Are you a high school student considering independent research? If so, there’s one challenge that you, along with other students pursuing a research journey, should be expected to face - choosing a research question.
The answers you get are as good as the questions you ask, and research is no different. If you continue in research, you’ll face this question many more times with varying degrees of difficulty. It’s not a bad idea (understatement) to try your hand at developing and answering a good research question.
Not only does a solid research question demonstrate motivation and a strong skill set in the subject of your choice, but also helps you make a stronger impact when you are mentioning research in your college application, as opposed to a half-baked research question that is conducted just for the sake of it.
In this blog, we’ll think through the entire lifecycle of a research question. A few aspects we will cover include -
Why you should consider doing research in high school and how to go about it.
The elements of what makes a good research question.
How to choose a research question/topic.
How to go about doing research in high school. (We've elaborated on this further here)
There’s quite a bit to process and think through, so we’ve linked to our deep-dive guides on some of these aspects while covering it broadly in this post. We also outline tips that can help refine and improve your research question!
Why do research in high school?
Talking about research questions is never complete without discussing why doing research is important in high school.
The very first thing you should consider is what value doing research will add to your profile and the field you are pursuing research. Yes, it solves a problem statement, but it does much more than that. Research helps you plan and think through solutions. The plan and the execution of that plan are equally important. It helps you understand how to ‘project manage’, collaborate, be methodical, communicate and analyze. No matter what you end up doing, these are important skill sets to have.
To add to this, through research, you can delve into your fields of interest and gain exposure to different areas within your subject interest.
Engaging in research allows you to familiarize yourself with a professional environment and develop high-level research skills. Moreover, working with experts and interacting with peers can allow you to gain valuable connections that might contribute to stellar letters of recommendation.
Research is also extremely valuable for college applications! UPenn reported that 1/3rd of the Class of 2026 have engaged in some form of research during high school. Doing a research project shows your passion as you have taken the initiative to pursue your interested subject outside of school!
If you choose to do research in your desired field, you signal to admission officers that you’ve engaged with the subject you wish to pursue. This intellectual curiosity and determination will set you apart from the rest of the applications as admission officers look for students who push themselves out of their comfort zones.
Tip: Admission officers value your contribution and involvement in your project more than the number of projects you have done. Your main focus should be describing your research experience well in your application! This includes being succinct and describing your research well. Use metrics to give short, clear sentences on your reason, the reason why you did it, and its impact on the real world.
You can check out our deep dive into how admissions officers evaluate research here!
What makes a good research question?
Before you start creating your research question, you should know the features of a good research question. You can use these 5 pointers as guidelines to ensure your research question will be good:
Clarity and specificity - Your question should be clear, concise, and specific. This will make it easier to choose the appropriate methodology and collect relevant data. Vague questions will also make it difficult for you to answer the question effectively!
Relevance - When choosing a question, you should make it relevant to your field of interest. Moreover, your research should not reiterate research that has already been conducted.
Feasibility - As a high-schooler, chances are you will have to stick to a tight time frame to conduct your research. Therefore, you should be able to gather data, collate your findings, and present your research within the given time. Choosing a topic that is too large for the time frame can lead to incomplete research, which makes it less valuable.
Measurability - Your question should allow you to measure the final success and outcomes of the research you have conducted. Questions that are too abstract can make it challenging to conduct research and draw meaningful conclusions.
Originality and potential for contribution - Continuing from relevance, a good research question should allow you to contribute to the existing research conducted. You should aim to fill a gap, challenge assumptions, or offer a fresh perspective! This will lead to your research being significant and valuable.
Monash University shared a simple, but effective framework on how to narrow down questions. We liked it!
You can use the table below as a guide for creating your own questions!
Source: Monash University
How to choose your research question?
1. Combining your academic interests with your passions and hobbies!
When choosing a research question, start with subjects or areas you find interesting. Then, you could combine these interests with your passions and hobbies! For example, you can connect cricket with business to explore what factors contribute to a player’s worth during NBA auctions.
Combining your hobbies with your academic interests makes your research engaging and reflects your dedication and enthusiasm as you pursue these passions at a deeper level. Admission officers value this as it shows your commitment toward your interests and academics. Moreover, it makes your research more enjoyable as you are studying a topic you are interested in!
Need some inspiration? We have you covered!
If you would like to look at examples of research ideas, you can look at our posts where we have proposed innovative research ideas across subjects such as computer science, physics, biology, chemistry, history, and economics!
2. Think of the 5Ws!
Addressing who, what, when, where and why questions can help you narrow down on a topic! Here’s a breakdown of what you should consider for each question:
WHO - Who are the main publishers of information in this field? Who is primarily affected by this information or topic? Are there any organizations or institutions that are specifically affiliated with this topic?
WHAT - What are the major questions for this topic? Are there any debates about this topic? If yes, what are the different viewpoints for this debate?
WHEN - When was your topic applicable/important? Is it a current, pressing issue or are you discussing a historical issue? Are you looking at a single time period or comparing your topics by different time periods?
WHERE - Where is your topic important - at a local, national, or international level? You have to specify the areas that your research is relevant to.
WHY - Why did you choose the topic? What interests you about it and do you have any opinion in any area within this topic?
If you would like to look at the 5 questions in more detail, you can look at this MIT guide!
3. Does your research further your project/ internship experience?
Another way of approaching research is to have your research contribute to other project experiences you have done. For example, if you have volunteered at a non-profit focused on providing access to clean water in rural areas, your research paper could be centered around clean water access!
Additionally, you can couple your research with internship programs. You can consider Ladder Internships. Ladder Internships is a selective program for high school students to work with startups.
As part of their internship, each student will work on a real-world project and present their work at the end of their internship. Note that as a Ladder Intern, you will engage in a coaching+work-based model - a component that sets it apart from most internships!
Ladder Startups work in fields including technology, machine learning and AI, finance, environmental science and sustainability, business and marketing, healthcare and medicine, media and journalism, and more. You can explore all the options here on their application form.
If you create a project for your internship, you can continue your real-world project by conducting research on a similar topic. For example, if you have created a marketing campaign for your internship, you could conduct research on what factors make a marketing campaign successful! This also gives cohesion to your college application.
By combining your previous experience with research, you show your commitment to a subject. This continuity is valued by admission officers as it shows your dedication and growth towards the subject over time, which signals that you delve deep into topics that interest you.
An added bonus is that you can showcase the theoretical and practical knowledge you have gained through your experiences!
4. Is the topic connected to the subject you intended to pursue at university?
Source: Lumiere Education’s whitepaper titled “The Other Side of The Door: How Admissions Officers Evaluate High School Research Project”
If you intend to pursue a specific subject in university, choosing a research topic in this subject shows your proactiveness in exploring this subject! For instance, if you wish to pursue biology, you could explore the genetic basis of certain inherited traits for a local animal population.
While this can help you explore your interests within the subject you intend to pursue, it also shows cohesiveness between your experiences and field of interest. Additionally, it shows that you are actively preparing for the challenge in university through your exploration of more advanced knowledge.
5. Can you choose a topic that combines your knowledge of 2 subjects?
Choosing an interdisciplinary topic shows your versatility and is a great way to pursue research if you have yet to decide on a subject you wish to pursue in university! For example, if you are interested in psychology and computer science, you could explore how digital distractions such as smartphone notifications affect cognitive tasks.
By choosing an interdisciplinary subject, you signal to college admission officers that you have a broader perspective and better problem-solving skills as you can approach a problem from multiple disciplines, which results in more innovative solutions!
Additionally, choosing an interdisciplinary topic allows you to explore emerging fields, e.g. environmental economics. This shows how you can use the foundational knowledge you have learnt in school and apply this to discoveries in newer fields.
6. Use tools likeChatGPT to brainstorm but be VERY careful!
ChatGPT is a pretty valuable tool for getting general information quickly, and you can use it to brainstorm research questions. But long story short, we would definitely recommend that you use it tactfully beyond that.
To begin, ChatGPT can be used to explore potential research areas and emerging topics in your field of interest. For example, if you are interested in economics, ChatGPT can give you current issues to explore further!
Moreover, you can use platforms such as ChatGPT to get feedback to refine your research questions. It can help you clarify ideas, identify potential gaps in your questions, and offer suggestions for improving your questions. This will depend on how well you refine your prompt and you will notice that ChatGPT answers are directionally right but quite wrong on the specifics.
Additionally, ChatGPT is useful for identifying other angles that you might not have considered. For instance, if you are interested in analyzing social media and its contributions to feminist discourse, ChatGPT can suggest related fields such as its impact on mental health, digital activism, and more!
We’d highly recommend you use Google Scholar to get an overview of the type of work being done in your area(s) of interest.
How do you go about doing research in high school?
Once you have a good research question, it’s all about the execution. This section is useful, even if you don’t have the research question. This is a general approach towards accessing research opportunities in high school.
1. Identify and apply research opportunities strategically: Some options are recurring programs. Usually, these are advertised. These can be structured research programs or internships run by universities, non-profits, or government departments.
If you already have a research question in mind, think through which programs are appropriate for those subject areas. These programs are often in the form of research opportunities or coursework-oriented pre-college programs. We’ve built out a bunch of subject-specific lists for you.
2. Opt for a research mentorship program: Research mentorship programs allow you to experience the entire research cycle with the guidance of an experienced mentor. At Lumiere, mentors come from universities like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and more! Your mentors can help you with ideating and refining your questions, especially if your questions fall within 2 topics. For example, if you are interested in gender studies and political science, your mentor can help identify potential research topics that would intersect both topics!
2 great research mentorship programs are Lumiere Research Scholar Program and Veritas AI!
Founded by Harvard and Oxford researchers, Lumiere is an opportunity for talented high-school students to be paired with world-class Ph.D. mentors to work 1-on-1 on an independent research project. Lumiere allows students to do research in the fields of STEM, Social Sciences, AI, and business.
Veritas AI is founded and run by Harvard graduate students and each program is geared towards high school students who want to build their foundations in computer science. Through the program, students build real-world projects in groups of 3-5 students to showcase their interests and skills. You can also apply for the AI Fellowship where you work 1-1 with mentors from top universities to build unique, individualized projects!
3. Make the best of networking opportunities at summer programs or pre-college research programs: Structured programs such as the Lumiere Research Scholar Program or Veritas AI allow you to gain experience under researchers from top universities. You should take advantage of your admission into these programs and connect with your mentors or professors outside of the program! You can always approach these individuals for more research opportunities.
If you want a more detailed guide on going about research, you can look at our blog, which delves into everything you need to know about doing research in high school!
What else can you do apart from research?
To create a well-rounded application, you will have to show other experiences apart from research. Here are a few other ideas for extracurriculars!
Competitions - Competitions are a great way to build competence and gain exposure. This exposure often translates to being able to think through research questions. For example, if you are interested in subjects like computer science, AI, or robotics, coding competitions are an opportunity for you to apply your theoretical knowledge in practical situations. The Congressional App Challenge is a great example of a competition that is quite likely to lead to a larger research project because you'll spend a lot of time identifying a problem in society and building an app to solve it. If you are interested in competitions in computer science, you can look at our blog here!
Model United Nations - If you wish to pursue political science, law, or international relations, you should consider participating in MUNs as they allow you to develop speaking, negotiation, and diplomacy skills! Participating in prestigious MUNs is extremely valuable as it not only shows your ability to conduct research but also highlights your soft skills such as persuasive speaking.
Olympiads - Regardless of which subject you are interested in, Olympiads are a great opportunity to show your academic ability. If you are interested in participating in Olympiads, you can look at our deep dives in Olympiads such as the Genius Olympiad, the USA Computing Olympiad, and the International Olympiad in Informatics!
Internships - Internships allow you to show your ability to apply theoretical knowledge in practical situations! Moreover, as we’ve mentioned before - coupling your internship experience with research adds to the cohesiveness of your entire application.
Another option - Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you are interested in doing university-level research, you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students I founded with 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.
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a Ph.D. 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 logo