Free Summer Alternatives to Pricey Pre-College Programs

As the school year comes toward a close, hundreds of thousands of high school teens will enroll in pre-college programs, including some very expensive programs that cost $1,500 or more per week.

But pricey pre-college programs aren’t the only options for teenagers who want to spend their summers in a productive way.

Teens can also do the following things completely free:

  • Volunteer Their Services
  • Do an Internship
  • Get a Job
  • Engage in Distance Learning
  • Conduct Independent Study


Doing volunteer work, over the summer or even during the course of the school year, is a great way to make an impact in one’s local community, help others in need, and even learn valuable skills.

Equally important, volunteering is a no-cost way to stay productive and engaged, while supporting a worthy organization or effort.

Some kids may thrive when they’re performing various hands-on activities tied directly to a social cause. Maybe they’re the type of youth who go all out cooking for and feeding the homeless, taking clothes and donated toys to orphaned kids, or visiting elderly residents at a senior citizens center.

Other college-bound youth may be content to perform less visible, but still tremendously important acts of community service.

For instance, computer savvy types can help non-profit organizations of every kind grow by managing a computer database that tracks a non-profit’s donors. Or teens might could use their computer skills to do a ton of other important activities, like:

  • build a charity’s website or blog
  • help a non-profit launch an online crowd-funding campaign
  • create a spreadsheet to itemize an organization’s expenses; or
  • perform back-engine work lets the group keeps better tabs on clients served

The possibilities are endless. So how do you know which non-profit to pick or where to start?

Just select any number of groups by checking out websites like AllForGood.org or VolunteerMatch.org, both of which pair good causes with people willing to help those efforts. The latter site even has thousands of virtual volunteer opportunities, which you can do from home or anywhere, just by logging onto your computer!

Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” It’s an important message for adults, teens and even children to remember!

Doing an Internship

Speaking of serving, what’s to stop a teen from getting a summer internship as a totally new challenge? It could be an internship related to a career he or she is interested in pursuing or connected to a major or minor the student is thinking of declaring in college.

Or it could be an internship that forces the student to undertake new projects, assignments, experiences or other activities that are completely “not like them.”

Whatever the case, interning can give students a bird’s eye view into any number of careers or industries, not to mention help them land valuable contacts that might hire them later.

They’ll also get to see how an organization operates from the ground up, get exposed to key aspects of a specific occupation, and understand the work culture of a company, government agency or non-profit.

Internships also offer the possibility for students to get paid, though most high-school age interns don’t earn money. Still, by interning over the summer, that teen and his or her family won’t be spending money on pricey pre-college programs.

Getting a Job

Working for a few weeks or a few months is another worthwhile – and under-rated – way to pass the summer. Having a job is also a summer activity that can put dollars into a teen’s your, as opposed to pre-college programs, which can take dollars out of parents’ bank account.

Some students may hold down part-time jobs during the academic year, so the thought of working is nothing new to them.

But for those who haven’t yet began working for pay, know that virtually any type of job you obtain will give them valuable experience.

Sure, some jobs are higher paying than others, and some positions may have a higher perceived “prestige” value among their classmates. But don’t think for a moment that colleges will look askance at you a college applicant because he or she spent a summer flipping burgers, selling clothes in a retail store, or working as a lifeguard. (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that teens do that for all four summers of their high school career). But believe me when I say that admission officers will recognize that you’re not a goof-off if you can hold down a job for several months or even several years.

Being continuously employed means you likely took the initiative to go find work, got up every morning (or even each afternoon) to get to work on time, interacted successfully with co-workers and customers, and learned about the duties and responsibilities of your particular position. That’s pretty impressive for a teenager.

Plus, given economic realities and the cost of college today, admission officials do understand that many students really need to work.

There’s one other bonus to getting a 9-to-5.

Working can promote your overall maturity, thus being a boon to college preparedness. Colleges want to enroll mature, responsible young adults who are ready for the next phase of life. What better way to demonstrate maturity than being a responsible, hard-working employee?

Engaging in Distance Learning and Conducting Independent Study

Distance learning and independent study are two activities that can be readily accomplished during the summer months (or year-round) as pre-college activities.

These two options, though, are best utilized by high-achieving students, focused teens or curious learners who don’t necessarily need a lot of hand-holding and guidance from instructors or parents.

In fact, students who have the richest distance learning experiences and independent study projects are typically those with a craving to explore new topics, or delve deeper into subjects about which they’re already passionate.

Distance learning programs are plentiful and can be found online for nearly any subject under the sun. And don’t think that online programs are too pricey, too boring or lacking in academic rigor. Rest assured that you can find cost-free, exciting distance learning options at a range of colleges – even among Ivy League schools and other top-tier institutions.

Free Online College Courses At Penn, MIT and Harvard

Let’s say you want to learn about Marketing. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has a free online learning program known as

Knowledge@Wharton High School, or KWHS.

You can spend an entire summer online at KWHS, learning The Foundations of Marketing, and gaining knowledge about everything from branding and consumer behavior to strategy and the 5 P’s of Marketing (Product, Price, Placement, Packaging, and Promotion).

But if tackling Marketing alone isn’t enough to keep you busy, there’s a lot more where that came from.

According to the website, Penn’s KWHS worked with high school students, educators, Wharton students and business professionals to develop over 400 business lesson plans that cover 10 subjects: Accounting, Career Development, Communication, Computation, Economics, Entrepreneurship, International Business, Management, Marketing and Personal Finance.

If marketing isn’t your thing because you’re more of a math and science person, think about applying to MOSTEC, which is the MIT Online Science, Technology and Engineering Community.

Even Harvard offers distance education classes, via the Harvard Extension School. In total, there are more than 200 Harvard online classes, letting students take a Harvard course from anywhere across the globe.

Courses can be found online on video, and played back on demand. These feature Harvard faculty giving past lectures.

Independent study options can be done in a variety of ways: by working on a completely solo basis, via a distance-learning program, and even by working with professional mentors, high school teachers or professors at local colleges and universities.

Depending on their academic work and individual school policy, a teen may or may not get high school or college credit for independent study undertaken as a high school student.

But the prospect of being able to learn something new, do research, or further explore a topic that has piqued their curiosity, could be a priceless, productive and free way to spend the summer.

Scroll to Top

Stay Informed with Our Exclusive Newsletter!

Subscribe to our newsletter and never miss out on the latest updates, exclusive offers, and insightful articles.

We respect your privacy!