Summer Planning on a Budget
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Classrooms are great places to learn theories, stimulate minds, and plant seeds for future academic interests; however, for many students, the growth stays within those four walls. To discover real world interests, to see knowledge applied in practice, and to meaningfully envision themselves within careers for the first time, students should seek experiences outside the classroom. And there’s no better time to do this than the summertime.

If you’re a student who has been looking into fruitful ways to spend your summers, chances are you’ve heard of summer programs. The topics covered at these programs can range widely from manufacturing aspirin in a lab to producing a literary portfolio to climbing the Sierra Nevadas with all of your living necessities strapped to your back. The common denominator for these programs is personal and often academic enrichment that is transformative for the participants. Students return home from these programs with greater confidence, inspiration, and direction.

However, the transformation doesn’t always come cheap. The University of California’s famous COSMOS program offers its participants the chance to study exciting subjects like biomedical research and videogame design with esteemed faculty—at the price of $3,100 ($6,000 if you’re from out-of-state). The tuition for Columbia University’s high school summer program is $4,506; but if you want a place to sleep and food to eat, the total cost is a whopping $7,929 for a three-week course.

These experiences can be invaluable to one student but inessential to another; they’re worth as much as someone is willing to pay. But what does a student do when he or she wants the experience but doesn’t want to or is unable to pay the high sticker price? There are options!

(1) Internships
These can be outstanding opportunities to get not only hands-on experience in professional fields or academia, but also all-valuable exposure to possible career targets. Internships are available for almost any discipline: academia with a university professor, businesses, non-profits, etc. For high school students, internships are often unpaid as the opportunity to observe and participate is already a valuable trade for the labor; however, if you’re lucky, you might get a paid internship. To be clear, these positions are few and far between. Lots of students compete for limited internships, so they’re far from easy to get. Most places will say no, but all you need is one yes. The best tactic is to identify places where you might like to intern, and solicit for a position by providing a resume and cover letter. At ThinkTank, we walk our students through this process and help them perfect their application materials so that they have the best chance of standing out in a sea of requests.

(2) Jobs
Instead of breaking the bank to finance a summer program, how about getting paid instead? Paid work, almost any kind of paid work within reason, helps teenagers develop personally and looks great on a college application. Unlike volunteering, summer programs, or clubs, jobs present a sense of consequence for one’s actions. Making an error at a job can mean a deduction in pay or even getting fired. For this reason, paid work can be great for instilling in students practical life values like responsibility, accountability, teamwork, and pride in one’s work. Some types of paid work are more relevant to a student’s goals than others, so consider your options thoughtfully and consult an adult or counselor for advice.

(3) Community College Courses
Did you know that tuition is free for high school students at most community colleges in the area? The number of credits you’re allowed to take is limited, and you still have to pay for your class materials like your book, but it’s a pretty great deal. As discussed in last month’s magazine, community college courses can be a great way to explore your interests while also achieving some academic goals. Most community college courses count as weighted classes (like an AP class), so if you take one and get a good grade, your GPA will get a boost. Plus these courses are a great way to add rigor to your high school course load. Be careful though—not all community college courses are recognized by the UCs or other colleges as academic classes for credit (I’m looking at you, Intro to Flower Arranging!)

(4) Low-Income Programs
Not all summer programs cost thousands of dollars. In fact, there are a handful of free or low-cost programs out there that are specifically geared towards students coming from low-income families. Typically to qualify for these programs, an applicant needs to show low-income status through eligibility for Free and Reduced-Post Lunch at school (FRPL), enrollment in government programs aiding students from low-income families, proof of public assistance, living in federally subsidized housing, or falling within a pre-set income bracket dependent on family size. In addition, these programs often target underrepresented demographics within the relevant field. If you feel that you may be eligible, look into these programs, as they frequently offer opportunities that may have otherwise been out of your reach.

(5) Scholarships and Financial Aid
Last but not least, if you fall in love with a summer program but can’t afford to pay, check for a scholarship or financial aid option. Many programs, including COSMOS, offer financial aid for students who can demonstrate the necessary family income situation. Scholarships are another option usually available to a small number of exceptional students that would contribute significantly to the program. Keep in mind that applying for financial aid often requires a separate form, and scholarships set a higher bar for qualifications and often entail additional materials like essays.

In addition to these options, there are always volunteering opportunities out there as well as time to prepare for your classes in the Fall. If you can’t afford to pay for a summer program or are waiting to participate in your last summer before college applications, don’t worry. You should not be placed at a disadvantage as compared to other students; remember that colleges review your achievements within the context of your opportunities—that includes your household income and personal obligations. So be proactive and keep your eyes open—there are plenty of affordable ways to explore your interests and pursue your goals if you only look.

By Robin Lau , ThinkTank Learning Senior Academic Counselor and Admissions Consultant