Summer Learning Programs: What, Why and How

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students doing work

You may think summer school is only for students who need to take required makeup classes. But many students choose to take part in special summer learning programs to:

  • Explore their interests
  • Develop new skills
  • Get hands-on experience that a classroom doesn't offer
  • Meet other students with similar interests
  • Get a taste of college life
  • Try out college classes
  • Earn college credit, if available

Taking part in a summer program is also a plus on college applications; it shows colleges that you’re committed to learning.

Where and What

Summer learning programs are available in just about every area of study, from the arts and sciences to languages and athletics. They may be offered at colleges, museums, performing-arts centers and recreation centers.

You can find residential programs, where you live in housing with other students, as well as classes you can commute to. So if you don’t want to leave home, you can still take part in a summer program.

Here are examples of summer programs for high school students:

  • A five-day creative-writing program on a college campus
  • A weeklong program in 3-D game design at a computer camp
  • A three-week language-immersion class at a school in another country
  • A six-week program on a college campus with college-level courses in subjects such as engineering, psychology and environmental studies
  • A summer-semester math class at a community college

How Much

Private summer programs can be expensive, but some offer scholarships or financial aid. Talk to your school counselor if you find a program you are really interested in that’s outside your price range.

You can also look into these federally funded programs, which are free or relatively inexpensive:

  • Governor's Schools: These summer programs are offered in around 15 to 20 states each year. You may have to submit teacher recommendations and an essay when you apply
  • Upward Bound: This college-preparatory program provides academic tutoring and mentoring to students who come from low-income families or will be the first in their family to go to college.

How to Get Started

For the best options, start looking into summer programs during the winter before you want to attend. Many programs have March deadlines and a limited number of spaces. And some programs ask for application materials that require planning.

Here’s how to begin:

  • Decide what your goal is. Do you want to earn credit for college, develop a new skill or meet students who share your interests?
  • Ask your counselor for suggestions.
  • Research summer programs online.
  • Look into summer programs at nearby colleges or other colleges you’re interested in.
  • Find out the application requirements for the programs you’re interested in. Some programs require high school transcripts, test scores or samples of creative work.

If your goal is to gain experience and learn new skills, remember that interning or holding a summer job can be just as valuable as taking part in a summer learning program.

Real Summer Adventures

Ian, a high school junior, went to a marine-science summer camp on an island off the coast of Maine, where he went snorkeling. “On a rock in about 12 feet of clear water was a starfish the size of a medium pizza,” he recalls. “The discoveries of treasures like these made the camp so incredible.”

Marcus, a high school senior, explored fiction writing and Italian at a university. “I was interested in both subjects and neither was offered at my high school,” he says. Through the program, he gained confidence and eased his “fears about surviving in a college classroom.”

Soni, a high school senior, got “a taste of college life” through a summer journalism program at a university. She lived in the dorms, ate in the dining hall and did her own laundry. Most important, she says, “attending this program made me realize that journalism is what I truly want to do with my life.”