Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

Are Research Programs Like Polygence Worth the Money?

7 minute read


  1. Research projects have produced $15,000 more in college scholarships for Polygence alumni than the national average.

  2. Employers and internships are 56% more likely to hire a student with prior research experience.

  3. Choosing a major early through research experiences in high school can be invaluable, preventing up to $70,000 in extra tuition for those who switch majors late in their degree.

There are so many ways for students and their families to spend time and money preparing for college. Summer camps, music lessons, academic tutoring, test prep: the list goes on. But in a world of finite resources, how can families know what choice is best? 

Big Boosts in Admissions and Scholarships

One reason many families choose to do mentored research and passion projects with Polygence is because data from Harvard's admissions office shows them to be a uniquely powerful way of turning a good application into a great one. When submitted as supplements and woven into a student’s application narrative, independent academic projects improved chances of admission to Harvard from about 8% to 68%, an effect that tracks across many of the most competitive colleges.  

A proven college admissions edge

Polygence alumni had a 90% admissions rate to R1 universities in 2023. Polygence provides high schoolers a personalized, flexible research experience proven to boost your admission odds. Get matched to a mentor now!"

Polygence students enjoy similarly dramatic improvements to college admissions odds when they highlight their projects at multiple points in the applications. Our alumni report a 5x boost in acceptance to Ivy League and Top 25 schools

Our alumni are 4x more likely to get into the University of Pennsylvania and more than 7x likely to get into CalTech.  But perhaps the most rewarding and exciting statistic from just the 2023-24 Early Decision application cycle is that our students have received $1,967,850 in scholarships, with the average award being $75,686.54 

While Polygence is but one of many factors that go into admissions outcomes, even by national standards this is a lot of money. The average grant and scholarship awards for students at 4-year US colleges is $14,890, or about $60,000. This means Polygence alumni receive $15,000 more in scholarships than the average. So for many families spending around $3,000 in a research program can result in a $12,000 ROI through additional college scholarships. 

Preparing Students to Succeed in College and Beyond

Our broader goal, though, isn’t just to help students improve college admissions odds (though we do that very well). What we really care about is preparing students to succeed at college and beyond. Developing research knowledge, good writing habits, and durable skills can be hard, but research published in the venerated scientific journal Neuron has shown that this kind of learning can feel easy when you explore something you love. 

Numerous studies point to other advantages, too. Researchers from the University of California, Merced and Penn State found that pursuing passions lowers stress and contributes to greater happiness overall; participants reported 34% less stress and 18% less sadness during and after the activities they were passionate about. And a consortium including the Universities of Virginia, Michigan, the National University of Singapore found that when you show students how to develop academic passions, they become more enthusiastic to excel in their chosen college majors.

Those findings echo in our Academic Outlook Survey, where 84% of our alumni said they learned something in their Polygence projects that has already helped them succeed in college. We sum this up in our motto, “Passion Propels You Further.”

While some may worry that paid research programs don’t reflect well on college applications, both quantitative and qualitative signals suggest that paid research programs are a net benefit to students on their applications. Besides the data above showing significant boosts to admissions at selective colleges, a survey of Admissions Officers from at 15 Top 50 ranked colleges, including 8 Ivy+ schools, representatives from 9 schools said it doesn’t matter if the students paid for research opportunities–the fact that they engaged in research is a meaningful signal of their abilities and ambition. 

As explained in greater detail in our annual College Admissions Report, an Admissions Officer from a top 3 engineering university told us, “how they found their way to research is less important than the fact that they did research.” An Ivy League Admissions officer said something similar; they care most about “the authenticity of the experience and how students write about it...much more than whether the opportunity is paid or not.”

Better Preparation for Internships 

We’ve written elsewhere about the value of both research experience and internships. Employers increasingly show they value these kinds of experiences in job applicants. According to a 2023 report from American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU), 56% of employers responded that they would be “much more likely” to consider a job candidate who conducted research alongside a faculty member during their undergraduate studies. While that number was even higher for internships (70%), it’s also clear that research experiences make applicants stronger for any professional opportunity, including internships themselves. 

Take Ishaan, now a sophomore at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign majoring in Computer Science and Geography & Geographic Information Science. His Polygence project explored the relationship between COVID-19 outcomes, pollution, and mobility in New Delhi with his mentor, an MS Candidate in Nutritional Epidemiology and Data Science at Tufts University. 

After his first year of university, Ishaan earned a 10-week National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) internship at the Columbia University Climate School in New York City for 10 weeks. Working under Dr. Fabien Cottier and Dr. Alex de Sherbinin at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), Ishaan contributed to a Department of Defense-funded project regarding Climate-Induced Migration in West Africa and Central America. Specifically, he explored different drivers of migration in West Africa and Central America, developing a predictive model of migration flows out of the two regions.

Besides research experience that helped him with these contributions, Ishaan also credits his Polygence project for helping him choose a focused direction for his college academic path. 

“My Polygence project really introduced me to the niche I want to get into which is the intersection between environment and technology. Discovering this niche is what really drove me to apply for this program and do it as I actively started looking for more experiences in that field.”

Arul, another Polygence alumnus, had a similar experience when he was looking for research experiences after matriculating at Princeton. Arul worked with his mentor, who holds a PhD in Astronomy from Yale, to determine the rates at which stars are forming in a group of nearby galaxies. When applying to Princeton early, he was able to connect his own study to the ongoing research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. 

Arul found that Polygence provided “lots of transferable technical skills that I got to apply to my freshman year physics coursework,” culminating in a summer internship with Professor Susanne Staggs on the subject of Cosmic Microwave Background and dark matter. In such highly specialized fields, a deep dive into the subject with an expert mentor can be a difference maker in internship applications. 

The Benefits of Diverse Skills  

At many colleges that have general educational requirements, exploring different majors in your first years of school is actually encouraged. This is often an exciting period of discovery, when different professors or classes introduce you to topics you haven’t yet encountered. Fulfilling different distributional requirements not only exposes you to different fields of study, but they could also enrich your problem solving skills and creativity by allowing you to bring insights from one field to another. 

The benefit of this kind of skills diversification isn’t just based on intuition. A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that people who double major “experience substantial protection” in the labor market over their single major counterparts. And this protection is “more pronounced when the two majors are more distantly related,” making these graduates 56% more resilient against earnings shocks during economic downturns. 

Researchers call this “diversifying human capital.” Nicole Smith, professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, puts it more bluntly: “A double major gives you twice as many opportunities.” 

There are challenges to this path, though. Many students and counselors know that colleges today aren’t looking for well-rounded individuals. Instead, they’re looking to create well-rounded classes full of students who are outstanding in specific things, like fencing, cancer biology, or poetry. This means many students spend their high school careers developing a “spiky” portfolio that demonstrates excellence in a narrow band of interests. When they get to college, the notion of spreading out into a field they haven’t explored before may be intimidating. 

For students who want to “diversify human capital” and get on path to financial stability before they get to college, it can be hugely valuable to explore a professional field without the pressure of grades. In Polygence projects, many students spend 3-6 months exploring something that’s not their primary academic focus. 

Take Katelyn, a student who came to Polygence with a deep interest in Physics and Astronomy. But rather than further this profile with a project on the same subjects, she wanted to branch out into mathematics. Specifically, Katelyn developed a sophisticated project on fractals–recurring geometric patterns like the Mandelbrot Set–and their appearance not only in science but in nature and art as well. 

Her mentor Ri, a PhD candidate in computational condensed matter physics with special expertise in fractals, helped Katelyn develop a fascinating research paper titled “For the Love of Fractals” that explored these “self-similar” systems in various settings, from the Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous Great Wave off Kanagawa to how to code a Mandelbrot set in Python. Katelyn is now a student at Caltech. Working with an expert in the field in this way can allow students to explore new areas of interest for a fraction of the price it would cost in a full term at university. 

Choosing Majors with Confidence

We all know college is expensive. In fact, studies have shown that Americans view cost as the biggest barrier to earning a college degree. In 2021-22, the National Center for Education Statistics calculated the average tuition at a private, nonprofit university to be $36,436 a year. Put another way, college costs around $6,397 per course, even large ones where undergraduates are attending lectures with hundreds of other students. 

By comparison, a 10-session Polygence project one-on-one with a PhD–which represents more attention from instructors than many students receive in intro college courses–costs under $3,000. This represents a rare opportunity to receive the full attention of an expert one on one before going to college, which means those students could be much better prepared to succeed in larger (more expensive) courses in their first years. 

Do your own research through Polygence!

Polygence pairs you with an expert mentor in your area of passion. Together, you work to create a high quality research project that is uniquely your own.

Rigorously exploring other fields before college has many advantages on this score. In order to give students the chance to branch out and try new things, Polygence does not grade students on their projects. This requires that students learn to manage trade offs based on all the other obligations they have in their lives. How much time can I devote to this project during my athletic season? Do I need to shorten my expectations for the first draft of my research paper given that I also have a CS problem set due on Friday? If I want to publish, does the journal I’d like to submit to have a hard deadline or can I push out my completion date?

Besides learning these basic skills in project and time management, research projects in high school also give the invaluable opportunity to learn that you actually don’t like the field you were interested in initially. Learning that organic chemistry isn’t for you for $3,000 may seem like a big investment, but it is a lot less than making this discovery after paying $36,000 to struggle through those courses in your first year of college. 

By some measures, changing majors can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of your degree. Granted, switching majors in your sophomore year is common and typically doesn’t delay your time to degree. But if you need more terms to earn the necessary credits, the extra tuition cost can run between $18,750 and $71,700. (On top of that, students also pay on average more than $10,000 each year for campus housing.) Entering college with confidence about your chosen fields can help you make the most of your time and mitigate these financial risks. 

Paying this much extra for a degree that may already cost close to a quarter of a million dollars may feel unthinkable for high school students as they look ahead to college. But the reality is that around 40% of them will eventually graduate from college with a degree they don’t want. According to a Federal Reserve Board study, 2 in 5 college grads today regret their college majors. Analysis by the Washington Post reveals that engineering majors regret their choice least frequently, and humanities majors the most. 

That said, there are various counter indications that humanities degrees are some of the most helpful for certain professional paths. For instance, humanities majors have the highest acceptance rates to medical school–between 44% and 50%–considerably higher than those who major in biological sciences (36%) or health sciences (35%). This is another data point showing that divergent skills, including the durable communication abilities that are the hallmark of a humanities education, are more valuable than closely related STEM studies for aspiring physicians. 

Fortunately, Polygence alumni report their projects have a big impact on helping them gain confidence about what they choose to study. In a survey of more than 1,000 alumni, 4 in 5 students said Polygence influenced what they intended to pursue as majors in college or careers. One of them is Krrishika, a student who worked with her mentor–a PhD in Neuroscience from Washington University in St. Louis–to develop a sophisticated research paper titled “Understanding Alzheimer’s Risk Factors Associated with the Prevalence of US Populations and Women.” 

“Before, I would have never considered neuroscience as a career because I thought it was too complex and difficult,” Krrishika wrote. “However, this paper changed that. I didn’t merely research and write about the subject, but found myself becoming eager to learn more and more about it. Now, I'm hoping to study the brain well into the future. I am even looking into doing some science fair projects and experiments related to neuroscience.”

Conclusion: Exploring Research Early Has Big Benefits 

In concert, these data and student stories show that investing in a rigorous but low-pressure research experience can provide an enormous return on investment. It could be the difference between graduating on time and on budget and losing six figures of tuition, housing, and unearned wages. 

It can also be a highly economical way for a student to determine they don’t want to major in a specific field, saving tens of thousands of dollars in tuition spent on exploring options. Katie, a 9th grade student who enrolled in the Pathfinders career discovery program, had been interested in becoming a lawyer. Given her penchant for argument and negotiation, people had told her this could be a good path for her. 

But speaking with her Pathfinders mentor Allen, who holds a JD/MBA from Yale, she learned that lawyers often need to log their time meticulously, sometimes in as little as 6 minute increments. Katie realized that because she values independence in her work–she hates when parents or teachers hover over her checking on progress–being an attorney may not be the best fit. She was then able to work with her college counselor to refocus on business as the focus of her high school courses and extracurriculars. 

While these are important discoveries, more often than not a focused academic experience like mentored research empowers students to confirm their prospective major choices before they get to college. This allows them to be more intentional about their course selection (or even help them graduate early with college credits from our exclusive program with the Gifted and Talented Institute at the University of California, Irvine). Taken on balance, then, though they may be a real investment of both time and money, Polygence projects can pay dividends for young people as they chart the path towards their future. 

Do Your Own Research Through Polygence

Your passion can be your college admissions edge! Polygence provides high schoolers a personalized, flexible research experience proven to boost your admission odds. Get matched to a mentor now!"