OK, I’ve been through this before and I’m going to give a little mini-lecture on the summer programs process for those who are new to this
If you haven’t already, START LOOKING AT PROGRAMS NOW. Spend a Saturday afternoon reading through this forum’s archives, use Google, etc. Here’s a general starter list, some science, math, and engineering ones, a list of free ones, and some tips for independent research/internships. (Note: there was a really good list of summer programs that someone posted to Google Docs but I can’t find the link - it’s in the CC archives somewhere, though.)
For those who are currently …
Seventh- and eighth graders: There are less programs for you than there are for high schoolers, but you should find a suitable program (preferably, programs) and apply. If you’re doing Duke TIP or a similar program, you’ll also have to take an ACT/SAT - which is a beneficial experience.
Ninth graders: If you haven’t done a summer program before, now is the time to get involved. You should also look at a structured volunteer program, a job (if your state’s labor age requirements let you), or any other “constructive” activity that will help you develop as a student and learner.
Tenth graders: There are a lot of programs from which you can choose. Do NOT put off a structured summer activity/job/etc. until next year!
Eleventh graders: You have the most opportunities available. Get a job, find a summer-long volunteer opportunity, apply to summer programs that will benefit you and make you grow intellectually. Start early - start NOW. Many people started in November. But some people will wait until April or May (gasp) - if you start that late, YOU WILL BE STARING AT PASSED DEADLINES or SUPER EXPENSIVE PROGRAMS. This is by far the most important summer (between junior-senior years) for summer programs.
Seniors! Almost … done … must … get … through … last … semester … but when you’re free … I suggest just getting a job/internship, doing research, preparing for college, etc. There aren’t a lot a lot of programs for graduated seniors but whatever you do is what you’re doing for yourself.
Speaking of which, do not automatically go for the most “prestigious” programs or the ones at big-name universities. If it costs more than $4,000 for two weeks or less, doesn’t include college credit, and is not a real research program, you’re probably getting ripped off - search CC for any reviews/experiences that might be helpful in distinguishing these programs.
If you decide to apply to a competitive program, the free ones are often the most selective - beware of deadlines, some of which have already passed and many of which are looming in February! These are due in March or later but still, DO NOT WAIT.
Grades: grades are important; lack of straight A’s aren’t going to be an automatic dealbreaker but a trend of poor performance/slacking off, as reflected by your transcript, is a bad sign. If you’re a freshman/sophomore, DO NOT SLACK OFF. It will feel fun until the first semester of senior year … and then you start worrying how many B’s colleges will forgive even with top test scores.
Speaking of which - take the ACT/SAT if you haven’t already, and you should probably have the PSAT/PLAN done as well (if you’re at the right grade level, etc.). You can send test score updates even after a program’s application deadline; just add a note to the app saying you plan on sending newer scores when they’re available.
A lot of programs will ask for teacher/counselor recommendations - start scouting teachers now! They’ll also be helpful for writing college recs. Ask seniors/recent alumni of your high school which teachers write the best recs; if you’re able to read the recs, you can also tell which teachers to ask or not ask for college recs in the future. Try to pick recent teachers that know you well; avoid academically insignificant people like coaches unless there is something specific they can highlight about you. Some programs require certain subjects (e.g., a math program might ask for at least one math teacher rec; a science one might request a math teacher and a science teacher). Even if you hate your math teacher, be nice to them so they can write you a great rec when you need it. Ask early, ask now - recs take a little time to write!
Do not think of the program admissions people are your enemies. They are your friends and question-answerers. Also, if you have concerns/queries, CALL, don’t email (unless specifically instructed not to call). Emails get lost; replies are delayed. If you call, you’ll almost certainly get a prompt answer from the right person.
Most important thing to remember: what you get out of a program/summer experience is what you make of it. If you are rejected from the “prestigious” programs you applied to, still attend a backup program (yes, you’ll want one or two of those, just like with college admissions) and make the best of it. Colleges want to know what you learned and how you grew; your intellectual development and your whether your curiosity was triggered. If you go to Ivy League Summer College and just get drunk and party the whole time - that’s a waste of a couple thousand dollars, will be recognized by colleges as “not a real summer program” on your resume, and will have been a waste of a summer.
Oh yeah - don’t do a program just to boost your resume or make you look better to colleges. That should be a side effect, not the main purpose. If your goal is just to have some programs on your resume, you’re doing it wrong.
CC is your friend; the people on here, at least the brighter ones ;), have more experience and combined knowledge than any other college adviser or counselor.
IF YOU DON’T APPLY, YOU CAN’T GET IN. Don’t ask, “Should I try applying for this program?” or, “Am I good enough?” - do your best on the application and just send it in. Because without sending in an application, you have a 0% chance of acceptance into that program.
Hey, I’m always free for advice (PM me - that sends me an email notification) and most other CCers are, too.
Also, sorry for the tl;dr-ness and can a mod sticky this if there are no objections? I’d like to create a comprehensive tutorial thread so please add on any general advice I’ve missed.