There’s no “magic formula” or “secret sauce” when it comes to college admissions, only some lesser known do’s and dont’s. With colleges going test-optional or test-blind, it's more important than ever to showcase your academic and extracurricular accomplishments in a holistic way. If you're aiming for a highly competitive college, good grades are just the tip of the iceberg.
Research is fast becoming a significant factor for students in the admission process. UPenn reported that in its class of 2026, ⅓ of its incoming body did research in high school.
At Lumiere, we help run one of the largest research programs in the world. So, we were curious - how do admission officers evaluate student research? What do they look for? When does research matter (and when does it not)? To understand admission officers' views on research, we wrote a white paper on the topic - which you can read here. In it, we interviewed 3 current and 3 former admissions officers from some of the world's top universities. We've condensed their responses into 5 key insights that highlight current admission trends and shed light on how college officers evaluate research in a student's profile.
Don’t forget to read the entire paper here!
1. Applications should be succinct and punchy. Cut the fluff.
When it comes to research, it's not just about conducting it, but also about presenting it in a way that's appropriate for your audience and the situation.
To give you an idea - larger or more competitive universities have a team of around 30 admissions officers or readers who evaluate between 35,000 to 440,000 applications in a short amount of time. Your application consists of your personal details, your extracurricular activities, your work experience, your resume, as well as your research findings/paper. An admissions officer usually goes through your entire application in 10 minutes or less.
So, what does this mean for you?
You need to make sure that the way you explain your research is crisp, punchy, and to the point. Admissions officers have limited time to review your application, so you need to make sure you showcase yourself quickly and effectively.
2. The research should connect to the field of application
Why? Because admission officers look for “cohesion” with the rest of your application.
Your application is essentially a narrative, and while it doesn't have to be perfect, it should show consistency and a trajectory of growth. Undertaking a research project is a voluntary pursuit, and it's crucial that it doesn't feel like it's been force-fit into your application.
Admissions officers are looking for evidence that you've engaged with your subject beyond the classroom and your comfort zone. They want to see that you've taken the initiative to dig deeper into a subject that interests you.
By showcasing your research in this manner, you demonstrate a level of intellectual curiosity and passion that can set you apart from other applicants all the while making it feel organic and authentic.
3. Don’t just mention your research, describe it well too
The keyword here is ‘well’ - not necessarily lengthy.
How can you accomplish this?
However, admissions officers are mostly looking for a few simple, clear sentences that explain "Here's my research, here's why I did it, and here's the impact it has on the real world".
When you talk about impact, try to use metrics! (Example, “created a water purifying system that treated hard water with 1.5x efficiency and costs 60% less than the cheapest purified in the market.”)
In fact, at the University of Cambridge, the word limit of the personal statement is only 600 words - talk about concise!
Note: This tip is useful for resumes too, where simply adding the name of your research paper does not score you as many points as writing the “What” and “Why” of the research does.
4. Publications aren’t necessary, but add to your application
You can look at publications as a feather in your cap and something that signals authenticity and prestige. It is not, however, mandatory.
5. Quality of research > quantity of research
Before you jump into three research projects to simply demonstrate your interest and skills in a particular subject, consider this - the quality/level of your contribution and involvement in a research project will always be valued more by an admissions officer than the number of projects you've worked on.
While landing a fully-funded research fellowship at a pre-college program adds to your resume, deep involvement in any research project is what helps your application stand out.
A common question that we saw was whether or not “paying” for a research opportunity mattered in how it was evaluated. What we saw was that all things equal, if a student hustles by themselves to find a professor to work with that will show initiative. But, most students can’t and don’t do that - and research is seen as having value regardless of its origin (as long as the student really did the work).
“The intention is for the student to get something meaningful out of the work.” If this intention is met, and the student has actually done the work, whether a research program is paid or unpaid does not “devalue the experience.”
She also noted that there are plenty of activities and programs that require a student to pay, like summer camps, or sports, which are all evaluated as part of the college application.
The research topic and impact of your findings will be driving elements of your motivation to engage in high school research.
Your application is not just a collection of essays and transcripts, but a carefully shaped narrative that demonstrates your interests, skills, and motivations to admissions officers. You should be able to weave all the elements of your application to form a clear profile that an officer can check and evaluate. So remember to describe your research succinctly and well, while connecting it to your larger narrative.
Lumiere Research Program
If you are interested in doing university-level research in a subject of your choice, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 2100 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.
Image source: Lumiere Research Program logo