Applying to college can be an incredibly daunting task. There's multitudes of applications to fill out, seemingly dozens of essays to write, forms to check, interviews to attend, and plenty of worrying that seems to come at any given moment. There can seem to be a pressure to really set oneself apart from the rest of the field--a feeling that in order to get into the college of my dreams, I need to be the perfect candidate. The reality of it is this--college admissions is a wildly imperfect science. There is no metric to assign a score to an applicant--there's no numeric scale that can measure the worth of any given student. Obviously, there are many factors that contribute to admissions decisions--some quantitative and some qualitative--and institutes of higher learning do have some way of filling their class each year. Some applications must be better than others, right? So what is it that makes an application stand out above the pack? What can one do to make themselves a better applicant--a better candidate?
Obviously, there are certain factors that are incredibly important and quantifiable--SAT and ACT scores, GPA, etc. These, whether one likes it or no, are important determining factors and should be treated as incredibly important. While they're not the only factors at all (and really should not be treated as such), they give the admissions department at a college an important numerical baseline--they show what you're capable of in an academic setting. And because they are numerical, they are easy to sort through, compartmentalize, or whatever else it is that the admissions departments do. These provide a number and a (perhaps poorly designed, but that's not for me to say) measurability to the candidate.
However, colleges don't just look at test scores--if they did, their classes would probably be fairly homogenous. It's an indicator, but not the only or best indicator of a student's potential and ability. This is where extracurricular activities come into play. These are also hugely important in the college admissions process. President of the astronomy club? Awesome. Played varsity soccer for 3 years? Fantastic. All of these things give a more complete picture of a student than just test scores alone. Not to mention the fact that American institutes of higher learning are more and more prioritizing (contrasted with their European counterparts) well-roundedness in a student. Imagine that you're a college admission officer--you have two profiles in front of you. Both are exceptional test takers and have the highest possible scores, but one of the two is also a concert pianist. Who are you going to take? Obviously, the one who has the more interesting and impressive extracurricular record (this is an exaggerated situation, but an example nonetheless).
Then, there's the essay--the object that gives a voice and some vestige of personality to the profile which otherwise just consists of a list of achievements and scores.
But last year, Harvard received more than 34,000 applicants to fill the class of 2021. Out of that number, it seems incredibly likely that there were more worthy candidates than there were available spots. There were probably too many candidates with stellar SAT scores, too many candidates with great GPA's and phenomenal extracurricular activity resumés, and too many great essays for these simple factors to completely allow the admissions officers to easily select a class. With top institutions such as this, it's never really an easy decision, and it seems likely that a great college will have to reject many great candidates.
This can probably seem pretty discouraging, but one has to think of it as an opportunity--as a challenge one can be excited about. One has to think: How can I differentiate myself? What can I do to stand out from the crowd? How am I unique? And often, these attributes may manifest in ways that are not immediately obvious from an application. And this is why you need to give colleges something tangible--something that shows them that you are a fantastic college candidate, that you are more prepared to take on the occasionally difficult, often quite independent learning challenge that is a college or university education.
What if there were a way to do something original--something creative and revealing of your personality that also shows a preparedness in doing college level work?
Well, there is!
A research project is an incredible way to accomplish all of these. Research is the driving learning and discovery force in intellectual academia--it's the kind of work college students, grad students, and professors all do. It is the staple food of institutes of higher learning, if you will. Carrying out some kind of research as a high school student will put you way ahead of the game, and it will also show colleges that you are ready to perform the kind of work that they expect--it evinces a kind of intellectual maturity and dedication to a lengthy project, and it shows that you will be ready to do college-level work from day one, something that can't be said of every applicant.
But doing a research project can do so much more than show you know how to do research--it can almost function like an extra essay in a lot of ways. First of all, if you carry out a research project until the end, it will deliver a tangible result that you can show off. This is huge. Being able to talk about an experience is one thing, but having a physical document of the experience itself is an incredible resource. Besides this, a research project also allows another glimpse into your personality. It reveals an interest and shows off the kinds of things that drive you--the kinds of things you're really passionate about.
A research project is an opportunity (and even more than an opportunity, it's also an interesting process that will help you to learn something about your field and learn something about yourself, immersing yourself in a creative project that you are dedicated to) to grow as an intellectual and also help differentiate yourself as an ideal college candidate. There are plenty of college applicants with marvelous test scores. But it's the creative aspects--the essays and special extra steps like research projects--that really can differentiate you and take you from being one of the pack to being above the crowd.
Doing a research project is a fantastic chance to have a great time delving further into one of your interests and also boosting your resumé to make yourself a more ideal, college ready candidate. A research project really is a fantastic idea.