Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

Breaking Into the Lab: A High School Student's Guide to Gaining Lab Experience

4 minute read

Picture this: Sarah, a high school junior with a passion for biology, stands in front of a state-of-the-art lab at a local university, her eyes wide with excitement and a bit of nervousness. Just a year ago, she was like many high school students, unsure how to break into the world of scientific research. Today, she's on the brink of joining a groundbreaking project on genetic engineering. How did she transform her lab high school curiosity into a real-world lab experience? This journey, much like Sarah’s, is within your reach.

In the ever-evolving landscape of academic and career preparation, high school students face the challenge of distinguishing themselves in competitive college admissions. It's no longer just about grades and test scores. Real-world experiences, like the one Sarah embarked on, have become crucial. These roles not only demonstrate a student's dedication and ability to succeed in sciences but also provide invaluable insights that can't be replicated in a classroom setting.

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Why Pursue Lab Experience in High School?

Lab internships for high school students offer a multitude of benefits, which extend far beyond the classroom walls. Here's a deeper dive into why these opportunities in lab schools are invaluable:

  1. Enhanced College Applications: Sarah knew that to stand out in her college applications, she needed something more than good grades earned at her local school district. In the competitive realm of college admissions, distinguishing your application is paramount. High-level research positions, especially those in prestigious programs or state university labs, are recognized as Tier 1 or Tier 2 extracurricular activities. Their inclusion on your application can significantly boost your profile, showcasing not just your academic prowess but also your proactive engagement in real-world scientific endeavors. It signals to admissions officers that you're not just a passive learner, but an active participant in your educational journey, with a proven track record of commitment and excellence in your field of interest.

  2. Skill Development: In her lab school, Sarah learned more than just the fundamentals of biology. She developed critical thinking skills by engaging in real-world problem-solving. The world of scientific research is rich with opportunities for skill development. It’s not just about understanding complex theories but also about applying them practically. Engaging in lab work cultivates an array of skills – from critical thinking and problem-solving to scientific inquiry and technical prowess. You learn to navigate real-life challenges, analyze data, and contribute to meaningful scientific discussions. These skills are foundational not only for future academic pursuits but also for a wide range of professional careers, equipping you with a versatile skill set that's highly valued in the workforce.

  3. Passion and Interest Exploration: Sarah's time in the lab allowed her to explore her deep interest in genetic engineering, confirming her desire to pursue this field in college. Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of lab experience is the opportunity it provides for deep exploration of your scientific interests. Whether it's biology, chemistry, physics, or any other field, working in a lab allows you to delve into specific areas that fascinate you. It's a chance to test the waters, to see if a particular field truly resonates with your passions and future career aspirations. This hands-on experience can be pivotal in shaping your academic choices and career path, offering clarity and direction at an early stage in your life.

  4. Networking and Mentorship: By stepping into the world of research labs, you open the door to valuable networking opportunities. You'll interact with experienced professionals, researchers, and educators who can offer guidance, mentorship, and potentially, future references. These connections can be instrumental in your educational journey, providing insights, advice, and support as you navigate your academic and career choices.

  5. Contributing to Meaningful Work: There's a profound sense of accomplishment and purpose that comes with contributing to ongoing research. As a high school student in a laboratory school, you're not just learning; you're actively participating in work and collaborative studies that could have real-world implications. This experience not only enriches your understanding of the subject matter but also instills a sense of responsibility and pride in being part of something larger than yourself.

  6. Building Confidence and Independence: Immersing yourself in a lab environment demands a certain level of independence and self-initiative. You'll learn to manage your time, handle complex tasks, and make decisions with greater confidence. These experiences build resilience and self-assurance, qualities that are invaluable both in your personal life and professional development.

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Finding Lab Opportunities

  1. Formal Research Programs: Sarah first looked at structured programs like MIT’s Research Science Institute but found them highly competitive. Renowned programs like MIT’s Research Science Institute offer structured, immersive experiences. These are often competitive but provide comprehensive exposure to scientific research and innovation​​.

  2. Local University Labs: She then discovered a local university offering summer lab positions to high school students. Universities and research institutes sometimes offer opportunities for high school students, especially during summer. These can range from structured programs to more informal lab assistant roles​​.

  3. Independent Research Projects: For those who prefer autonomy, pursuing independent research under the guidance of a mentor or teacher can be equally rewarding. This path allows for exploration in less conventional areas of interest.

  4. Networking: Utilize personal connections, including family, teachers, and local scientists, to discover opportunities that might not be widely advertised​​.

Application and Selection Process

Identifying Opportunities

Sarah began by exploring research program directories, meticulously noting down programs from universities and institutions like the NIH and NSF that matched her interests in biology.

She also checked local universities and community colleges, eventually finding a summer research opportunity at a nearby university's genetics lab.

Crafting a Strong Application

Sarah prepared a concise resume, highlighting her science fair awards and biology coursework. She wrote a cover letter expressing her fascination with genetic engineering, clearly stating why she was drawn to the specific lab she had found.

She sought recommendations from her biology teacher and the head of her school’s science club, who were impressed with her initiative and dedication.

Reaching Out to Potential Mentors

Identifying Mentors: Look for professors or researchers whose work aligns with your interests. Read their publications and understand their research areas.

Making Contact: Send a personalized email to potential mentors. Express genuine interest in their work and articulate how these possible future teachers' research aligns with your interests. Be clear about what you hope to learn and contribute.

Preparing for Interviews

Research the Lab: Understand the lab's current projects and its overall mission. This will allow you to ask informed questions and show your genuine interest.

Mock Interviews: Conduct practice interviews with teachers or mentors to build confidence and refine your responses to potential questions.

Demonstrating Commitment and Flexibility

Sarah made it clear in her applications and interviews that she was willing to commit to the full duration of the research program and was open to performing various roles in the lab, understanding the value of starting from the basics.

Following Up

After her interviews, Sarah sent personalized thank-you emails, expressing her gratitude for the opportunity to interview and reiterating her interest in the lab's work.

When she hadn’t heard back after a couple of weeks, she sent a polite follow-up email, which eventually led to her acceptance into the program.

Leveraging Unsuccessful Attempts

Before finding her place in the university lab, Sarah faced a few rejections. She used these as learning experiences, seeking feedback to improve her future applications.

Accepting an Offer

Reviewing the Offer: Carefully consider the terms of the internship, including time commitment, responsibilities, and any learning opportunities offered.

Seeking Advice: Consult with teachers, mentors, or parents before accepting the offer to ensure it aligns with your goals and schedule.

Diversity of Disciplines

  • While Sarah's journey in the world of biology and genetic engineering is a compelling example, it's important to remember that the realm of scientific research is vast and diverse. Opportunities for high school lab experiences are not limited to just one field. For instance, if you're fascinated by the stars and the universe, astronomy labs might offer you a chance to work with telescopes and analyze celestial data. Those interested in environmental science can find opportunities in labs focusing on ecology, conservation, or climate research, offering hands-on experiences with fieldwork and data analysis.

  • Chemistry enthusiasts might find their calling in labs where they can participate in experiments involving chemical reactions and materials science. Similarly, students drawn to the complexities of the human mind might explore opportunities in psychology and neuroscience labs. For tech-savvy students, computer science labs offer a chance to delve into coding, algorithm development, or even artificial intelligence research.

  • Remember, each scientific discipline offers unique lab experiences that allow you to explore different aspects of the natural world. These opportunities are not just about gaining literacy in the specific subject matter; they're about developing a scientific mindset, learning how to approach problems methodically, and contributing to our collective understanding of the world. So, no matter where your interests lie, there's likely a lab experience waiting for you.


Securing lab experience as a high school student is an ambitious but attainable goal. It requires passion, persistence, and strategic planning. Whether through formal programs, local university labs, or independent projects, the skills and experiences gained in a laboratory school are invaluable stepping stones for future academic and professional success.

Like Sarah, you too can transform your curiosity into real-world lab experience. Remember, it’s about passion, persistence, and strategic planning. Start your journey today!