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How to Frame Research on Your College Applications

NewsGP LeBourdais, PhD

At the University of Pennsylvania, 1 of every 3 students admitted last year did a research project in high school. That’s a lot! So it’s not surprising that we get lots of questions here at Polygence about how students should frame research projects on their college applications. Where should I mention my project? How do I describe it? And what are colleges actually looking for?

At our recent Symposium of Rising Scholars, we got the inside scoop from Purvi Mody, CEO and Head of College Counseling at Insight Education. In our conversation, she explains why research is important and how to feature it on college applications. You can watch the presentation here, and we’ve summarized her main points below.


Why Research?


1. Feed Your Curiosity
In its most basic form, research is a process of asking questions about the world and searching for answers to them. In that sense, it’s a very natural thing! Embrace your curiosity by asking the questions that matter to you. Doing research will then empower you to find the answers.

2. Get Hands-on Experience
Reading about how to do research is great, but there’s nothing better than getting hands-on experience in designing your own experience, collecting and cleaning data, and forming conclusions based on your findings. Each lesson you learn now will contribute to your expertise as you apply to colleges, internships and jobs down the road.

3. Gain Practical Knowledge
Often the lessons we learn in the classroom can seem abstract or esoteric. You might find yourself asking questions like, “When am I actually going to use this trigonometry formula?,” or “How will this episode from American political history ever help me in real life?” While not every tool or fact from your school work or independent research will serve you in the time to come, some may actually become very useful. So it’s in your best interest to learn widely to prepare.

4. Explore college majors and careers
Do you think you know what you want to do with your whole life? In high school we are exposed to a limited range of possibilities, so independent research is a powerful way of learning about the world of options. Having a better sense of what subjects you actually like will help you save valuable time and money at college. Plus, this generation is likely to have 10 different jobs over the course of their careers, so the more experience you have, the more options will be open to you.

5. Connect with a Mentor
There are so many people supporting you throughout your life, from parents to teachers to coaches. Mentors, especially those who have traveled a road you want to follow, can be another great source of guidance and inspiration. Connecting with an expert in a field that interests you is an exceptional opportunity; make sure you ask questions not just about how to do things, but also about how they made the decisions that led them to where they are now.

6. Develop Life-long Skills
Doing research on historical photographs or structuring a clear methodology for your experiments might feel like very specific skills, but many aspects of them will be hugely helpful in other parts of your life, from organizing your personal life to managing a project at work.

7. Unlock a Life of Adventure!
As you follow your curiosities, you may find yourself going down unexpected paths. To speak from my own experience, my love of photography and the outdoors growing up in Maine brought me to high alpine passes in Switzerland on a Fulbright Grant, to the islands of Alaska teaching Stanford students, to a tall ship in the Arctic Circle for my dissertation research. You never know where your research will take you!


How to Feature Research Experience on Your Applications


1. Activities List
Colleges love to see how you’re spending your time beyond formal clubs. Tip: make sure to explain why you chose the research you did, so admissions readers learn more about your personal motivations.

2. Additional Information
If there’s an opportunity to describe your research experience and why you love the topic here, do so! Publishing in a preprint archive like the Research Archive of Rising Scholars or in a peer-reviewed journal are also achievements to share in additional information or on your CV.

3. Personal Statement
A research project could play a small role in your personal statement or could be the main event. Many Polygence students, including those writing IB extended essays, use their research experience to tell a story about themselves: what their passion is, why they’re excited about it, how they approach questions, how they overcome obstacles, and the changes they want to bring about in the world. This is your chance to tell your story!

4. Supplemental College Essays
Many colleges now have unique supplemental essays with questions like “What do you want to study and why do you want to study it here?,” with prompts to explain what led you down this path. This can be a great place to note, “When I did research on this topic, it made me think of majoring in this topic. I know your school has a great program in this field, which is why I’m so excited to study there.”

5. College Admissions Interviews
Demonstrating your ability to talk about complex research—and to explain it clearly to non-specialists—can impress your admissions or alumni interviewers. Especially if your project is unique and memorable, this is a perfect opportunity to make an impression. No one else can talk about your project!

6. Recommendation Letters
As an expert in their own field, your mentor can be a powerful advocate for you in a recommendation letter. Students can also share their research with their teachers at school to demonstrate their independence and creativity, allowing the teacher to give a fuller impression of the work you do both in and out of class.

6. Course Selection
Diving into research can reveal new directions for what you want to study even while you’re still in high school. So, a research project could help you to steer your profile in a certain direction to help tell a story about your interests on your applications, too.


"Publishing in a preprint archive like RARS or a peer-reviewed journal are also achievements to share in additional info or on your CV."


What are colleges looking for?


One increasingly common area that admissions professionals pay attention to is a student’s “non-cognitive factors.” These are also known as “transferable” or “soft skills” that are highly valued not only in the workplace but in collaborative areas of higher education. The following traits are not only what admissions officers are looking for in applications; they also happen to be qualities you develop naturally during a research project.


1. Communication
2. Leadership
3. Curiosity
4. Creativity
5. Organizational Skills
6. Analytical Skills
7. Problem Solving

As you fold your research into your applications, keep these traits in mind. Highlighting them can help you show how you will contribute to the community at the schools you want to attend.

Finally, remember that while research is a powerful tool to help you stand out in the admissions process, it’s not simply a means to an end. The lists above demonstrate how things you learn during the research process will benefit you not just in school but in life. The lessons of research will always be with you no matter where you end up studying. The sky’s the limit!


"At the University of Pennsylvania, 1 of every 3 students admitted last year did a research project in high school."