Get an Edge in College Admissions Through Doing a Research Project
By Staci Hetzel
Former Head of Academics of Polygence
By Jin Chow
Co-founder of Polygence, Forbes 30 Under 30 for Education
6 minute read
Research projects can be a powerful tool to stand out to colleges during the admissions process, especially in the world of test-optional applications and applying to elite institutions. How can students leverage their research experience to highlight their passions and experience to admissions committees?
College applicants often have eerily similar and predictable profiles - they are part of an athletic or debate team, they play an instrument, they perform in musicals, they volunteer at the local hospital, they hold a position in student government etc. This is to no fault of their own: students have been presented with the same menu of classes and extracurriculars, making it ever more difficult to stand out.
A dedicated research or passion project, on the other hand, is truly yours in that it’s one-of-a-kind and customized to your passions and interests! You get to choose what it is you want to learn and create. So your research project gives colleges a sense of what you care about and what you are capable of pursuing outside the confines of a high school academic curriculum. They are becoming an increasingly important way for students to stand out in a world of test-blind and test-optional admissions.
Over 95% of Polygence students gain admission to R1 research opportunities. Read on to see how and where they've successfully highlighted their research projects for college applications:
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Through the essay, every student has the opportunity to write about what makes them different from the next applicant. Your research project is likely one of the most distinct accomplishments you’ve executed relative to the next applicant. So the essay is a great opportunity to highlight your work!
And you have so many options to write about! For example, your mentor, your topic, your project, a conversation from a specific session, or even a specific question your project has you mulling over are a few of many subjects you can use for your essay. Each of these are unique to you, and can illustrate what makes you you.
The college interview (often with alumni) is an opportunity for admissions officers to see how articulate you are in conversation. Common interview questions ask you to talk about your life experiences, your interest in the particular school, your curiosities, and your passions. After completing your research project, you'll have gained a deep knowledge on a topic about which you're particularly passionate.
In the case of a Polygence project, you will have logged at least ten hours discussing a topic, articulating your thoughts, and formulating questions with an expert in that very subject! It is hands on learning that can set you apart from other applicants.
During your interview, you will pleasantly surprise your interviewer if you politely say: “I’d really like to tell you something I’m working on that I’m excited about.” Your interviewer will have interviewed a handful if not dozens of students all within the same month. This change of pace will be a breath of fresh air from the routine questions and answers they keep hearing.
Tell your interviewer about how you became interested in the topic you researched. Even better, teach your interviewer what you learned — whether it’s an academic insight or an introspective comment on your personal growth. Your interviewer will be thrilled to interview someone who engages them in a conversation different from all the rest!
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Here, the key is to convey your project in succinct and precise language, so we’ve presented an example below.
Independent Project 2017-2018
Produced a [insert project] on [topic] in order to [reason]
Earned [insert accolades] -or- Downloaded or Viewed [# of times] -or- Shared with over [# of people] at [location or website]
Independent Project 2017-2018
Produced a mural depicting the science behind nutrition in order to present the health benefits of eating well to my local community after my dad was diagnosed with Diabetes
My local grocery store displayed my piece for six months; I marketed the debut of my mural and gave a talk to ~75 local citizens explaining how the art depicts the science and health benefits; I am now in conversation with grocery stores in neighboring areas
You want it to be clear that you executed this project on your own choosing. You also want it to be clear that you care about the topic, so the reason given in the first bullet point is important! You want to explain there was serious effort that went into it, that you learned valuable skills, and explain how you made your project relevant to a broader community. This shows the admissions committee that you don’t stick to the rule book, the menu of classes, or the limitations of your school’s extracurriculars. You go above and beyond; you dreamt up an idea and made it happen.
Similar to writing a personal letter to admissions, you may choose to send in a copy, report, file, website, or other medium to share what you created. Humans are visual learners, and those on your admissions committee are no exception!
Each admissions officer reads through hundreds of applications every cycle, and images are key to standing out. If you wrote a computer program that your admissions officer can interact with, send them an email with an easy link to your program. If you produced a creative art piece, take a photo of the final product and send it to your officer with a note about its significance. If you wrote a research paper, share the pdf and include an abstract or preface that is accessible to a general audience (if you need tips, see our guide on how to write a research paper. There are numerous ways to showcase your research. The key is to make your project immediately accessible to the admissions committee.
You are always invited to write a letter to the admissions office to supplement your application. We recommend these letters be no more than one page single spaced. In the letter, you can tell your admissions officer: One thing that I wish I highlighted more in my application is the project I’ve been working on in my spare time.
Introduce the admissions committee to what drew you to your topic of interest, what you’ve been working on, and why this matters to them. This last part is important. Let’s say you’re applying to Princeton University and have completed a research project in physics. In crafting your letter to the admissions office, be sure to mention a professor at Princeton whose work you’ve been following and hope to work with on campus -or- a club on campus that you cannot wait to join and what ideas you have for that community -or- a project you hope to execute while in college and how it will benefit a specific population there.
In such a personal letter, you want to bring your focus back to the relationship between your project and the particular school. Why is that school a perfect match for you and what you will offer their community if accepted?
If you have done your research project with the guidance of a mentor, they may be able and willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. They should have a clear idea of what you're passionate about, as well as your drive and dedication to that subject. We've put together a complete guide for how to ask for letters of recommendation.
Feel free to take advantage of multiple strategies to highlight your research project during the admissions process. Your Project is unique; it is as plain and simple as that. Your project will be distinct, will display your initiative, and will convey your curiosity. For this reason, you want your project to stand out. Given that admissions officers are reading hundreds of applications on a short deadline, you want to make your application easy to evaluate. Highlighting your project in multiple ways (with tact and grace) will only help your application. You can even think of creative ways to showcase your research project aside from a conventional paper.
To that end, Polygence does offer a variety of showcasing support options for students. We offer students the opportunity to present their findings at the bi-annual Symposium of Rising Scholars, publish pre-print articles in the Research Archive of Rising Scholars, or even conduct dedicated sessions with Showcasing specialists who can help students prepare their work to be submitted to a journal, science fair, or to be created into a final work! All of which are great opportunities that you could leverage as ways to incorporate your research project on your college applications.
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