The Best Free Summer Programs for High School Students

Exams are over, and grades are recorded. You’ve said “goodbye” to your favorite teachers, returned your library books, and cleaned out your locker. It’s summertime! Lounging at the beach, making memories with friends, and earning a little extra cash are on your horizon. 

What if we told you that you could enjoy all the sweet social parts of summer in combination with an experience designed to give you a leg up in the college admissions process? For free!?

The best thing about the top free summer programs for high school students in the United States is that they combine all of the best parts of summer. 

Programs in niche areas like journalism, STEM, or leadership attract like-minded folks with shared interests and ambitions. 

With lengths ranging from two to six weeks, it’s totally possible to have the best of both worlds by attending a summer program and making other plans. 

Many exceptional programs offer a 100% virtual curriculum, meaning you can work a part-time job, gain invaluable subject-area experience, and spend the evening with your best friends enjoying pre-college bliss.

We’ve compiled a list of the top 10 free summer programs for high school students. From coast to cast, many of these options seek passionate students with a range of experiences and backgrounds. 

From attending language intensives in a foreign country to presenting independent research findings at a massive symposium, the facets of these programs are designed to push you outside of your own limitations. 

Princeton Summer Journalism Program (Princeton, NJ)

Princeton University
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another exceptional option for budding student journalists, the PSJP brings together 40 participants for a ten-day residential experience at Princeton’s campus. 

Here, they will collaborate in various teams to produce the annual newspaper, the Princeton Summer Journal.

In less than two weeks, scholars can expect to learn basic news reporting skills, produce a brief documentary, and visit major news hubs in New York City, like the New York Times, Bloomberg, and Huffington Post. 

The program’s benefits even extend past summertime, as each scholar is matched with a college advisor and professional journalist who supports them in navigating the college admissions process.

Completers go on to write for reputable college newspapers like The Yale Daily News, The Columbia Spectator, and The Harvard Crimson. They may secure college internships at Sports Illustrated, Architectural Digest, and NPR, among many other award-winning media companies.

Telluride Association Summer Programs 

Open to rising high school juniors and seniors, TASS is a free, six-week academic immersion designed to prepare students for future roles as transformational leaders. 

Every year, TASS offers programs at different collegiate institutions, and in 2023, those locations include Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Maryland.

TASS scholars attend a three-hour college-level course on Monday through Friday, which comprises Socratic discussions, collaborative projects, guest speakers, and multimedia interrogations. 

Completers remark that the experience is critical in preparing them for rigorous, complex discussions that take place in college classrooms.

Annenberg Youth Academy for Media and Civic Engagement (Los Angeles, CA)

Only 26 high school students from the greater Los Angeles area are accepted to participate in the Annenberg Youth Academy, a four-week program designed to introduce students to the integral role that journalism and media communications play in shaping civic discourse and innovation.

Students applying to Annenberg desire to build their skill set in public speaking, multimedia creation, ethnographic interviewing, and writing for diverse purposes and audiences. 

In addition to attending three daily periods focused on academic skill development, participants embark on various field trips.

Each scholar will create an independent journalism project that requires them to utilize all the skills they work on throughout the program. 

Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Programs (Virtual)

100% free and 100% virtual, Girls Who Code is gaining national acclaim for its challenging, supportive, and fun program. 

All high school students who identify as female or non-binary are eligible to apply without any previous computer science background.

Choose the two-week Summer Immersion Program (SIP) or the six-week Self-Paced Program depending on your desired outcomes and summer schedules. 

The two-week option places students in the same digital room as industry leaders of Accenture, Bank of America, and MetLife. 

New in 2023 is an introduction to game design class, focusing on UX design 101, intermediate computer science concepts, and iterative design.

The second extended option gives participants more time to learn various coding languages, like CSS, HTML, JavaScript, and Python. A new emphasis on cybersecurity is woven throughout different data science electives. 

National Security Language Initiative for Youth (15 Host Countries)

Undoubtedly one of the most enthralling (and cost-effective) ways to learn a language, the U.S. Department of State’s NSLI-Y is a government-sponsored program seeking to ignite a lifelong passion for critical foreign languages. 

The initiative prioritizes eight languages – including Russian, Korean, and Arabic – in as many as 15 countries. Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, and Jordan are just a few places you can travel to for free!

The Russian summer program, for example, seeks to improve scholars’ skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening in Russian, which occurs through cultural presentations, host family residencies, and in-class instruction. 

Students can expect to spend approximately 20 hours a week studying Russian, which they may later use to secure employment with agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense, Homeland Security, or Housing and Human Development.

Of those who have gone through one of the programs, 99% remark that it was one of the most pivotal academic experiences in their lifetime. 

With only 31% previously studying their target language before commencing their respective programs, this immersion is extremely accessible.

Seattle Children’s Research Institute Research Training Program

The Research Institute at the Seattle Children’s Hospital offers two dynamic programs led by PhD-level scientists and professors. 

Gain proficiency working inside a real-life research lab, where you’ll take part in exploratory coursework in gene editing, infectious disease treatment, and immunotherapy. 

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in biomedical science, this is the ideal (free) program for you!

Let’s compare the two programs, one of which is a three-week in-person experience in Seattle and the other of which is a one-week-long virtual immersion. 

Both entail competitive application processes for rising juniors and seniors, and the in-person option is specifically designed to enroll students who hail from historically underrepresented groups. 

The in-person program encompasses lectures, hands-on lab experiments steeped in public health and biochemistry, college and career workshops, and facility tours. Students additionally give final presentations. 

The online program shares the same subject area focus, though lab experiments are turned into lab demonstrations. In place of facility tours, participants can access digital office hours with working scientists.

Student Conservation Association National Crews (Multiple U.S. Park Locations)

For the environmentally-minded student, the SCA’s National Crews programs transport high school participants to some of the nation’s most alluring parks. 

Spend two to five weeks in intimate crews of six to eight members as you build trails, conserve wildlife habitats, and protect precious natural resources.

In the summer of 2022, teams trekked to Maine and Vermont to focus on the Appalachian Trail, though future program locations are likely to change. 

Activities include practicing Leave No Trace etiquette, developing leadership skills, and refining other essential survival behaviors.

This program is ideal for someone considering a career as an outdoor recreation leader, park ranger, or conservationist. 

Receive invaluable training and attain various professional certifications in addition to completing service hours and earning transferable academic credit. If you love it enough, you may be welcomed back to serve as a program leader for future high school participants!

Summer Academy for Math and Science at Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh, PA)

Carnegie Mellon University
Dllu, Gates-Hillman Complex at Carnegie Mellon University 3, CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the best free STEM summer programs in the nation, Carnegie Mellon’s SAMS initiative challenges participants with hands-on projects guided by award-winning faculty members. 

The program has two core components: a virtual orientation and a five-week in-person pre-college experience.

What type of projects will SAMS students complete on campus? To start, they’ll attend quantitative and computational skill seminars blending investigations in high-level math and science. 

They’ll spend the duration of the program working with mentors and peers on various projects, which they’ll ultimately present at the culminating symposium.

Family members of participants also stand to gain from the SAMS offerings. Various workshops are offered virtually pertaining to the FAFSA, applying for merit-based scholarships, and navigating the college admissions process. 

To apply, rising high school seniors should prepare responses to the essay prompts provided in the annual application.

Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (Claremont, CA)

A four-week residential program attracting 90 rising sophomores through seniors in the Claremont region, PAYS aims to prepare traditionally underrepresented students, including those from low-income families, for successful careers at four-year colleges or universities. 

Many participants will be the first members of their families to attend college, and the program maintains its record of all participants gaining admission to a four-year institution.

The program is actually year-long, endeavoring to support scholars through their critical senior years in high school. 

The summer component entails challenging critical inquiry seminars, analytical writing assignments, complex math problem sets, and data collection and analysis exercises – all skills they will need to employ at the collegiate level. 

Classes are small – typically under 15 students – and taught by Pomona College TAs. New electives are offered each year, including Food in the Body, Impact of COVID-19 on Sports, and Productivity: Doing More With Less Time. 

Just as much emphasis is placed on social development, and students can anticipate fun karaoke nights, pool parties, talent shows, and excursions to the LA Angels baseball games, among other outings.

Sadie Nash Summer Institute (New York City, NY, and Newark, NJ)

Last but not least, the Sadie Nash Summer Institute inspires young women in the NYC/Newark area to grow in leadership and confidence. 

The curriculum comprises workshops and discussions centered on themes of social justice, identity, and intersectionality.

There are no academic prerequisites to apply for this opportunity. Class names change annually, with a previous example entitled Getting Schooled or Getting Educated: Education for Liberation. 

In this course, scholars examined the politicization of public schools and ways to innovate learning for future audiences.

Sadie Nash participants also go on several tours to places like Montclair State University, Rutgers University, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. 

Supplementary workshops in self-defense, exploring post-secondary options, and exploring colorism in our communities help arm students with the physical, mental, and emotional skills they’ll need to succeed in college.