High school students have the opportunity to explore a variety of STEM fields through independent research. Whether or not you plan to pursue a STEM-related career, participation in research can benefit your intellectual growth, as well as your success in college admissions. Research offers an exciting opportunity to be creative in exploring scientific problems in new ways, strengthens your problem-solving abilities, and exposes you to potential career options. Focused research is also excellent preparation for most college courses, which require independent analysis of primary source material. In turn, admissions officers recognize the enormous commitment of time and energy required by sustained research, and highly value high school research.

 In the following, we’ll provide you with some context of why our country is giving increased attention to STEM, and how you can take advantage of opportunities to pursue STEM research in high school.


But let’s back up a bit. For those not yet familiar with it, the acronym STEM stands for the combined academic fields of:

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This interdisciplinary grouping of academia has been receiving more and more attention in high school, college, and in the workplace Broad social and economic trends are driving an increased interest in STEM in the United States. There is a critical mass of scientists and innovators working to address complex challenges around the world, and Bill Gates serves as a powerful and visible role model. Computer coding has shifted from a geeky to sexy field, aided by the financial success of companies that rely on coding, such as Facebook, eBay and Amazon, as well as individuals who find both success and creative freedom in developing iPhone apps. Coding has advanced rapidly and high schools are offering more programing classes—Harvard’s CS50, Introduction to Computer Science, is the University’s most popular course.

In addition, academic fields have increasingly overlapped, as can be seen in emerging college majors such as neuroscience and biomedical engineering. In fact, jobs in STEM fields are projected to increase far more than other occupations in the near future.

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US Department of Education

In March 2015, President Obama initiated the Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) of 13 national agencies to implement a 5-year Strategic Plan for STEM Education from Kindergarten through graduate school. Obama described science as:

“… more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world…”


Many high schools across the United States offer 3-year research programs for students in 10th through 12th grades in the areas of science, math, and social science. The structure of these programs varies. In some cases, such as at Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY there are separate classes for the different disciplines of science, social science, and math research; and in other schools, all the research students are grouped together. In addition, some high schools allow students to self-select whether they wish to participate; others have a rigorous selection process in which students must complete prerequisite courses with high grades, submit teacher recommendations, take special tests, and interview with the teachers leading the programs.

Typically, the complexity of these research programs increases over the three years of participation. Usually, students are required to conduct high-level research during the summer before senior year, write a 20-page scientific paper, and submit the research to national competitions such as Regeneron Science Talent Search (formerly sponsored by Intel), Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, and ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair).


There is a variety of research that students can conduct. Here is a sampling of projects that earned 40 young scientists the designation of Regeneron Finalist in 2017, as well as the academic area with which each engaged:

  • Astronomy. “High Mass Planet Spiral Shocks as a Source of Infrared Emission from Protoplanetary Disks”
  • Biology. “Identification of Diagnostic Biomarkers and Therapeutic Cancer Targets Across Adenocarcinomas Using Genome-wide DNA Methylation Analyses”
  • Computer Science. “Machine Learning Tool for Detection of Small Cell Lung Cancer Stage Using Novel Nuclear Factor I/B Expression: Significantly Increase Patient Survival in Less than One Minute”
  • Electronics. “Development of a High-Performance Biodegradable Battery for Transient Electronics”
  • Mathematics. “Signatures of Stable Multiplicity Spaces in Restrictions of Representations of Symmetric Groups”
  • Oceanography. “Direct Determination of Ocean Temperature Profiles from Seismic Oceanography”
  • Social Science. “The Effect of Gender Stereotype and Stereotype Inconsistency on False Memory of Occupation Descriptions”

Students can conduct research in a variety of environments. Science research is often conducted in labs or the natural environment. Math research, on the other hand, may be conducted anywhere a student has access to a computer. And social science research can involve providing classmates or other individuals with original surveys that are then statistically analyzed.

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For local and national science competitions, students submit the results of their research through a combination of scientific papers and tri-fold presentation boards.

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For social science projects, students often conduct primary source research and enter national contests. A very popular competition for students participating in social science research is the annual National History Day Contest, in which over half a million students around the world submit an individual or group project on an historical theme that is changed each year. This year’s theme is Taking a Stand in History. The most recent themes have been Exploration, Encounter & Exchange in History (2016), Leadership & Legacy in History (2015), and Rights & Responsibilities in History (2014). Students present their work as papers, tri-fold boards, or dramatic re-enactments – see below. Other established social science contests include the International Social Science Conference for Youth, Concord Review, and Ayn Rand Institute competition.


Personal Benefits

Conducting research in high school offers students significant personal and educational benefits.

  • Personal growth. Research is a complicated process, requiring follow-through, perseverance, creativity, and problem-solving. Typically, students encounter many challenges, ranging from difficulties with equipment to disproven hypotheses proven to inconclusive data. Students need to hone their patience, develop a positive attitude, and employ creative problem-solving skills in order to conclude their experiments in a successful manner.
  • Intellectual development. An important component of conducting original research is performing a thorough analysis of background literature on your research topic. Students must read many detailed scientific journal papers to understand both previous accomplishments within the field and the questions of importance yet to be researched. Throughout the process, students are introduced to more complex modes of thinking and analysis, and must stretch their intellectual faculties. In fact, the level of inquiry required by high school research is on the level of college or even graduate work.Screen Shot 2017-02-04 at 1.50.23 PM
  • Mentorship. All high school research requires that students be supervised. This presents an excellent learning opportunity in which students are exposed to experienced mentors who may be scientists, professors, or physicians. Students can observe how professionals act in real-world situations.
  • Clarifying career options. The variety of research settings–hospitals, labs, professors’ offices, nature–provide students with the opportunity to see themselves in these environments, and decide if they are a good fit for a future career. Ruling out potential careers can be just as useful as confirming a particular path.

Impact on College Admissions

In turn, college admissions officers recognize the value of high school research, and feel that the very act of completing such extensive projects speaks to a student’s passion, perseverance, intellectual capacities, and ability to handle challenges. If a student’s research efforts also result in awards, that can further enhance his or her candidacy for
college admission. For the most selective colleges in the US, achieving national-level honors and awards in a variety of competitions—such as research, language, robotics, music, and athletics—serves as a strong competitive advantage.

Additionally, there are many ways that you can integrate your research experience in your college applications. A variety of components of the application process will allow you to highlight your research.

  1. Transcript. High school research is typically a class that appears on your transcript.
  1. Activity List. Research is both an academic class and an activity, because most of your research is conducted outside of school. Include a description of your research on your Activity List, or resume; and mention any awards you have received.Screen Shot 2017-02-04 at 1.46.59 PM
  1. Recommendations. You can ask your research teacher at school, or your research mentor from the lab, to write a recommendation, if you feel they have an in-depth knowledge of your intellectual qualities. Also speak with your in-school college counselor about your research experiences so that he or she mentions them in the guidance counselor letter.
  1. Essays. You will have many opportunities to discuss your research in college essays. If your research was an extremely impactful experience, you may choose to devote your Personal Statement to a discussion of your research and its influence on you. Alternatively, there are a variety of supplemental essays that would allow you to discuss your research, such as essays on your favorite activity, how you spent your summer, or why a particular college is a good fit for you.


If you have questions about how you can participate in research during high school, feel free to contact us at www.collegiategateway.com. As always, we’re happy to help!