If research projects had an incubator at the high school level, the MIT Think Scholars Program would be the closest option. All you need is a well-researched idea with a practical execution plan and MIT will give you the necessary guidance to make this project real.
Many students are not aware of how this competition works. In this guide, we will tell you all you need to know about this unique competition and what it takes to perform well here!
What is MIT THINK?
Most science competitions require students to have completed a research project before applying, THINK, on the other hand, caters to students who have done extensive research on the background of a potential research project and are looking for additional guidance in the early stages of their project.
You will apply to MIT Think by submitting a written research proposal outlining a novel science, technology, or engineering idea (more on this later). Finalists receive an all-expenses paid trip to MIT, mentorship, and funding to implement their proposed projects during the spring of the same year. These finalists will be designated as MIT THINK Scholars upon successful completion of their projects in the following May.
MIT THINK Scholars Program was founded in 2008 by a group of MIT undergraduates. The name ‘Think’ comes from an aim to promote T(echnology) for H(umanity) through I(nnovation), N(etworking), and K(nowledge). Even today, a team of undergraduate students leads the program as part of MIT TechX, the largest technology club at the Institute.
Who is eligible to apply?
THINK is open to all high school students with permanent residence in the United States. Students may apply by submitting a written research proposal outlining novel science, technology, or engineering ideas following the proceeding guidelines. Here are the specific eligibility criteria:
You must be a full-time high school student (i.e. attending a public, private, or home school) at the time of application.
You must have permanent U.S. residency during the 2022-2023 academic year:
U.S. citizenship is not required
U.S. citizens living outside the country are not eligible
You can only submit one proposal per academic year
Proposals may be written by either an individual or a group of two students
How prestigious is MIT Think? How competitive is MIT Think?
We rate MIT Think as a very selective competition. Only 6 finalists are selected each year. Even if 100 students apply every year (it’s probably more), that would give the MIT think acceptance rate of 6% or less.
The winners enjoy special benefits too. Apart from a chance to become a Think Scholar, winners are entitled to
An all-expenses paid trip to MIT
One-time budget of up to $1000 to implement the project
Weekly mentorship meetings with MIT student mentors
Needless to say, becoming a finalist will give a huge boost to your college application. It will demonstrate your ability to not only come up with an ambitious and relevant project but also to execute that project from start to finish.
Important details regarding MIT Think
Let’s go through the various components that make this competition tick.
What is the timeline like?
The timeline may vary every year but it would roughly look something like this: Applications usually open in November and are due by 1 January. After an interview of the shortlisted candidates, the finalists are notified 2 weeks after the application deadline and are expected to attend a fully sponsored trip to MIT in early February. From here, the research project itself must be completed by June of the same year.
Where do you submit your application?
Once the portal opens in November, create an account using your email address and enter the required information.
The selection process
The THINK team (undergraduate students who specialize in your area of research) reviews applications in two rounds: first, an initial proposal review to choose program semifinalists, and then a video interview, after which up to six finalists will be chosen. Finalists will receive an all-expenses paid trip to MIT and continued mentorship and funding to implement their proposed projects during spring.
Finalists will be designated as MIT THINK Scholars upon successfully completing their projects before June.
The Project Proposal
The project proposal is inarguably the most important and time-consuming part of your application. In this section, we will break this component down and look at how to maximize your chances of building a great proposal. There are mandatory points that you have to address in your proposal and these are all mentioned here.
The project proposal can be divided into the following sections and must not be more than 10 pages. Let’s look at them one by one:
Title and abstract: Your abstract is a very important way for you to summarize your research for interested readers. Write an engaging, thorough, and concise abstract of up to 250 words summarizing your project. Make sure you are addressing the following points in your research:
Motivation: What is the problem you are trying to solve? Why is this an important problem to address?
Goals: What are the desired outcomes of your project?
Approach: How do you plan to implement your project proposal?
Idea: In this section, you will have to clearly identify the need or problem you are trying to solve and explain any background information needed to understand the context and motivation of your project. This is where you will also cite existing scientific literature to contextualize your project. This is the section where we recommend that you think big picture about your topic. Say you want to work on improving bio-medical waste disposal methods in the country. In this section, you will have to explain the size of the problem and the inefficiencies of the current methods that are being used to tackle it. You will also cite research done by other scientists trying to come up with more sustainable and efficient solutions to tackle this problem. Finally, you will talk about the value that your proposed solution is adding.
Plan: Here is where you demonstrate that your project is technically feasible. Give concrete milestones for your project and the resources required to achieve those milestones (funding, mentorship, materials). If we continue the example of improving biomedical waste disposal, you may write about:
Whether you need a mentor who specializes in anaerobic incineration
The time it would take you to build your first prototype
Risks involved with the project since it has certain biohazards
Your project budget
You can find more detailed instructions about this here.
Personal: This section is very atypical from standard research competitions or applications. It resembles sections of college applications and essays a lot more. Here, you will have to mention your academic background and personal interest in the topic. The judges want to know where you are coming from and what leads your interest in the field. Your source of inspiration can be as creative as you want. Here is an example: “I stared at the solid black canvas. I wondered if I, a human, couldn’t really understand art, what would computers have to say? If computers could create art, could they possibly also understand art? And so my project of creating what’s basically an AI-powered art critic was born.”
References: Cite all consulted sources using the APA format. Remember that all your references should appear as in-text citations across sections 1-4!
Anchoring your project to the judging criteria will make sure that you don’t lose direction. Your project proposal will be judged on the following metrics:
Impact: How relevant, important, or interesting is the identified problem? Make sure you keep asking yourself these questions when conducting initial research into your topic of interest.
Innovation: Try to ensure that your solution is innovative and improves substantially upon the existing work. Avoid evergreening of work i.e. instead of finding a solution that improves upon the existing work by 2%, find something that makes a bigger leap.
Clarity: Does your proposal define all the various components clearly and coherently?
Feasibility: Ground your project in reality. A nuclear-powered car would be awesome but unfeasible at the level of this competition, given the time and resource constraints.
Benefit: How much will the completion of this project benefit from THINK funding and mentorship? This is important because Think would only select you if they think that they can add some specific value to the project.
5 Winning Tips from Lumiere
Pay attention to your project proposal guidelines: The last thing you want is for your application to be disqualified due to a failure to follow the format guidelines mentioned. Please go through these guidelines in detail. From font size to project proposal format, there are various points that you need to take into consideration properly.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Be observant! As mentioned above, your idea can come from anywhere. Before you google “10 research project ideas”, think deeply about the problems that you see every day around you. Especially the ones that you relate to on a personal level!
Ground your proposal in research: Students don't typically understand how essential it is that your proposal is largely informed by cutting-edge research papers and journal articles, which are the standard way top research is presented. It's important students ground their work in active research!
Don’t be unrealistic in your scope: A good proposal has an insightful idea, clearly defined goals, and a well-thought-out procedure for implementation. The fact that MIT Think does not require you to have a completed research paper comes with a certain danger of coming up with an impractical or overly-ambitious project proposal. Please keep in mind that you are only an MIT Think Scholar if you successfully complete the program. For instance, you cannot aim to discover why laws of physics break down at the singularity since this is a project that goes beyond the scope of a project. However, you can aim to find ways to improve the efficiency of rocket fuel (that can in turn help study singularity).
Give concrete steps of action: As part of your project proposal, you will have to come up with a proposed timeline for your project. Make sure that you give tangible and measurable milestones as opposed to some big-picture goal. For instance, if you are working on developing an app, instead of saying that you will “revise the app based on feedback”, go for something more concrete like “user testing with 6 potential users based on XYZ framework and coming up with a 5-point plan of action”.
Seek mentorship: While it is true that all finalists will be provided mentorship from MIT itself, the proposal-building stage is also fairly technical. Some applicants also apply to the program with a prototype in hand. Similarly, the proposal requires you to situate your work in the broader context of the research in your field. This involves critically reading literature which is often challenging for high school students. Having a mentor can help with a lot of this. Apart from making sure that your project is a realistic and achievable one, a mentor will guide you in the technical and non-technical aspects of your project.
Lumiere Winning Student Case Study - Ojas
To understand the entire process from somebody who has actually done it, we spoke to Lumiere alumnus and MIT Think finalist, Ojas Gupta.
Ojas worked on a multi-modal low-cost elemental analyzer using LIBS, using osteoporosis as a test case. Besides osteoporosis diagnostics, this non-invasive chemical analyzer could also be used for daily health monitoring and early detection of numerous chronic diseases.
How long did it take for you to complete your application?
It took me all of November and December to complete my application, and then another month for the interview and final admission into the program by Feb 1st. This included two very dedicated weeks of December break dedicated to this project (almost full days of working). For me, most of the time was spent brainstorming a good idea as the program is very "change the world"-focused, and by the time I had done sufficient research on which idea to pick, writing the proposal was pretty easy.
What was the process of drafting your project proposal? How did you come up with your idea?
I have to give a lot of credit to my Lumiere mentor (Gabriel Sturm) for this one. He made brainstorming schedules and made sure every week I was bringing in new ideas/combing them with the old ones. In addition, I had done some of these projects before, so I knew to approach the brainstorming process in two separate parts: First, finding a compelling/pressing problem, and second, finding a solution.
Osteoporosis was a pretty big problem so that wasn't extremely hard to find after a quick interview with a doctor. However, to find the solution, I had to do lots of research through pages of Google and PubMed. I found an idea that seemed interesting to me (using lasers), ran it by my mentor, and together we decided that it was a solid idea. I had enough time to build a rough prototype of the final device, just to demonstrate that I knew and understood lasers and optical science, and I think that played a major role in my getting into the program.
How important is mentorship for this entire process?
At the end of the day, the research will have to be completed by the student but I think my mentor played a really important role in making sure I was staying creative and focused in brainstorming. Not only did he help me make a schedule and hold me accountable, but he helped give me some ideas to research from his own work/side hobby interests/ideas, and he also was really knowledgeable/"street-smart" in knowing which of my ideas could be feasible and which were way too far fetched.
What was your interview experience like?
The interview was pretty laid-back for me, I felt like they were mainly making sure the student understood their own proposal and showed some signs of genuine interest/curiosity. Thanks to my research process I knew I had a really powerful and compelling problem, and by talking about that a lot, the interviewers later told me that they had seen that I was very passionate and curious which is why they let me in. I also had a rough prototype that I could talk about/show new data after the submission of the proposal, so the fact that I kept working on the project from the time period of Jan 1st from when the proposal was submitted to Jan 25th the day of the interview also showed genuine passion.
How was the MIT mentorship experience? What were the main challenges that you faced?
Maybe because it was online, but if I'm being honest, the MIT program didn't feel like it was really worth all the hype and I ended up doing most of the project by myself. I wasn't able to access a mentor as my project was already really niche, and on top of that it was online, and a lot of the MIT campus tours + group building activities simply weren't the same online.
Another challenge was just brainstorming a good solution. Usually, biomechanical devices don't go far at the high school level because no one thinks a high schooler can actually build and process biofeedback, and I had to do a lot of work before the proposal to understand 3D modeling and laser optics in order to convince MIT THINK I knew what I was doing (and after the program too; they didn't end up helping much).
What would you tell students interested in MIT Think? Any tips for them?
I would 100% recommend focusing on a strong and compelling problem that either is significant in the world or in their own lives in order to get into the program. That's the one common thread I saw in all the students that got in. While obviously, a problem that is personally compelling to students is more powerful to the judges' eyes (2/6 of the groups that got in did a smaller scale "personal" problem), I didn't feel like I had such a problem in my life and was able to do research to find a global problem and that also works (along with 3 other proposals that got in).
MIT THINK's website also has past accepted proposals available to read for inspiration in proposal design/topics. In addition, a lot of students didn't end up completing their project (maybe because it was online) but the purpose of MIT THINK is to give you the resources you need to complete the project/give it your best shot. Also, MIT THINK is by no means the finish line. I didn't complete my project during the THINK program duration, but I did in the following Summer (THINK has a soft ending in June-ish along with ~1 week in person at MIT) and I ended up taking my project to an International Conference the following September. Think about conferences, publishing, and any other outlets for the work; MIT THINK is just a stepping stone in the process.
Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you’re looking for a mentor to do a competition like MIT Think or want to build your own independent research paper, then consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. Last year over 2100 students applied for about 500 spots in the program. You can find the application form here.
You can see our admission results here for our students.
Manas is a publication strategy associate at Lumiere Education. He studied public policy and interactive media at NYU and has experience in education consulting.