitive summer programs, self-starting an independent summer projects is a more valuable use of your time– in terms of college admissions impact– than attending an expensive, less selective summer program. Navigating all of this can be tricky. Empowerly is here to help! Take advantage of our Opportunities Directory by signing up for access to the free Digital Toolkit. We'll assess your overall standing, and let you know how to boost your extracurricular impact. 

browse more summer programs

So what’s the mark of a good summer program? 

  • The student-teacher ratio and the amount of hands-on learning that is offered.
  • Cost. Many of the most competitive, highest quality programs are free or offered at minimum cost. Research internships most often score well here, too. They offer plenty of one-on-one time with instructors and/or professors, and time for hands-on learning.
  • Cue the instructors. Good summer programs for high school students will often be instructed by well-established academics who have published a fair amount on research. Those that are in-house rather than outsourced instructors may also be a good indicator of the quality of the program. A university-sponsored program hosted within the relevant academic department may indicate a higher level of expertise offered. 
  • If you have a question about a summer program or need help finding a summer research program in your zip code, ping our Empowerly Research Team. Those guys love a good challenge and an inquisitive mind! 

Learn more about how to successfully apply to a summer program via this earlier post.

An Empowerly counselor can help you chart out a dynamic and rigorous summer. Click below to schedule a consult by phone to learn more. 

Get Matched With a College Counselor

Topics: Extracurriculars, Summer Planning

Farah Weheba

Written by Farah Weheba

Farah is a Brooklyn-based Community Director at Empowerly, a college counseling and essay editing company serving and supporting ambitious high school students. Farah has a BA in psychology from Stanford University, and a Master's in Education under the Stanford Learning, Design, and Technology discipline graduating in 2014.

Keep Reading! Check Out These Posts:

Subscribe Here!