So, you’re a standout student who’s done a research project under the mentorship of an accomplished faculty member, in a field you’re incredibly passionate about. Now what? How do you translate all of this into a stellar college application? In this guide, we’ll go through the different ways to write about research while applying to college.
If you are unsure of how you should approach research in high school in the first place, then check out our guide here.
Does research look good on my college application?
Yes, yes, and yes! If you have a passion in a particular area, doing research in that field is a fantastic way to explore your interests, set the building blocks for a future career, and stand out on college applications. The college selection process becomes more and more competitive each year. Doing a research internship or program shows that you are someone with interests, an initiative to pursue those interests, ambition, and an eagerness to learn. You also show that you’ve been able to work in a professional environment early on, along with other expert researchers. One of the most important pros though is that doing research offers ample opportunities to write about an important experience in your college applications.
Should I include my research experience in my college application?
The first thing you should do in the college application process is to identify your story. Who is the “you” you want to convey to colleges? And where does research fit into that? College applications are about proof. If you claim that you are passionate about marine biology and want to be a marine biologist, then the fact that you did research under a marine biology professor is great evidence of this passion. This is something you’d really want to focus on in building your marine biology story. The first and most important avenue in doing this is through writing about it.
Of course, you want to weigh the importance of your research yourself. You might use all or some of the following avenues to mention your research, depending on what you want your holistic application to look like. How much did research shape you as a person? Do you have a lot to talk about regarding your research experience? If the answer is no, you might not write your common app essay about your experience but highlight it in your activities list and add your report as supplemental material. If you have a lot of other, more significant experiences that demonstrate your interest in art history, then you might focus on those, rather than your research in the field. If your research was a core part of your high school journey, then the common app essay might be a great place for it. It’s up to you to decide, but decide carefully: wherever you showcase it, make sure your research experience has optimal function and added value in the place that it is.
When NOT to include your research experience
Don’t try to force research in where it doesn’t fit. In your interview for example, you want to bring up your research experiences naturally. You want it to fit easily into your story, not force it down your admissions officer’s throat! Talk about the genuine, special moments you experienced; that’s the best and most effective way to make it fit! If there were no genuine, special moments, if you don’t think your research really helped your growth—don’t make it into something it’s not.
If you do choose to include it (most will), here’s where you could include it -
The eight places to include research in your common app
Write about research in your personal statement essay
Almost all schools require a common app or personal statement essay and a couple of other supplemental essays. These essays are important: this is where you explain your story and your passions. You might therefore choose to have your research experience act as the topic for the common app. If you choose to do this, then you’ll really need to focus in on one story from your overall experience. This is not the time to show off all your accomplishments in the lab: leave that to the awards list. This is the time to remember: what was a moment you felt challenged in the field and fought to overcome this challenge? Was there a moment where you realized that this was really what you wanted to do as a career? How was doing research a truly unique and changing experience for you, and can you tie this into what the rest of your application says about you? To be able to tell these stories effectively, you’ll want to keep track of what happened each day of your research program or internship. Write things down and reflect during the process, rather than trying to remember what you felt two summers ago.
That being said, you want to think about the best possible story to tell for your common app, the one that most represents you. If the best story you can tell doesn’t belong to your research experience, then don’t force yourself to write about your research projects. Instead, you might include it in another way. For example, Student A wants to write about how she realized she wanted to be a physicist. The focus of her essay is on her first-ever physics class and how she was blown away by the work of Marie Curie. In the end, she continues the story by mentioning the different ways she has pursued physics since, including her independent research projects in the field, showing the admissions committee that she is truly passionate about this path.
Include research in your supplemental essays
The same logic that followed your common app essay can be applied to the supplemental essays. If you don’t think your research internship should star in the common app, but it is still something you really want to talk about, then the supplemental essays are the place for it. These essays usually have given prompts; make sure you are able to talk about research in a passionate way while following the prompt. Again, it should still be about the important moments you experienced while working under your mentor or with your team. Again, don’t focus on the data, numbers, or achievements quite yet; leave that to your activities and awards list.
When schools ask the question “why us”, including your knowledge of researchers at the school can be a great way to showcase what you know. You can relate back to your own research and then talk about how this research would fit in one professor’s lab at the school.
List your research in your activities list
Your activities are typically going to be listed in order of importance. Your research should probably be in at least the top three: it’s definitely a unique experience to demonstrate your passion and shows you’ve taken that extra step that most students don’t take. You’ll want to describe your experience succinctly while including some standout details: what was the name of your professor? How many people worked on your team? How many people was your paper peer-reviewed by?
Put your publications in the awards section
There is also an awards and honors section in the common app. If you have any recognition related to your research (ex. first place at a research fair, best research paper, chosen to be published in a journal, etc.), this is the place to list them. You are allowed 100 characters to describe each honor—if the award isn’t incredibly well known or needs some context, you’ll want to add a small description. Who is the award given to? How selective was the process?
Showcase your research through supplemental material
Supplemental material is not required by any college, but it is where you provide information that you feel really adds to your college application. If your story centers around your passion in this field and you were able to complete a research paper, create a final presentation, or a final report, this is “proof” that would greatly add to your application and the picture of “who you are.”
However, it’s important to note that if you choose to submit a supplement like a research paper, it needs to be a good one. It’s one thing to say that you’ve done research and were good at it, it’s another thing to actually show this research and have admission officers read through it. You might make sure that your report or paper has been thoroughly proofread by your research advisor, as well as their colleagues.
Having your mentor write about your research through a letter of recommendation
A huge benefit to doing research is that you gain another potential letter of recommendation, this time from an expert in what you claim to be your field of interest. Many students have their mentors submit an additional letter of recommendation for them, attesting to their skills, passion, knowledge, and eagerness to learn. This is incredibly helpful if your mentor is a university faculty member, even more so if they are a faculty member at the university you’re applying to. They can speak on how great you fit into a university environment and how well you work with the advisors and students at that university.
To get a great recommendation, you need to develop a great relationship with your mentor. Make sure you have given your research experience your all and show everything you have to offer. Ask them questions, be curious, be inviting, and be yourself!
Add research experience in your resume
The common app offers optional space for you to include your resume. If you think it would be fitting, this is the perfect place to put your research internship. In the resume, you want to summarize your experience in just a few bullet points, capturing the most important parts: this will be similar to your activities list. You can think about having one or two quantitative and one or two qualitative bullets. For the quantitative: what data did you help find? What computer programs did you master? What was the size of the team you worked in and what did you guys accomplish? For the qualitative: what skills did you build? What parts of the project did you lead? Make sure to also include the dates, the institution or program, and your mentor’s name!
Talk about research in your college interview
Chances are that your college of choice is going to interview you to decide whether or not you’re a good fit. This is a great way to push the narrative that you’re interested in a particular field, and you’ve pursued research opportunities in this field. For example, if they ask you why you’re interested in the college, you might bring up how you worked under one of their professors during a summer internship. You might bring up that you stumbled upon one of their department’s research reports while you were doing your own research on the topic and found it incredibly fascinating! The interview is a great place to get more detailed and show how interested you really are.
Tips for including research in your college application
Ask your mentor to go over what you write
The research mentor you worked under has a lot of experience in writing about research. If you had a great experience working for them, then they’d be more than happy to look it over and check for accuracy, mention moments in the lab you forgot to talk about, or other data you could include. They know how to best frame research experiences on your resume, what statistics are most impressive, etc. If you didn’t have a research mentor while conducting your research, the mentors at Lumiere are always happy to help!
Keep a balance of quantitative and qualitative descriptions
The essays are a great place to get qualitative: what was the story? How did you feel? What was a moment where you learned? The resume and awards list is a great place to get quantitative. If your program was very prestigious, include the acceptance rate! If your paper was very highly reviewed, include the rating! In your application, you want both elements you can tell stories about and elements you can back up with numbers and evidence for your research to seem well-rounded. You want to show that it was a) a great learning experience and b) a legitimate, accomplished one.
Let’s address one final question: do you need to publish your research to talk about it in your application?
The answer is: certainly not. Very few high school students get their research published, although Lumiere does provide a guide on selective high school research publications. The point of research in high school is to gain skills, expertise, mentors, and stories you can talk about, while showing colleges what a motivated, passionate student you are. This means the most important thing is not publication, but the ability to showcase your research well in your application.
Another option for getting research experience
There are many ways to get research experience. If you are passionate about research and want to do advanced research, 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.
Amelia is a current junior at Harvard College studying art history with a minor in economics. She’s enthusiastic about music, movies, and writing, and is excited to help Lumiere’s students as much as she can!