Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

Virtual vs. In-person Pre-College Summer Programs: How to choose what's right for you

6 minute read

As you plan for summer, you may be weighing the advantages of in-person summer research programs against virtual ones like Polygence. In this post, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of each. You can immediately jump to your specific concern using the table of contents on the left, or you can just read on to take a look at all the considerations. A lot of students and college counselors ask us for advice on how to choose between various programs, especially when there are so many different considerations at play - how will each of these experiences look on my resume? Will these experiences give me a better sense of life on a particular college campus? How expensive are each of these programs?

Fear not!  We are here to give you an overview of how we think you should be evaluating these opportunities. We’ve included a list of 8 different questions to ask yourself when making this decision. For you, perhaps academic rigor is much more important than program flexibility or opportunities for socialization. For another student, cost might be the most important factor followed by whether or not it will have an impact on their college admissions results. 

Let’s see how virtual Polygence programs and in-person summer research opportunities stack up against the most common concerns we hear from students.

Will this summer research experience help me get into my top schools?

Polygence Program

YES, your Polygence mentor research significantly contributes to admissions chances.

In-Person Summer Programs

NO, generally, in-person summer programs contribute very little to enhanced admissions chances. They are designed to give students a sense of campus life.

One of the major factors that families consider when they’re looking for a summer opportunity is the question of “How useful will this be for my admissions chances down the line?” In order for an experience to enhance college admissions chances, it needs to either be meaningfully selective (competitive), or meaningfully personalized and unique. In a Polygence passion project, you create something that is 100% unique to your interests and you walk away with an output that is customized, whereas in most residential summer programs , you are learning the same material as everyone else. Moreover, most in person programs have minimal selection criteria. 

Will I have a unique concrete project to show at the end of my program?

Polygence Program

YES, you’ll have a unique, personalized project that you can showcase in a variety of different ways.

In-Person Summer Programs

NO, you’ll be taking mostly standardized academic classes with very standardized outputs at the end.

As mentioned above, in-person summer programs are not typically designed for individualized and customized student experiences. They are best for exposing students to campus life and campus learning. So, if you’re looking for something unique to hang your hat on, a personalized program like Polygence might be a better bet.

Am I guaranteed a rigorous and unique academic experience?

Polygence Program

YES, the Polygence program prides itself on being a rigorous, personalized academic experience.

In-Person Summer Programs

Depends on the program.  Most programs provide a standardized group experience. They are rarely customized, and the rigor depends on the program.

If academic rigor is something that matters to you a lot, be sure to look into the programs in detail. Who will be your mentor/professor? How big will the class size be? Will you be taking intro-level courses or are these advanced seminars? All of these questions will have an effect on the academic rigor of the experience. At Polygence, all of our mentors are graduate-level researchers and industry professionals who work with students 1:1. In-person summer programs are more likely to contain group work, which also means that the experience will be less tailored to you.

Is it affordable?

Polygence Program

Polygence programs run as low as $495 for Polygence Pods (group learning experiences) and $2695 for the 1:1 mentorship program. You may also be eligible for financial aid. 

In-Person Summer Programs

Most residential programs start at $8k + including room and board. Some carry a price tag of over $10k depending on the length of the program.

Whether we like it or not, cost will be a big factor in making a decision like this! Because of the logistics of room and board, in-person programs tend to carry a hefty price tag, even for programs that are only 1-2 weeks long. That being said, some of the most prestigious and selective programs will be free of charge, and some might even pay students a stipend to join.

Will it be an in-depth mentorship?

Polygence Program

YES, you will build a long-term (3-6 month) relationship with a near-peer mentor. Our program also lets you connect with some of the brightest minds in the country. 


In-Person Summer Programs

Depends on the program. Most such programs happen over the summer  are typically only a couple of weeks long, after which the mentor-mentee relationship ends.

Most in-person summer programs are not designed to be “mentorship” programs. Some are highly rigorous research programs where students work on research projects, but usually, 1:1 mentorship will not be the focus unless otherwise stated on the program’s website. 

Is the program flexible?

Polygence Program

YES, you can organize your own schedule and even do a Polygence project alongside another in-person program, internship, or summer job.

In-Person Summer Programs

NO, usually, application deadlines and program dates are fixed ahead of time and students have to commit to being available.

If you’re a busy high school student, you know that timing and scheduling are often the  trickiest things to master during your summers. In-person summer programs often require students to be there for the entire duration of the program, and some longer programs often take up the entire summer, thereby requiring students to be extra judicious in what they choose to do. Polygence, on the other hand, offers rolling admissions and flexible program schedules so that students can fit it into their other summer plans. 

Are there opportunities to socialize?

Polygence Program

YES, you will develop a great relationship with your mentor, and can also make long-lasting friends with people all over the world if you participate in our Symposium of Rising Scholars or in pods.

In-Person Summer Programs

YES, there’s often sports opportunities in addition to learning, and you’ll meet many other students. This is one of the biggest draws of in-person programs - the chance to socialize in person with other students!

Coming out of the years of COVID isolation, we know that  socialization is particularly important to students. In-person opportunities are great for this because you get to experience what it’s like to make friends on a college campus! You get to try meeting friends on campus for a coffee study session, followed by a game of pickup frisbee on the lawn, followed by dinner in the dining halls before hitting the library for another quick study session. On the other hand, Polygence offers the chance to connect with other students virtually, over your shared love of research and learning. Although our programs are predominantly 1:1, we have created a number of opportunities for students to connect from all over the world.

Will it give me a preview of what it’s like to live at a particular college?

Polygence Program

NO, but through connecting with your mentor, you can get a pretty good sense of what their experience was like attending their home institution. That’s no substitute for physically being there, of course, but many of our students rave about how helpful it is to hear their mentors’ experience.

In-Person Summer Programs

YES, in-person summer programs are often designed to give you an accurate taste of what life on campus feels like. You’ll likely get to eat at the main cafeterias, use their classrooms, live in their dorms, and perhaps even meet some of their professors!

So what’s our recommendation? 

We strongly believe that if you have the option, you should do both! The summer program would give you a sense of the campus and be a fun social experience. And Polygence can give you a valuable mentorship experience that is so flexible you can do it alongside your in-person program, or it can extend what you’ve started in that program.

What if you can’t do both? 

Then we would recommend you do the Polygence program or something like it, especially if you’re trying to get into a top school.  Only an in-depth research project on the level that you can start and complete with Polygence has the potential to serve as a primary distinguishing factor in college applications. Just being on the campus of a top school over the summer and completing a summer program there, on the other hand, does not give you any sort of edge. Attending a summer program is not a “back door” to the school. It is a completely separate business. Polygence is also about 3X cheaper than those summer camps while at the same time connecting you with some of the brightest minds in the country from the comfort of your own home. You can even pair it with summer travel, jobs, and internships if you’re also looking for social adventures. 

One last thought. 

Don’t let the glamor of an Ivy League name attached to the front of the words “pre-college summer program” or “summer program” fool you. It’s the actual summer research experience and what you have to show for your work and your time that really counts when you are applying to these same colleges for admission. We do encourage you to visit your dream schools if and when you get a chance. But it’s much more productive to do things that help you get in before you worry about technicalities like the campus layout and what the dorms look like. If you want more help, check out our blog post here about how to choose a summer program.

Want to start a project of your own?

Click below to get matched with one of our expert mentors who can help take your project off the ground!

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