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Research as an Extracurricular

2 min read
Regeneron ISEF branding.

Table of contents

Note: This post largely applies to people applying as STEM/hard science majors. I don’t have the experience to comment on soft sciences, humanities, etc.

In the midst of my college applications, I saw a YouTube Short (I don’t remember the source) about research being the most common high school extracurricular of undergrads at prestigious universities. I think this is reasonable. But I think a lot of high schoolers don’t understand why research is such a coveted activity.

The story isn’t as simple as “they got in, they all did research, so I should too.”

As a whole, research is a very valuable pursuit. It requires ingenuity, it’s unpredictable (and thus successful research projects[1] demonstrate an obsessive level of commitment to one topic), but most importantly—what I think universities care about—it necessitates a deep understanding of a particular field.

Research universities have a huge incentive to accept students who produce knowledge. Knowing that much about a field, even if it’s small, by the end of your high school career is very rare. Your research is even more impressive if it's pure theory, like math or theoretical physics, because you’re not able to disguise minor tweaks on established methods as novel ideas.

If you’re doing research to get into prestigious schools, you’re doing it for the wrong reason (I’m disregarding the “you should be passionate about/enjoy your extracurriculars” argument even though it’s true). You won’t get in if you’re doing research to do research because you don’t know enough.

There’s a reason why ISEF winners tend to also be olympiad-level students. There’s also a reason why many undergraduates don’t get published in notable journals until they’re juniors or seniors. You have to remember who you’re competing with as a high school researcher: undergraduates, Ph.D. students, post-docs, professors, researchers.

Don’t chase the research. Build good fundamentals, then research when you’re ready. Publishing in an unknown journal (or god forbid one of the high school research journals you pay into) won’t increase your chances of admission. You’re better off spending your energy in an activity you’re really good at than doing meaningless “research.”[2]

  1. I'm defining successful research projects as ones that have produced a substantially novel idea worthy of being published in a notable journal or accepted at a notable conference. ↩︎

  2. I don't want to discourage high schoolers from pursuing research. If you're actually interested in a field, definitely research! Even if you're just entering data at first. My point is Google Sheets is not research (which you'll surpass if you're invensted in a topic). ↩︎

Michel Liao

Michel Liao

Boise, Idaho, United States
Hello! I'm a sophomore studying computer science at Princeton. I like reading, rock climbing, and running.