In today’s evolving and competitive college admissions landscape, the terms “passion project” and “independent research” are touted as opportunities for high school students to stand out among other applicants.
The above is indeed true; the University of Pennsylvania reported that nearly one-third of the students admitted to the class of 2026 submitted some form of academic research. Harvard provides a supplemental essay prompt for students to detail “additional intellectual activities” and projects not done as school work. The Yale application has a designated “STEM Research Supplement Form” and encourages letters of recommendation from a project mentor.
To quote US News & World Report: “High school students who have an impressive personal project they are working on independently often impress colleges because their commitment to a successful solo endeavor conveys initiative, self-discipline, and originality.”
Current college students who exhibited such initiative and originality in their independent work during high school include Julia Blank (Greenwich HS/Harvard), who authored a historical research paper on 8th Century King Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance; Emily Wiley (Darien HS/Vanderbilt), who wrote the book Opening the Gate: A Journal Of Healing From Trauma & Creating Positivity after a brutal dog attack at age 16; and James Strong (Darien HS/Harvard), who published medical oncology papers in the fields of colorectal and pancreatic cancer.
In addition, the wide-ranging benefits of such student-led projects transcend a line entry on the Common App. An Independent Study Project (ISP) enables students to explore areas of interest, develop independence and confidence, and grow personally and academically. Topics range from science and STEM-oriented research to the humanities, the arts, and community service. The findings may be reported in an independent journal, on a website or podcast, or school/community presentation.
Independent Study Project Opportunities
Barrett Ward, Ph.D., a veteran educator and Carnegie Prep Independent Study mentor, said the right project provides students with a unique opportunity to pivot from the standard classroom learning paradigm and transition to developing a passion. “Such a project allows a student to ask the questions, ‘What moves me?’ and ‘Where can I contribute to society? To my community?’ ” he said. “Ultimately, if the project is executed correctly, the student will have a deeper understanding of self, the world around them, and how they will fit in as a college student and an adult.”
From Carnegie Prep mentor Nicole Eskow:
“When I was in high school, I knew I liked science, but I didn’t know what to do with it.” An award-winning independent research project focused on cancer and immunology in 11th grade set her career trajectory in motion: she majored in Molecular, Cellular and Development Biology at Yale and is now pursuing her MD/PhD at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine and mentoring future scientists. “My first research project was a really rewarding experience, and to hit the ground running in college and my major was amazing.”
For James Strong, his introduction to lab research as a 15-year-old intern at Memorial Sloan Kettering prompted him to pursue computational neuroscience in college. Now a rising junior at Harvard, he just completed a summer research project in Japan on the use of artificial intelligence in surgical procedures. “Research has not only challenged my mind but also challenged me personally to explore opportunities I would never otherwise experience.”
Whether a student is pursuing a research-oriented STEM project, compiling an arts portfolio, or launching a community service initiative, pairing with the right mentor is key to success. The important steps in launching an independent study project are:
- Choose a topic you find captivating and challenging
- Conduct preliminary research to hone your idea
- Set a timeline
- Write a thesis statement for focus and guidance
- Research, more research, write and review
- Present the project in a publication, on a website, or another outlet. There are publications specifically for high school students to submit and publish their work.
Noting that high school students often aren’t sure where to begin, mentor Devin Seli (Yale ‘24 Biology major) said an experienced mentor can encourage students to “think outside the box to create a project” and then teach them the necessary research methods to conduct it.
Mentor Rachel Klem, a former Teach for America educator completing a post-baccalaureate degree at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, said it is exciting and gratifying to help students explore a range of options. One of her students created an iPhone safety app to help keep the phone locked while driving and presented it to her peers. Another researched the effect of certain scents in reducing stress levels and created cost-effective solutions.
Creative endeavors also make for excellent ISPs. Whether students are culling artwork from a series of in- or out-of-school art classes or compiling a collection of independently produced digital drawings, videos (even content for YouTube and other platforms) or other web applications, a strong body of creative work can make a candidate shine in a competitive admissions environment.
When a Carnegie Prep student attended a Digital Songwriting course taught by mentor Sam Pottash, she was interested in learning about making digital music for personal and college application use. Sam soon saw the study become her passion and they continued to work together independently as mentor and mentee. The end result: she wrote and co-produced her own debut singles!
Working with an ISP mentor can help students explore conceptual ideas and methods that distinguish them from the crowd. ISP art mentor Anya Liftig says that
“Sometimes students and parents think that unless you have a STEM project or have started a business, you can’t include additional research in your application. Colleges want to see how you think and what you care about. Creativity comes in all forms. Show off what makes you you.”
If you’re interested in pursuing an independent research project, creative or artistic passion, or learning a new skill, please take a few minutes to fill out the form below so we can recommend the best mentor for you.