My video interview at Yale University was about to begin–and I was nervous. My palms were sweaty as I contemplated what I’d say to the faculty interviewer. I took a deep breath and turned on my camera.
To my surprise, she sat at her desk, smiling broadly. Before I could say anything, she started with a few words. “Stephen, I’ve never said this to an applicant before, but I loved your research paper with Ethan (my research co-author at Harvard Business School). I even use it in my class!”
Immediately, my shoulders dropped as I relaxed. My research had spoken before I had.
When I applied for my undergraduate and graduate studies, research transformed my profile from a good student to a distinctive applicant. For graduate school, I was accepted to every PhD programme to which I applied (with acceptance rates of three to four percent) and ended up choosing Harvard Business School over Stanford Graduate School of Business, MIT Sloan School of Management, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Yale School of Management, Columbia Business School and Hass School of Business. The same was true for my undergraduate studies, where I chose Harvard College over Yale University and the Wharton School.
Why did doing research in college and high school help me stand out? And why can it be useful for prospective applicants? Here are a few main reasons:
1) Doing research demonstrates intellectual rigour and curiosity:
The pinnacle of the academic world, tenured professors, do not prove their academic excellence by taking tests or getting good grades. Instead, they do novel research on questions that have never been answered. As a result, doing research–whether independently, with a graduate student or with a professor–is seen as the highest order of academic rigour. Creating a research paper–even if not published–shows a level of intellectual ability and creativity that surpasses even a perfect test score. Colleges and graduate schools take notice when they see research on your application.
2) Doing research helps you find advocates:
When you do research with a PhD student or professor, you’re implicitly building a deep and strong relationship. Everyone in academia reached their current position because of a series of recommendation letters that mentors and other instructors wrote for them. When you do research, you quickly build a connection with a mentor who can then serve as an advocate for you–whether formally (with a letter) or informally (with information about how to apply and be effective). My three letters for graduate school, for example, came from three faculty members who I did research with at Harvard College.
3) Doing research can help shape your narrative:
One way to prove your interest and passion is to dive into research in that area. As a high school student, I was fascinated by the Chinese language and the role of social media in China. So, I began a small research project with a local researcher. Later on, when I wrote my personal statement, I used this research to highlight my interest in China and Chinese social media.
4) Doing research proves that you know what it takes to succeed in college and graduate school:
By doing research, particularly with a PhD-level researcher, you show an understanding of the rigour required at college or graduate school. As admissions officers are looking at your application, they’re asking the question, “Will this student thrive here?” By doing research, you show how you’ve reached that academic level before you’ve even enrolled. Your advocates can then also prove that with recommendations.
5) Doing research demonstrates your grit and hard work:
The reality is that doing research is not easy. For those that can stick it out and create a research paper (published or not), they show a distinctive level of grit and hard work. For both undergraduate and graduate school, this is a trait that most institutions look for–research on your resume will emphasize your ability to tackle academic challenges.
Research is not for everyone. And it’s definitely not a silver bullet when it comes to college or graduate school admissions. With that said, it can be a distinctive part of your academic journey, not only helping you as you apply but also helping you dive into an academic passion.
One way to do research is through structured programmes that introduce you to topics and researchers. Programmes such as the Lumiere Research Scholar Program help students work directly with researchers from universities such as Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Oxford on developing an independent research paper. Informally, there are other ways to find research opportunities–such as reaching out directly to faculty or graduate students in an area that interests you. However you find research, I encourage you to try it out and see how it can transform your profile and interests.
Stephen Turban is a guest blogger with The Red Pen. He is also the founder of the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, which helps talented high school and college students work directly with researchers from elite universities.