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Catalyst Academy at Cornell - Should You Apply?

Summer programs are a sound option to learn more about a subject, conduct research, and experience college life and curriculum. They also show demonstrated interest in a subject — which college admissions value highly, as well as the drive to excel in a particular field outside the classroom! 

If you’re an ambitious high school student interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), a summer program can give you hands-on learning and valuable lab experience, let you pursue a research project, and introduce you to potential career paths. A number of the country’s universities offer summer programs as part of their outreach to young learners. One such program is the Catalyst Academy at Cornell University. Here, we will dive into the program’s features, curriculum, and the pros and cons of applying.

What is the Catalyst Academy?

Cornell Engineering runs the Catalyst Academy as part of its diversity outreach initiative. It is particularly aimed at students who come from communities underrepresented in STEM and related fields. It is a one-week residential program for high school sophomores and juniors, taught by Cornell faculty. The program includes a group research project and field sessions where students are exposed to potential futures in STEM fields. 

How is it structured?

How much does the program cost?

The program costs $1,850, which includes boarding and meals. Cornell offers need-based scholarships and encourages students to apply.

What are the important dates?

Applications for the 2024 cohort have closed. Applications for the 2025 cohort will likely open on January 1 or 2, 2025, and close on February 15, 2025. The program will run during the third week of July.

What does the curriculum include?

The week-long program is divided into three main activities:

  • Field sessions: Students attend 10 one-hour-long field sessions where Cornell Engineering faculty discuss the college’s main fields of study. These include civil and environmental engineering, materials science, computer science, operations research, electrical and computer engineering, earth and atmospheric sciences, biological engineering, and mechanical and aerospace engineering. Other field sessions introduce working in teams to complete a project and college admissions prep.

  • Research project: During the week, you will work in small groups to complete a research project on a predetermined topic. Cornell faculty, and Ph.D., graduate, and undergraduate students who assist with the program will oversee your project. The 2024 cohort’s project on robotics and AI will be led by Cornell’s computer science department, teaching students engineering fundamentals, and coding, and help develop their critical thinking skills. Students will build a robot that conducts search-and-rescue operations in a disaster zone. Previous years' projects include programming plants for sustainable agriculture, developing a simulation model of a minute clinic using Matlab, using bioengineering approaches to treat diabetes, building a wireless communication system, and designing and constructing intelligent devices.

  • Social activities: These include field outings, friendly engineering competitions, and other activities that will encourage you to interact with your peers.

Is it prestigious?

The program is moderately prestigious and selective. It accepts approximately 50 students annually, similar to other STEM summer programs Cornell offers. While the acceptance rate is unavailable, we can assume around 20%. The program is paid, though need-based fee waivers are available.

Who is eligible to apply for the program?

To apply, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a high school sophomore or junior at the time of application

  • Have a minimum GPA of 3.0 (on a 4.0 scale)

  • Complete advanced courses before graduation, including AP Calculus AB or BC, AP Physics, Honors or AP Chemistry, and additional math, science, and computer science courses

In addition, you must prove that at least one of the following applies to you: 

  • You face socioeconomic, cultural, or identity-related barriers to pursuing higher education

  • You will be a first-generation college student

  • Come from a minority community underrepresented in STEM

  • Have a disability

  • Identify as neurodivergent

  • Experience housing, food, economic, and other forms of hardship

What does the application process include?

You must apply to the Catalyst Academy online. The application form includes three personal essays, high school transcripts, a recommendation letter, a high school profile, and a financial assistance form if required.

The personal essays include the following:

  • How has your personal journey shaped your interest in STEM/Engineering? 

  • What are your goals for the future with respect to STEM/Engineering, and how will participating in the Cornell Engineering High School Outreach Program support you in achieving those goals?

  • Highlight one of your unique lived experiences and how it will contribute to our diverse scholarly community. 

Pros and Cons of applying to the Catalyst Academy


  1. You will study at one of the country’s top institutes, learning from expert faculty: Cornell University is among the top universities in the U.S. and is well-known for the quality of education offered by its Engineering department. Cornell faculty lead the program, including the research project, ensuring you learn from the best. For instance, the 2024 research project on AI will be overseen by Sanjiban Choudhury, a professor in the computer science department whose research focuses on human-robot interaction. 

  2. You will gain a deeper understanding of STEM fields The Catalyst Academy, through its field sessions with Cornell faculty, introduces students to the different subject areas they can pursue in STEM fields, which include computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and bioengineering, to name a few.

  3. You will work on a research project Research is a great way to explore a subject of interest, and tell college admissions officers that you’re dedicated, motivated, and can conduct independent study. The research projects done by previous cohorts cover robotics, AI, bioengineering, coding, computer engineering, sustainability innovations, and other STEM-related fields, which will help give you hands-on experience and let you deep dive into a subject.

  4. You will be exposed to networking opportunities Connections made with Cornell faculty and talented peers from across the country can be of great assistance if you choose to pursue a career in STEM.


  1. You won’t be attending a highly prestigious program The Catalyst Academy accepts around 50 students annually and has a 20% acceptance rate, though it places a minimum GPA requirement on students and expects them to pursue multiple AP-level STEM courses before graduating high school. However, since it's a paid program and isn’t as selective as fully-funded pre-college programs can be, it won’t add a lot of prestige to your profile.

  2. If you’re not eligible for a scholarship, you will have to pay to attend this program The program cost ($1,850) might not be a feasible expense for everyone, and students might opt for more accessible programs that are funded or cost less.

Our review

The Catalyst Academy is a sound option if you belong to an underrepresented community or come from an underprivileged background and are interested in STEM. Through the week-long program, you will be introduced to the potential career pathways and complete a research project. The program is moderately prestigious and you might consider applying for more competitive programs that are conducted over multiple weeks, offering a more comprehensive learning experience. The program is paid, though Cornell offers scholarships and encourages all interested students to apply.

One Other Option — the Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’d like to participate in a rigorous research program open to high schoolers, you may want to consider the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded by researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!

Kieran Lobo is a freelance writer from India, who currently teaches English in Spain.

Image Source: Cornell University logo


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