How important is engaging in science research in HS?

How important is participating in science research in HS? Is it the participation that is valued, or the awards, or both

If you can manage some national level recognition, it can be very useful. There are many competitions. This is not confined to just the top 5 kids a year. There is room for a few hundred kids in various sub areas to be recognized. Any one of those is helpful. Good guidance in the high school is a necessary first step. In fact doing research through high school and participating in some external (to the high school) venue is preferable to doing research with a prof independently because that research will not have an appropriate venue to be displayed.

This is so individual and geographically specific that there is no right answer.

I do think D21 and a few other students where I work benefitted from having the experience of interning in a research lab, assisting with field work, participating in science fairs with their own research, etc… It is not a stand alone experience or a box to check though. They were genuinely interested in the projects and grew from the experience. The experience is genuine in their “why ABC College” essays when they relate to working in a lab and wanting to continue in college.

It does not need to be nationally recognized or award winning.

They should be there for more that a few days.

I also have seen former students force a few research opportunities that they did not grow from and that did not help them reach their admissions dreams. They were just checking boxes.

Colleges do understand in rural areas this may not be possible and in urban areas there is a lot of competition for a limited number of slots at a college or non-profit.

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DD23 has been in her high school Research program since freshman year and it’s been a fabulous experience. The bond she has formed with her teachers who run the program has been wonderful - truly the definition of experiential learning.

She has worked on behavioral science projects each year so it was not necessary to perform work in a lab as you can collect your data through on line surveys at a minimal cost.

Her junior year project has won some regional awards and she will enter it into a national competition in the Fall of her senior year. She is also aiming to have her project published in a journal.

DD23 has worked hard and has gained a tremendous amount of confidence in her writing and presentation skills. She has a great overall GPA with good rigor but doesn’t love school/learning - but research is the one subject where she is actually shows academic passion.

It’s not easy to find the time for an elective like research on top of a rigorous schedule and ECs but in the case of my DD23, the time and effort has truly been worth it in terms of her personal growth - and of course it’s something interesting to include in college application - more high school students are doing it so not sure it’s unique at a selective school.

I highly recommend it if your child shows interest in the subject matter and the program has good support system at your school.


Having research is great, but for my son, he could have gone either way in terms of STEM/non-STEM. He has always been strong in both areas, and he was quite undecided. He was a State-level athlete and an Eagle Scout. He interest in science developed organically through his Boy Scout merit badges/Eagle Scout project which leaned STEM. After earning his Eagle Scout rank, he worked at an environmental educational camp throughout the school year. His apps expressed this, and now he will start engineering in the fall.

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The value in doing science research is for the student. It’s not about awards or college admissions.

My kid did SciRe. She now does research. She loves to research and the program gave her the necessary foundation to be an excellent researcher. She is headed to grad school for a PhD where she will continue to do more research.

If you are interested in researching a scientific topic, that’s the best reason to do the program. Not for any other reason. Some students do humanities research if the school offers it. The key word is Research, not science.


I agree. I’m a believer in applying to colleges as the person you are not the person you think they want you to be. For that reason if research interests you then by all means look for ways to do it. The biggest plus it will make on your college application is that it will tell them something about you. Don’t do it just because you think it might look good on your application.

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Thank you for your thoughtful reply and those of the others. I wholeheartedly agree with the value of the learning process and the huge bonus afforded by a mentor outside of the HS.
I have been a judge at the local and national competitions for 5 years. I have found that the judging can be very random and thoughtless.
The ranked awards or named awards are given out based on a flawed judging process.
My question is does THIS matter? Are colleges aware of the inaccuracies in judging and how great projecrs may not win first, and others with wildly poor statistics or design can win higher?

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These are HS kids. No adcom thinks that a HS kid is going to cure MS or find a reliable predictive test of Alzheimer’s by entering a competition.

The point of the competitions is the experience, not to ring up brownie points with adcoms…


The colleges are unlikely to know the inaccuracies in judging. But from their point of view they know that the kid is in the ballpark of getting a prize if s/he even makes the cut to be in the pool that made the finals

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My opinion is that it depends on what the goals are for this kid. Both my kids participated in AP Research and the Capstone program through HS. For them, it was a rewarding experience. They are fairly average to slightly above average kids. Therefore, this was not something they did to gain admission but because they thought it was a good opportunity.
For most colleges that are semi-selective, I would argue that it is a nice add but not one that will compensate for bad grades and/or test scores. The script is flipped for HYPMS type schools where every applicant is 4.0/1500++ caliber student. So, meaningful and high impact research can certainly tip the scale in your favor.
Have you seen the documentary Science Fair?
One can do impactful research beyond competitions. There are many opportunities. However, most AOs realize that there are only so many little Einsteins in society.

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A national level science award (ISEF, STS, Google Science Fair, Davidson) can go a long way to showing your aptitude and prowess as a future scientist/engineer. But as others point out, it is not mandatory.

Being a national level winner at some of the competitions will certainly help with college admissions. But you can also learn a lot by doing competitions even without winning a prize.

Prior to about 5 years ago it was very rare for students to publish their work in scientific journals. But nowadays at suburbanite areas, many of the top students have published. They typically get started in science fairs.

Our district breathes “Science Fair” and my favorite, “Inventing Tomorrow”. I wholeheartedly believe that the process of research is the goal. Not sure how to counsel my kiddo who scored “3rd place”in her category with a thoughtful project that she had input into designing, while a classmate was handed old data from a scientist and owing to presenting it well, scored higher in a different category.
I have experience judging at these fairs, I see how other judges ignore large error bars and glaring statistical errors, how some schools prepare the students with a very polished “sell” that is short on good science.
I’m wondering if Adm officers understand that the goal is the good work, and a 2nd place or 3rd place in category win may not mean anything.
That said, I do believe that the truly outstanding projects rise to the top and compete at ISEF. As for the other mere mortals, just can’t differentiate IMHO.

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My kid ended up at MIT without a single day of research, no publications, no competitions, no science fairs. Please don’t fuel the admissions arms race by making your kid think that Adcom’s are going to worry about a third place win in a category. This is just insanity.

I believe that adcom’s understand that in most parts of the country, “doing research” in HS is the province of well connected, affluent families who can set a kid up with a mentor in a lab or do one of the “pay to play” programs. Yes, occasionally you’ll have a kid who takes three buses to get to a campus or a lab, has set up these contacts all by herself, and is only motivated by wanting to learn. But in many other cases, there is a parent who becomes the full time chauffeur, time manager, organizer, arranger-- and of course- the kid who is “doing research” is a kid who doesn’t need to take extra shifts at Pizza Hut to make sure the family can pay the electric bill.

Please don’t foster the illusion that “science research” is any more important than playing soccer, volunteering in a nursing home, collecting stamps, or working a part time job. All of these are valuable in their own way, and adcom’s are NOT expecting kids to have done research in HS.

Counsel your kiddo to do the EC’s she cares about and not worry about judges, winners, awards, etc.


A kid doing SciRe doesn’t have a better shot at Harvard than a kid who doesn’t do it. It’s really not that important.

For the overwhelming majority, doing SciRe is mainly about gaining good research skills. It’s a class that will serve students well when they go to college, so in that, it’s valuable if the kid has interest. AO’s are interested in kids challenging themselves, and SciRe is generally regarded as being rigorous.

It’s not more impressive than HumRe, or APBio, or many other classes. Colleges are, by and large, not impressed with kids doing research as high schoolers, unless it’s the standout who does something really notable. If it’s notable, the kid will win bigger competitions that really do make a difference. And those standout kids would probably be standouts regardless of taking SciRe.

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One of my children won a major national science prize in high school. Because of that, I will have a different perspective from others who have posted on this thread. Going back to your question, the reality is that both are valued in different ways.

If your child has a deep love of research as mine did, that will show up throughout the application. That will likely mean multiple years of research, possibly with different projects, or in-depth in one project. It may also mean papers submitted to arXiv, or depending upon the timing and quality of the paper, possible publication in a peer-reviewed journal. My child wrote or co-wrote four papers that were submitted to arXiv, and three of them received recognition in different ways. One was the basis of the major science prize, another was published in a peer-reviewed journal. But interestingly it was a third, neither recognized for the science prize or the publication, that received the most citations just from the arXiv posting. Don’t underestimate arXiv. Also make full use of the Additional Information section to show the depth of the research.

There is certainly an element of randomness to winning a major science prize. But winning it is effectively equivalent to a golden ticket when it comes to elite college admissions. My child knows dozens of people at the top level in science research for his year, and they all pretty much had their choice of which HYPSM they wanted to attend.


I don’t disagree about the arms race and that doing research in HS suggests a certain level of affluence. BUT research is highly valued among some top colleges.

Penn mentioned in their class of 2026 profile that ‘Nearly one-third of the admitted students engaged in academic research during their time in high school, many earning national and international accolades for research that is already pushing the boundaries of academic discovery’.

I expect Whitney Soule and her staff carefully worded this press release, and that stat is in there because Penn admissions values research. Elite schools writing things like this does indeed fuel the arms race.

Congratulations, Admitted Class of 2026! | Penn Admissions


Correlation does not imply causation- something every HS researcher should be learning.

Those 1/3 of the class HS admitted researchers don’t all end up at Penn, for one thing.

But that aside- those kids also have the “other stuff” that Penn wants. Children of Penn faculty (who obviously have a leg up getting a sponsor). Children of legacies- who are likely wealthier and “more connected” than a random kid from a public HS in Camden NJ. Their parents pay for SAT tutoring, and music lessons, and enriching summer programs.

I would not assume that research got them in. Just that “research” for a 17 year old is a signifier of many other things that are demonstrably helpful in college admissions. You can be need blind and never have to wonder “is this kid full pay” when a parent has picked a kid up from HS for two years, driven them 20 miles to a research facility, handed them dinner in the car ride on the way home so the kid can attack the homework for their umpteen AP’s once they get back.

Some things signal “affluent household” without ever mentioning money.

I agree with your points, and never said that research got these students in, and in fact did mention many students doing research are affluent. My primary point is that Penn values research, which is notable from that press release. College admissions are different now than when your S applied to MIT.


Penn values stamp collecting and Civil War re-enacting also. But those activities don’t contribute to the arms race- and fetishizing research does.

A kid in my neighborhood is doing “research” this summer. He had his orientation last week. The job is data entry- pure and simple. Putting numbers into a spread sheet. If he got that same data entry job by applying through the university’s online job system, he’d be getting paid $17/hour to do it. But it’s called “research” and he got it because his dad has a connection, and it’s unpaid. He wants to quit and get a real job- parents won’t let him because “it looks good for college”.

That’s an arms race, folks. Working as a clerk for the summer to put it on your resume in the hopes that the Adcom’s don’t know the difference between being “part of a research team” (which this kid undeniably is) and actually learning something!!!