As standardized tests are becoming optional for many major colleges and universities, admission teams are looking for new ways to distinguish between strong candidates. Qualitative opportunities like research projects have grown in popularity for students applying to college. These projects showcase passion and help provide proof of depth of a student’s abilities. Many students may be interested in doing research but often face the problem of how to get started. Where do you find research opportunities in high school? What should you look for? Here’s why research experience is so important for students and college admission, plus different ways to get into it.
Why do research in high school?
Research is becoming increasingly common for high school students. It’s a great way to explore areas of interest more deeply and develop academic passions—and not just in STEM fields. As a director of the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, I’ve seen students gain a truly world-class level of knowledge in fields they’re interested in through independent research. Students have investigated the strongest machine learning algorithm to detect cell nuclei, novel ways to detect ocean health in the high seas, and comparisons of 14th-century Japanese and 19th-century Impressionist art. In each project, students leave with a unique, deep understanding of the area they explored.
Research experience also has benefits when students apply to colleges and universities. In a recent survey of students who did research in high school, 99% of them used their experience in some way in the application for early admission. In addition, students who had done research were 26% more likely to be accepted to an Ivy League school for Early Action or Early Decision admission than the average applicant. As researchers, we want to be careful not to draw a causal link between these two. But what is true is that students who get into top schools are more likely to do research.
How to find research opportunities
If research is so valuable, how do you find opportunities to do it? Unlike in college, where research universities often provide opportunities for students to get involved, high schools rarely provide chances for research in the curriculum—AP Research or the IB extended essay being notable exceptions. With this in mind, there are two main ways to get research experience in high school.
Your first option is to find a research program designed for high school students. This could range from highly competitive national programs like MIT’s Research Science Institute to programs that are only available for local populations. There’s also been an increase in online research programs that provide opportunities for students to work with researchers, like this list of 24 research programs that are available this upcoming summer that students could consider.
Cold-emailing professors and networking
Another way to pursue research is to try contacting a college faculty member directly. This can be a great way to find a research mentor and get involved in a project. If you have any connections to faculty members through family or your school, this is probably the most effective first step. This usually means there will already be some level of trust between the faculty member and you as the student, making it more likely for the researcher to take you on. If you don’t have any personal connections, try cold-emailing faculty members. To do this, you need to create an example email that shows why you’re interested in working with the faculty member and what you would add to the project. Here’s an example email to a professor who has done research on open offices:
Subject: Helping your research—Rock Bridge High School junior
Hi Professor Smith,
This is Stephen—a rising junior at Rock Bridge High School. I recently read your research paper on open offices in the Harvard Business Review, was fascinated, and wanted to reach out. Would you have 15 minutes to discuss how I could help your research?
For a bit of background, I’ve spent the past three years working on my skills in Python and data analysis. I know that your research involves a lot of quantitative work, so I wanted to see if I could help out with that—or anything else that needs some work!
Long-term, I’m hoping to become researcher like you. So, I’d love the opportunity to work with a researcher that I admire like yourself!
The key here is to cast a wide net—you should try reaching out to at least 25 faculty members or PhD researchers—and show the value you can add to their work. Note how in this email I talk about how I have skills with Python that I could use to help Professor Smith’s research. I also try to draw a connection between him and myself by talking about my long-term ambitions to be a researcher. The key to email is keeping it short and to the point as well as making sure to follow up. Researchers are busy people, so they might miss your first email. Don’t be afraid to send a follow-up message. They’ll appreciate the persistence that shows!
How to showcase research experience on college applications
So let’s say you’ve done research—now what? How do you show it to potential schools? There are numerous ways to showcase your research in your college applications, from including it on your activities list to writing about it in some of your supplemental essays. In our most recent survey of Early Decision admits, we found that students who were accepted Early Decision and Early Action were 33% more likely to ask their research advisor for a letter of recommendation. The key is to make your research one data point in a broader story about you and your interests. It should connect to what you want to study and the other activities you’ve done. For example, one student who did research with us completed a project related to astrophysics. In her essay, she wrote about working as a stocker at a local grocery store and how some of these same astrophysics concepts related to the movement of customers in the store. The key is to make the research a proof point connected to other proof points of the type of student you are.
Does research need to be published to showcase?
A question I often get is whether you need to publish your research for colleges to take notice. The short answer is no—very few college students, much less high school students, will ever get their research published. There are some selective high school research publications you could consider. If a student gets published, it does give an added level of legitimacy to their research, but it’s certainly not necessary. The key is that the research process itself is rigorous and that you’re able to write about it clearly on your applications.
Research is hard but worthwhile. If you’re excited by a subject and would like to explore it more deeply, then research could be a great opportunity for you. It won’t be easy, and some papers can take years to finish! But if you’re interested in it, you can join the emerging number of students who are doing research in high school!
Looking for research powerhouses to add to your college search? Check out our list of Excellent Research Universities that are members of the American Association of Universities!