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High School Students: Should You Do Research?

Many public and private high schools offer students the opportunity to do research, often called independent study, usually starting in sophomore year. While we often think of research in terms of STEM, social sciences and humanities topics are equally compelling, especially if they draw on current political and economic realities. Research topics for curious, thoughtful students are truly endless.

I have posted about private companies like Pioneer Academics and Polygence, which charge a hefty fee but offer the opportunity to earn college credits (that are accepted at highly-selective colleges) and the support of highly-educated professors/mentors. Best of all, these programs allow students to join a community of global scholars, creating potential for great ideas to come.

But if your high school doesn’t offer a formal research program, you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to do research: what you need is curiosity and the motivation to have a conversation with a teacher with whom you have a connection. Share your ideas with them, or ask what they are researching and ask if they’d like your help. Or, begin a research project on your own and bring it to that teacher you trust.

Can doing research set you apart from other applicants? I believe it can. Many students have the high rigor that colleges prioritize as well as high GPA’s, but their applications (especially essays and extracurricular activities) don’t show the intellectually curious applicants highly selective colleges seek. They want college students who are eager to broaden their knowledge and perspective by asking questions and seeking answers.

Is doing research a guarantee for admission to the top research institutions? No, because most applicants to schools like MIT and CalTech have done an abundance of it, often in expensive programs or because of family and business connections. Last week, I posted a story about a deferred>waitlisted>denied MIT applicant:

•Valedictorian, private high school in suburban Colorado. •.Perfect testing. 18 AP courses, all scores of 5, except AP Spanish 4 • Took AP Calculus BC as a freshman (score of 5) • Chemistry teacher wrote glowing rec: “Best student in 25 years.” History/psych teacher wrote a good, but more of lukewarm recommendation. • Conducted research in Finland over the summer • Received additional evaluation from the Finland professor: fine letter, but no new revelations • Applicant had “discussions” with three MIT professors; MIT doesn’t know what that means & admissions didn’t hear from professors. • Loves playing soccer, referees. Lots of community involvement. • Developed a Science Olympiad program in city schools as VP of the NHS • Would like to major in chemistry, electrical engineering or energy technology • Conducted energy research at a local university • Co-founded an app development company; received some venture funding. • Academic all-state in tennis in Colorado. • ISEF – made it to the finalist level. Received a grand award in Chemical Energy (21 categories—he got the top award in his category) • The MIT alumni interviewer raved about him. • He submitted a “maker portfolio” (projects he worked on). MIT faculty said it was fine, but not exceptional. Typically, faculty/alumni can review the portfolio.

However, if your college list doesn’t include single-digit acceptance rate institutions like MIT, you may stand out very well in the admissions office. Consider what you’re curious about, and take the next step.

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