AMA: Independent Projects, Research & College Admissions

What are independent research projects and why do they matter for college admissions?

It’s becoming more common for high school students to develop independent projects and showcase them in the application process to highly selective universities. These projects – often called “passion projects,” “research projects” or “independent projects” – can range in their field, output, and how they are seen by admission offices. What kind of projects can students do, are they necessary, and how do admission offices view them?

Your questions on independent projects will be answered by Sam Jeong, a former Dartmouth admission officer, Williams Graduate, and current high school counselor at Saigon South International School as well as Stephen Turban, @stephen_turban, the co-founder of the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. Stephen co-founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard University.

Does the AP Capstone look better or does independent research with a college professor look better? How about summer research programs?

I think no matter what route you decide to pursue (AP capstone / Research with university professor), what matters most is how you present and talk about your research experience in the application—most commonly through a supplement essay. You could certainly talk about it in the activities section / additional information section as well.


Does it matter if you do independent research but don’t publish it anywhere?


What are the important steps for me, a high school student, to come up with a feasible research project idea?

Have you ever seen the Vanderbilt PTY Mentorship Immersion Experience, and do you think it is a good opportunity for students?

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What are some common projects computer science students do?

My kid got into a well-regarded and rigorous summer research program and is very excited (both about the topic and about doing research) but the research is group research.

She did work (remotely) on a solo project with a professor last summer as part of a more local program and created a poster and presented for the other participants but the professor was very clear at the start that this was a learning experience and she shouldn’t expect it to result in a science fair project or paper.

She does not have a science research program at her high school and many of the local and regional feeder fairs require the high school to support the student entries with chaperones.

She is thinking about approaching local professors to see if anyone would be willing to work with her in August through the next school year but also knows she will be busy with applications and classes and Robotics, etc.

  1. Will it be a negative that she did research but has no published papers or science fair entries/awards?

  2. How can she best share her research experience absent papers/awards?

Thank you!

what program, out of curiosity?

SSP for Astrophysics

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would you be willing to share her stats? i got waitlisted there lol

I shared on the SSP 2022 thread

I personally don’t think it matters. Yes, perhaps publication in a noteworthy journal is a nod to a student’s intellectual quality, but admissions officers are well-aware that not all students have access to such information / opportunities. What matters much more than being published, in my opinion, is being able to articulate what you learned during the research process and why it matters to your academic / personal journey. But if you have a research paper that you think merits publication, go for it!

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Hi Eric!
That’s a great question. Here’s the process that I follow with high school students when I’m working with them to help identify a research project.

The first step is to read broadly in the field. For example, I’m a business researcher. So, I’d have my students read a few popular press pieces first (e.g., Harvard Business Review) and then start to show them more field specific research papers (e.g., research papers in a management journal). This helps to prime you to the field, see what common research questions are, and then begin to identify what holes might exist in the literature. (Academic speech for “What don’t we know?”)

The next step is to identify the question itself. The big mistake that I see here is that students keep their research questions too broad. The reason why broad research questions don’t work is because it can be hard as a researcher to actually advance the field. So, to do ask a good research question, try to be as specific as possible.

For example, here’s a broad research question from one of the students I worked with: “How did companies marketing strategies respond to Covid-19?” and here is a question that got more specific “How did individually owned restaurants in Austin, Texas change their marketing strategies in March and April 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic?”

Finally, the process of identifying a question isn’t a one-off, it’s much more iterative. That means that you first pick a question, read more about it, try to start some research. At that point, you’ll probably realize that the question isn’t quite what you want to ask or isn’t possible to answer. You might then adjust the question slightly and then repeat the process. You should feel okay doing that!

I love that this question focuses on feasibility. When you think about a research project, try to consider if you have access to A) The equipment/data you need, B) You can complete the project in the time frame you have, and C) You have the technical knowledge to complete it (especially if it’s in a more technical field like engineering.)

Hi Nemesis,
This is a great question. I agree with Sam that most high school students do not need to have their research published. The reality is that admission officers realize that these are high school students and so are more interested in how students talk about their research than if they got a publication or not.

Recently, with the Lumiere ED admissions, we did an internal research project looking at how students used their research in the college admissions process. What we found was that recommendation letters were another high-impact way for students to talk about their research in the admission process. For example, we found that students that were accepted ED were about 30% more likely than students that were rejected to have asked their mentor for a letter of rec. (Of course, it’s hard to say something causally here - maybe students that were better candidates were more willing to ask their mentors.)

From what I’ve heard from admission officers though, a strong letter or evaluation from a mentor can have a big impact. For example, we had one student with Lumiere who had a Princeton admission officer call her mentor to talk about the research they did together. The spoke really highly of the high school researcher and the student got in. So, I think this is a quick example of how that mentor can give a level of legitimacy to the work of a student.

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