No high school research activity is ever going to hurt a student’s college admission chances. The only questions are how much will it help and is it worth the time and effort? Four years of high school certainly seems like a long enough time to develop a strong list of meaningful activities. However, four years is not as long as it seems. High school years are full of responsibilities. Students must maintain high GPAs and that alone takes a significant percentage of their non-school time. They must attend classes, read books, write papers, study for tests, and all the other things that will ultimately determine their grades. They must also find time to study for standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, as well as the APs that are offered in May. In most cases, students have significant extracurricular activities such as clubs, sports, school newspaper, community service, performance, music lessons, debate, science fairs, math competitions, etc. Further, students really only have three years to accumulate these activities, since college applications are due in the first half of senior year.
When you add up all these time commitments and subtract them from all the hours available throughout the week, students are left with a certain amount of time during which they may undertake other activities that will strengthen their college applications while nurturing their intellect and curiosity. The most valuable times a student has for meaningful activities are the summers following 9th grade, 10th grade, and 11th grade. In an effort to capture revenue from highly aspirational families during these incredibly valuable (though limited) periods of time, admission-related service companies bombard students and parents with information about a plethora of activities, each of which promises to boost a student’s chance of admission at elite colleges across America. Recently, more and more companies that offer research-related opportunities have sprouted up, and while they may be perfectly fine, the question of how to best use a student’s spare time and a family’s finite resources still remains. Certainly, one option is to undertake a research project. In some cases, such a project may, in fact, represent the best use of a student’s time and a family’s resources. However, in order to gauge how much impact research will have on a student’s application, one must understand how colleges will evaluate that research.
With the caveat that each college is slightly different in how it evaluates its applicants, there are some universal factors that colleges weigh when they evaluate research activities. They are: opportunity cost, scope, relevance, and outcome. So, in order to measure the relative impact of a research related opportunity compared to any other opportunity, families must learn to think like colleges when it comes to research. Here is a brief breakdown of the four characteristics of research considered by colleges.
Simply stated, colleges understand that students have limited time during which to undertake extracurricular activities. They tend to favor students who make the best possible use of their opportunities. From a college’s perspective, opportunity cost measures time rather than money. A research-related activity will be viewed favorably by colleges if it is considered to be a worthwhile use of a student’s time. That means that the investment in time yields strong academic returns. A research-related activity that provides no benefit to the student will be viewed as a relative waste of time, at best, by most colleges. At worst, it will be considered an attempt to pad an application with a worthless, though allegedly impressive, activity.
Colleges look favorably upon research-related activities that have a reasonable scope and in which students can explore a particular topic with a reasonable degree of depth. Generally, they will look more favorably upon microanalysis within a particular field rather than a macro analysis that paints a broad picture of that field. It would be better to research the history of the rivet that holds bridges together than to study the economic impact of bridges across North America. Picking a specific topic for deep analysis also tends to be far more rewarding and far less frustrating than trying to cover an impossibly large topic.
Students should pick a research topic that is closely related to a subject they expect to study in college. Research for the sake of research will have far less impact than research that contributes to a student’s stated academic passion which they will pursue at college. A STEM applicant should conduct research in a STEM field, a humanities student should conduct research in a humanities field, and a business student should conduct research in a business-related field.
While each of these facets of research should be considered, probably the most important characteristic of all is “outcome.” Colleges are very interested in the product of the research. The outcome could be a live presentation, a video presentation, a published paper, an article, a patent, an invention, the formation of a business plan, a marketing strategy, or virtually anything else related to information that is ascertained from the research. As stated previously, research for the sake of research is considered by colleges to be far less impactful than research that has a specific purpose or outcome.
Finally, research will have far more of an impact on a student’s application if that student has more than one research-related activity. Students who are hopeful of earning admission to elite colleges may consider having as many as three significant, well-chosen research projects with specific and demonstrable outcomes. Combined with the other most important factors in a student’s application: GPA, test scores, academic rigor, activities, and recommendations, high scores for research can provide students with significantly higher applicant scores which ultimately can tip the scales in their favor.