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Best Science Research Summer Programs for High School Students 2021

Are you itching to get into a lab and learn what science research is all about? Make sure that the programs you’re applying to are worthwhile or learn a little about how to conduct independent research below.
***Updated Feb 3rd, 2021***

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By ALEX LOVELESS

Meaningful, wet-lab research opportunities are hard to come by for anyone, but especially high school students. In addition, top school admissions offices continue to signal that they reward students that have research experience, many schools allowing students to submit work through research supplements on their applications. There are programs that tout lab experience over the summer, but they often are just one or two week programs and don’t actually contribute to ongoing research projects. On the other hand, there are a number of free research programs that contribute to meaningful, current research and are long enough in length to form lasting bonds with professors and other students. Getting a recommendation from one of your research advisors at one of these programs can really help STEM students stand out from the crowd in college admissions. 

The problem with some of these top research programs is that they often only accept students who have prior research experience. This is the same kind of catch-22 situation that college graduates often experience when job hunting, applying for jobs that ask for experience in the field for an entry-level position. It can certainly be frustrating for students, but it signifies the value in students planning their early high school summers to get less competitive research experience so that they’re competitive for the more difficult programs later on.

Top summer research programs can be extremely competitive, and there are a number of programs that try to emulate what they do to generate revenue, so the following list is to try to help guide your summer research. We can certainly debate how much better certain programs are than others, but this is based on my own experience working with ambitious high school students over the years. There are a number of programs that I don’t know enough about to make a judgement on. You can find an exhaustive list of great summer science research programs through Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth here

The list below represents science research programs that just about every good STEM school has heard about. To get a better idea as to the competitiveness and admissions value of each program, I’ve tiered the programs into three categories: S-Tier, A-Tier, and B-Tier. 

S-Tier: Must Go If Admitted

1) Research Science Institute (RSI)
Program Dates: Online – June (six weeks)
Application Deadline: January 16th, 2021 
Cost: Free
International Students: Yes (separate application process)

2) National Institute of Health – High School Summer Internship Program 
Program Dates: Numerous locations and dates (eight weeks), TBD online/in-person
Application Deadline: February 1st, 2021 
Cost: Free ($2,000 monthly stipend)
International Students: No
*** Bonus: NIH also hosts the HiSTEP and HiSTEP 2.0 summer programs

RSI is the cream of the crop in terms of summer science research programs. It’s one of the most competitive summer programs that exist for high schoolers and is run by the Center for Excellence in Education, the same people that run the USA Biology Olympiad (USABO). Admission to RSI is just as competitive, if not more competitive, than admission to the Ivy League+. Because it is a free program, the applicant pool is just as diverse as it is competitive. Make sure that you have top notch GPA, test scores, and prior research experience if you want a chance to get into RSI.

The NIH Summer Internships Program is  an amazing opportunity for domestic students. This eight-week program is run through the National Institute of Health, meaning that you’ll be working on actual, government-run projects. The application is quite involved, but the NIH SIP website gives a lot of great resources to navigate it. One of the downsides to the internship is that they do not provide housing for interns and they have limited locations around the US. As a result, it helps to live close to their labs on the east coast. Interns will actually get paid a stipend for this program, just like many other government-run programs, so competition is extremely high. NIH also offers the less-competitive HiSTEP and HiSTEP 2.0 programs that can also be great experiences. 

“… (T)op school admissions offices continue to signal that they reward students that have research experience, many schools allowing students to submit work through research supplements on their applications”

A-Tier: Highly Competitive Programs

3) Stony Brook University — Simons Summer Research Program
Program Dates: Online — June 28th – August 9th (six weeks)
Application Deadline: TBD
Cost: Free
International Students: No

4) Summer Science Program (SSP)
Program Dates: Astrophysics — Univ. of Colorado: June 13th – July 21st, New Mexico Tech: June 20th  – July 28th; Biochemistry — Purdue Univ: June 13th – July 21st, Indiana Univ: June 20th – July 28th
Application Deadline: International — February 5th, 2021, Domestic — March 5th, 2021
Cost: Online – $3,950, In-person $6,950
International Students: Yes

5) Texas Tech University — The Clark Scholars Program
Program Dates: June 24th – August 4th
Application Deadline: February 8th, 2021
Cost: Free, ($750 stipend, $500 meal card)
International Students: Yes

6) Boston University — Research in Science & Engineering (RISE)
Program Dates: Online — July 6th – August 13th (six weeks)
Application Deadline: February 14th, 2021
Cost: $4,650 (financial aid available)
International Students: No

7) Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program
Program Dates: Canceled 2021
Application Deadline: Canceled 2021
Cost: N/A
International Students: No

8) Stony Brook University — Garcia Center High School Summer Program 
Program Dates: June 28th – August 13th
Application Deadline: February 24th, 2021
Cost: $2,500 (lab usage fee)
International Students: Yes

9) Michigan State University – High School Honors Science, Math and Engineering Program (HSHSP)
Program Dates:TBD 
Application Deadline: TBD (Usually around March 1st)
Cost: Free
International Students: No

These seven programs are less competitive than RSI, but they are still extremely difficult to be admitted into. Each program’s acceptance rate is likely under 10%. As such, many of the top universities in America, particularly the STEM-focused schools, look extremely favorably on students who have attended these summer programs. (in particular, MIT) These programs range from free to paid programs that cover a variety of fields and topics. The rankings here are certainly debatable, but overall, they are all programs that most admissions officers at top schools have heard of and provide invaluable research experience that admissions officers are looking for. 

Keep in mind that not every research program covers the same academic subjects and that some programs rely on you to come up with your own research question and thesis. For SSP, students choose the Astrophysics or Biochemistry track and then participate in ongoing projects. For RISE, students apply for a certain track and then participate in existing research within that field. For programs like Simons and Clarks Scholars, students are responsible for coming up with their own research focus and will be paired with a related research mentor after getting accepted to the program. Make sure to know what kind of program you’re getting into. For programs like Simons and Clarks Scholars, part of the application will be asking about your research interests and gauging your ability to find a meaningful research question. This adds another layer of difficulty in the application process. 

For the paid programs like RISE, they usually offer up meaningful financial aid, so I would encourage everyone to apply and see what they offer if you’re a competitive applicant. Many of these programs like to see prior research experience as well, so for younger high school students, look to the B-Tier programs to get some experience or get creative and try your hand at some independent research to show your interest in research.

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B-Tier: Meaningful Research Experiences

10) University of Iowa – Secondary Student Training Program (SSTP)
Program Dates: Online, June 17th – July 23rd (5 weeks) 
Application Deadline: February 18th, 2021
Cost: Online — $4,500, In-person — $6,500 (financial aid available for US students)
International Students: Yes

11) University of Florida – Student Science Training Program (SSTP)
Program Dates: Online, July 6th – July 31st (4 weeks) 
Application Deadline: February 19th, 2021
Cost: In-state — $2,177, Out of state — $4,500 (financial aid available for in-state)
International Students: No

12) University of Chicago — Research in the Biological Sciences (RIBS)
Program Dates: Cancelled for 2021
Application Deadline: Cancelled
Cost: Canceled
International Students: Yes

13) University of Pennsylvania – Engineering Summer Academy Program (ESAP)
Program Dates: Online — July 12th – July 30th (3 weeks) 
Application Deadline: Priority — February 19th, 2021; Regular — March 26th, 2021
Cost: Online – $4,850
International Students: Yes

These programs are still meaningful experiences and can be great for students in their sophomore year who are not quite competitive enough to apply to the higher tier programs. Depending on the college, they might know about these programs and hold weight in the admissions process, but more value can be found in getting a great recommendation from a research advisor. 

There are certainly a few more programs that belong in this category, but these are the ones that I have experience with. If you don’t care about admissions value, these programs can be a great option to spend time in the summer. However, without the residential experience and community aspects of the virtual programs, they might not be worth the cost.

science advocacy

What about Independent Research?

Independent research projects can also be a great way to at least show the motivation for doing research, even if it isn’t as sophisticated as research done in a lab. If you’re clever, resilient, and resourceful, you can find ways to collect research data without the need for a lab. A lot of students are getting into data science, bioinformatics, or computational type research that can be done remotely or on a computer. Bonus points for these types of students for showing initiative and determinations. 

In addition, some students will contact professors from local universities to see if they can contribute to ongoing research through an informal internship. Securing this type of arrangement oftentimes requires a TON of cold outreach, networking, professional materials (resume and cover letters), and patience to secure. I’ll try to write an article on how to do this effectively, but Stanford’s Office of Science Outreach has a great pdf with tips for finding an unpaid lab placement

There are also a growing number of paid services that will connect you with research mentors who are often actual professors in particular fields. These programs can be quite expensive, so be careful when considering this option, as the admissions value of the experience is going to be hard to quantify without any tangible results (Research competition awards or published research). As always, the unpaid programs usually have the most admissions value. 

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