Polygence blog / How to Conduct and Showcase Research

Summer Research Programs: How To Choose The Right Program For You

4 minute read

Choosing a summer program as a high school student can be a daunting task. Some schools like NYU’s summer research program for high schoolers and Johns Hopkins’ can have dozens of options, and you want to find the one that aligns with your interests and doesn’t break the bank. However, taking the time to carefully evaluate the various aspects of a summer research program can help ensure that you make an informed decision that meets your needs and goals. Here are some of the most important factors to consider when thinking about which summer program is right for you.

What Does a Research Program Focus On?

This should likely be your number one consideration when choosing a summer program. What are you hoping to learn, and how does this program fit into that? Programs like Pre-College programs are typically broad in scope and offer a variety of courses that you can choose from. In this case, be sure to at least identify some courses that you think you’d be interested in taking before applying.

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Other programs can be much more specific. For example, NYU offers a program to learn more about augmented reality experiences, which won’t really make sense for you if you have no interest in the topic. 

Beyond just the topics/courses offered, be sure to research what you’re actually doing in the program. Are you doing more hands-on research or projects, or will it be more structured like a college-level course? The choice is up to you, but be sure to have a strong understanding of what you’ll be doing in the program.

Some programs will also offer college credits but beware that these programs will often come with a price premium.

Do Research Programs Cost Money?

Program costs can vary greatly, from ones that pay you to free programs to ones that cost upwards of several thousand dollars. These programs can be extremely expensive. Colleges will often display prices on their websites, but check whether that number includes travel fees, application fees, and housing/meal plan if the program is on-campus. Need-based scholarships and financial aid may also be offered to students, but these are typically very limited in number and are very competitive. If you do apply for financial aid, it would be prudent to have an early conversation with your family about a plan B if the aid doesn’t come through.

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Should I Choose a Residential or Online Program?

A big factor that contributes to cost is paying to live on campus for an in-person program. For example, housing and a meal plan for the NYU Pre College program costs an additional $3,618. You may have to weigh the costs of an in-person program against some of the potential benefits.

The benefits of an in-person program could be the opportunity to meet other high schoolers around the world and make connections. You won’t be studying or working for the entire session, so you’ll likely have time to do fun activities with others and explore the surrounding city or town. You’ll also get a sneak peak into the experience of living in college dormitories.

Further, you’ll be able to interact in person with university faculty and subject matter experts, and engage in a way that is more difficult to do in an online setting. It’s easier to ask questions and participate, and in my opinion, it’s easier to focus in class. If this is something that’s interesting to you, every summer program offers a course catalog where you can find out who your instructors are. From there, you can see if their experiences or qualifications are of interest to you and make the in-person program worth it.

However, a virtual program could offer you significant financial savings and the flexibility to explore other summer activities. If you’re committed to training for sports in the summer, for example, you can fit that in with your schedule while still doing a virtual summer research program. A summer program definitely does not need to take up your entire summer (and many of them only take up 4-6 weeks), and virtual programs allow you to explore other activities simultaneously.

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What Are Some Misconceptions of Summer Programs?

In picking and choosing a summer program, it’s important to distinguish what a summer program is and is not. This can help you understand the program in the context of its financial cost.

1) Admission into the college is not guaranteed! 

Admission into a summer program is not a guaranteed ticket into the undergraduate college where the program is hosted. In a Washington Post piece, half a dozen professional college admission consultants were interviewed, and “all of them said that pre-college programs generally don’t give kids a special edge on their applications or carry the prestige that many families think they do.” This is because “many pre-college programs are run by separate departments within a university (often the school of professional studies), or even by an outside company, and so have no connection to undergraduate education or admissions.” Just the prestige of having attended the program should in no way be seen as a leg up in the college admissions process, and many colleges are upfront about this.

2) Focus on the learning, not the brand name

A summer program is however an opportunity to learn cool things and explore your academic/career interests. The benefits of a program should not be viewed as an advantage in admissions, but rather an opportunity to pursue passions and interests. You can dedicate yourself to learning something new and finding that it excites you, or continue exploring a budding interest that you’ve developed earlier in high school. These can lead to projects or experiences during the summer programs that I believe can be used to truly give yourself an advantage in the college admissions process. At the end of the day, what you did and learned about yourself during the program is way more important than the specific program you went to. Those are the experiences that you can authentically speak to in your college essays and help you stand out in admissions.

If you’re interested in learning more about specific summer programs, check out our list of the top summer research programs for high schoolers. Keep in mind also that a summer program isn’t the only option you have for the summer, you could also choose to write your own research paper or pursue a passion project idea.

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