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 both your intellectual growth and your success in college admissions. Research offers an opportunity to explore scientific problems in new ways, strengthen your problem-solving abilities, and test out 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 this post, we’ll walk through the ins and outs of high school research programs and summer research opportunities, as well as the benefits of research for the college admissions process.

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High School Research Programs

Typically, students’ involvement in original research starts in their own high schools, where they enroll in programs that last anywhere from one to all four years. Some high schools have one overall program, combining students in science, math, engineering, and social science research, while others have separate programs; some high schools select only a percentage of student applicants, while others allow students to self-select in. Some programs have a list of mentors with whom the students can work, while in others, students find their own research mentors, which can include attending university programs during the summer.

Regardless of the projects students pursue, their research activities culminate in a concrete presentation of results and conclusions, which can range from oral presentations at science fairs to a 20-page scientific paper written according to a scientific protocol and submitted to national competitions like the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search, which students can compete in during their senior year. What unites research programs is their commitment to training students in the fundamentals of research, writing, presentation, and participation in an academic community.

Examples of High School Research Programs

At Ossining High School in New York, for example, students apply to the Science Research Program in their freshman year in order to participate sophomore through senior years. Angelo Piccirillo, who founded the program in 1998, and Valerie Holmes, who has been co-teaching it since 2004, work hard to foster collaboration between students: each class has a mix of sophomores, juniors, and seniors, which “allows the students in the program to form friendships and bonds across grade levels,” Holmes says. As students pinpoint the nature of the research they want to do, seek mentors they’ve identified as experts through literature, work on independent projects, and present their findings, they turn to not only their teachers but also their classmates for advice and modeling.

Unlike in a science lab, out in the field, following instructions doesn’t yield a “correct” answer, and unexpected hurdles often present themselves. “Science requires resilience,” Holmes says. “Part of my effort in the classroom is to normalize the struggles that come with science and to make them realize that that’s just part of the natural process.”

Stephanie Greenwald, who directs the Dr. Robert Pavlica Authentic Science Research Program at Byram Hills High School, also in New York, does everything she can to help students build the skills they need to meet the challenges of doing and presenting research, including fostering a strong sense of community between students. “I worked at summer camps for over 25 years,” she says. “There’s a lot of silly rituals that take place in my class that feel like camp.” Her program, like Piccirillo and Holmes’, has classes of mixed grades, “and our seniors set the tone,” she says. They give daily announcements, role play phone calls with mentors, and even do some of the teaching. “The teachers are more coaches, and the students are learning from each other,” Greenwald says.

Succeeding in the program, Greenwald says, requires passion for the topic being studied (though this doesn’t mean feeling passionate about it every day); the capacity to grasp knowledge, which takes time and patience to develop; and organizational and time management skills, which the program teaches them. “We really feel strongly that students can study anything they want,” Greenwald says. Students have recently studied infant laughter, sustainable fashion, and relationships that people have with television characters: “If you can measure it,” Greenwald says, “you can study it.”

Summer Research Programs

As part of high school research programs, students are often expected to conduct research over the summer before senior year. They can do so with mentors they’ve sought out individually or in organized pre-college summer research programs; both these types of experiences provide a great opportunity for high school students to grow intellectually while also increasing success in college admissions.

High school students can conduct research in any academic area they choose. Here are a few examples of subject areas and programs that specialize in them:

  • STEM. At Boston University’s RISE Program (Research in Science & Engineering), rising high school seniors spend six weeks conducting lab research in their choice of STEM areas. At the conclusion of the program, participants present their results at the Poster Symposium by preparing an abstract, poster, and presentation.
  • Medicine. The Summer Visiting Scholar Program at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research is open to all high school, college, and graduate students interested in disease-oriented research. This program allows participants to reach out directly to their own mentors by searching the Feinstein faculty list, which is organized by areas of research focus. Some of the medically-related research areas include Alzheimer’s disease, brain injury, cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. At the end of this eight-week internship, participants an academic poster summarizing their research to faculty and other students.
  • Social Sciences. The six-week-long Tufts Summer Research Experience is held in a variety of the world-class research labs on campus, which vary from year to year. Students are fully integrated into the research team and present, at the end of the summer, at a Poster Session in front of peers, researchers, and scientists from across Tufts University.
  • Math. The Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists, or PROMYS, is a six-week summer program for rising sophomores and beyond. Held at Boston University, the program involves a daily Number Theory lecture; advanced seminars; guest lectures; and original research conducted under the mentorship of experienced mathematicians. Students write up and present their research at the end of the summer.

Example of a Summer Research Program

Programs typically allow students to spend the summer conducting research while living on a college campus for the very first time. At the Michigan State University High School Honors Science/Engineering/Mathematics Program, or HSHSP, for example, students who have made it through a rigorous selection process spend the summer living at Michigan State University while conducting original research in science, engineering, or mathematics under the guidance of university mentors. Gail Richmond, director of the program, describes it as “a microcosm of college.”

Over seven weeks, students keep a weekly journal that Richmond reviews, write research proposals and a paper summarizing their work, and, in the last week of the program, give a conference-style talk. But beyond facilitating academic work and adding an impressive line to college applicants’ resumes, HSHSP gives soon-to-be college students a chance to practice living away from home, and leaves plenty of room for bonding; often, the most fruitful conversations happen after 5 p.m. or on the weekends. “There are other aspects of the program that are just as important as the research experience,” Richmond says.

Skills that Original Research Builds

Participating in research programs helps students build a variety of skills that benefit them in college and beyond:

  • Grit. One of the biggest takeaways for the participants in research programs is often the necessity and capacity for persisting through challenges. Nicole Camilliere, who recently graduated from Ossining High School, spent her time in the Science Research Program studying how salt pollution affects water and wildlife. Camilliere faced a major challenge when, beyond her control, all of her data was wiped out. Thanks to the training she’d received in the program, she’d been alerted to the fact that challenges would arrive and was not discouraged: “When you stumble across a problem, you’re going to have to find a way to keep going.”
  • Research methodology. The basic research skills that students learn in high school can be the foundation for a lifelong involvement in the sciences. Nicole Meyers, who was a member of the Science Research Program at Schreiber High School, from which she graduated in 2010, did bench research at Columbia University that earned her a semifinalist award from the Intel Science Talent Search. Through this project and her participation in the program throughout high school, Meyers learned basic research methodology, which served her both in college at Cornell University and in medical school at NYU. Meyers is now a pediatric resident at New York Presbyterian / Columbia Medical Center, so: she’s come full circle. Similarly, as a high schooler in Melbourne, Florida, David Troner conducted research on the aerodynamic benefits of wing tip devices on airplanes, an extension of his personal passion for aviation and flying planes. Now, he’s a conceptual design engineer in Hyundai’s division of Urban Air Mobility, designing air taxis, and feels that his early research in high school “set the foundation for exploring different configurations and trying novel ideas.”
  • Presentation and communication skills. Because research programs culminate in a presentation of the final project’s results and conclusions, they demand that students practice synthesizing their findings, speaking in front of a crowd, and translating complicated research into easily understandable language. Meyers, for example, built presentation skills in her research program that she’s relied on since, especially in the final year of the research program, during which she presented her work to both classmates and parents. “I was figuring out how to present it so that the layman could connect with this project in some way, and I feel like that’s a skill that has served me so well,” she says.Whether students in research program go on to work in related areas or build professional lives far afield of STEM work—as lawyers, novelists, teachers, and more—they are likely to benefit from this rigorous training in writing and speaking in coherent and compelling ways.
  • Teamwork. Programs have various ways of instilling a sense of camaraderie and teamwork, whether or not they create classes of mixed grades, as Ossining and Byram Hill’s programs do. The program Meyers attended, for example, did not mix grades, but Meyers nonetheless connected deeply with her small research program cohort of 10 people: “There was definitely a lot of camaraderie and a lot of teamwork,” Meyers says. “One of my best friends is still from the science research program.”

Benefits of Research for College Admissions

In addition to the skills mentioned above, participating in high school research programs offers specific benefits as far as college admissions are concerned.

  • Participate in college-level academic study. Research is a complicated process, requiring follow-through, creativity, and problem-solving. Students need to hone their patience and employ creative analytic skills in order to conclude their experiments in a successful manner. Through research, students are introduced to more complex modes of thinking and analysis and must stretch their intellectual faculties. For these reasons, the level of inquiry required by high school research is often on the level of college or even graduate work.
  • Receive mentorship and college recommendations. Via independent research under the auspices of a professional (such as the work Meyers conducted at Columbia University) or participation in a summer research program like HSHSP, students build relationships with mentors who may be scientists, professors, or physicians. In addition to learning how these professionals act in real-world situations, students also have the opportunity to request a written recommendation for their college applications.
  • Clarify career options. Research programs take place in a variety of settings, including hospitals, labs, professors’ offices, and even nature. The experience provides students with the opportunity to spend time in these environments and decide if they might be a good fit for a future career. Ruling out potential careers can be just as useful as confirming a particular path!
  • Enhance your resume and college essays. A research program is an excellent experience to add to your Common App activity list and college resume. Be sure to include a description of the significance of your research and mention any awards you received. You will also have many opportunities to discuss your research in college essays. If the experience was particularly impactful, you may choose to devote your Personal Essay to a discussion of your research and its influence on your academic interests and future career paths. 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.

Participating in a high school research program offers benefits at the personal, collegiate, and career levels. If you’re thinking of pursuing original research in high school, consider whether you gravitate toward science, math, engineering, or social science. For your senior year summer research project, would you prefer to participate in a university program, find a mentor locally, or design your own project? Such questions can help influence the type of research opportunities you pursue.

If you have questions about how you can participate in research during high school, or would like guidance on any other aspect of high school planning and college admissions, contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help!