Stephen Turban is the co-founder of the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. His research has appeared in places like the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Harvard Business Review.
As American universities move away from standardized test scores, more students are looking for ways to showcase their abilities for colleges. As we’ve found in our research, there is a notable increase in students doing research prior to entering university. This rise in the demand for research experience is especially evidenced by the growing number of opportunities in this area, with programs and universities alike offering research programs for high school students.
As the director of the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, I have had a ringside view of how research is impacting students, having had over 600 students from 30 different countries do research as part of the program over the past few years. We recently embarked on a study of 142 of our students applying early to American universities to see why they did research and what impact it had on their college application process.
Why are students doing research?
Our study helped us understand the motivations for students in doing research. As we saw, students are looking to build up a project that showcases their unique interests. In many cases, doing research independently is difficult – it’s hard to know how to start and how to make it rigorous. So, students use a research experience to demonstrate tangible effort, expertise, and commitment to the field of study they are applying for.
This year, we set out to get a clearer picture of how experience with an independent research project impacted our students’ college prospects. We sent our alumni a survey on their early admissions results and their use of research in the college application process. In the resulting report, we analyzed quantitative and qualitative data from 142 students who had participated in the Lumiere Research Scholar Program.
Of these 142 students, 99% of respondents used their research project prominently across their college applications. 50.7% were accepted at one of the universities they applied to early. Lumiere alumni also received offers from 5 of 8
Ivy League universities. 16.4% of respondents who applied to Ivy League universities were accepted in the early admissions cycle, which is 27.7% higher than the average early acceptance rate for Ivies. As a researcher, it’s important to be careful about causality – there’s no silver bullet when it comes to college admissions. But, it’s clear that students who do research are doing better when it comes to college admission outcomes.
When applying for universities, we found that students took different strategies to showcase their work. Some students showcased their research in their list of activities or through a recommendation letter, to prove their academic ability and expertise. Others built on their research and reflected on their experiences in essays to demonstrate personal growth and social commitment. We also learned that accepted students were more likely to ask for a letter of recommendation from their research mentor and to talk about their research in an interview, using it as part of a narrative to demonstrate expertise in a field, commitment to a cause, or personal growth.
Our interpretation of that final data is that students who can give more colour to their research work (e.g., by having a mentor talk about it, or by writing about it clearly in their essays) were more likely to do well. Universities judge students holistically. So, a one-off research experience likely has little impact. However, if a student is able to showcase research as part of a broader set of activities, then it has an impact on the student and their candidacy.
Research is also becoming more common across international high school curricula. The extended essay for IB students is a requirement for all IB students to wrestle with a smaller scale research project. The A-level APQ is another opportunity for students to do so. Over the past five years, the college board has built a deeper set of research opportunities in the APs with the introduction of AP research and AP capstone. Each of those curriculum changes represents an increased emphasis on research skills both for college and as a fundamental skill set in the 21 century.
We will have to wait a few more years to see the long-term impact of research programs and research in the high school curriculum. But, it is clear that this
The trend has some lasting power as research is being built up in independent programs, being promoted by universities, and is becoming part of students’ curriculum.