What is academic research for high school students?

As college admissions processes become significantly more competitive, quality academic research completed in high school is increasingly sought after. The perception is that academic research is usually conducted in a science lab, but it can involve the systematic exploration of an almost unlimited number of different fields, ranging from current developments in science and technology to theoretical aspects of the humanities to real-world business practices, in order to discover new insights and solve pressing problems. Here, we explore what academic research is and discuss how completing academic research in high school develops your university application and further career prospects.  

Fundamentally, academic research centers around structured investigation of a very specific sub-field of an academic area. By drawing upon previous papers, data, and qualitative sources of information, academic research attempts to fill knowledge gaps in existing literature. An important note on academic research for students looking to get involved is that there is great diversity in subject areas! Students can engage in research in virtually any subfield of knowledge as academia emphasizes the pursuit of knowledge for its intrinsic value, thereby making it one of the most inclusive spaces for exploration. This factor specifically should make academic research more appealing to high school students. Young researchers can contribute fresh perspectives and ideas if they’re able to effectively find their area of interest.  

There are a number of reasons why a high school student might want to participate in academic research. We will discuss two categories among the many: university applications and career prospects. 

Regarding university applications, engaging in research not only showcases intellectual curiosity and dedication but also demonstrates commitment to contributing to the chosen field of study, setting the student apart as a promising candidate for admission. Many universities have recently been ramping up their research programs aimed at undergraduates and that likely translates to them looking for those same skills in their applicants. If a high school student is able to demonstrate (through, for example, participation in well regarded research programs or competitions) aptitude for academic research, then their ability to add to the quality of undergraduate level research at the given university is clearly increased. Additionally, through working on research projects with teams based in universities, a student may be able to include a positive recommendation letter from a Professor which will likely reflect very well on their capabilities when submitting their university applications.

On top of benefits for university applications, academic research provides numerous long term career benefits. There are a number of invaluable transferable skills that a student can gain beyond subject specific knowledge from engaging in research. These transferable skills might include things like data analysis or literature reviews or softer skills such as problem-solving and time management. In addition, accomplishments in high school research might have direct implications for prospective career paths. For applications to medical school and graduate programs, quality research experiences are almost required for admission into top programs as they demonstrate a student’s potential to contribute to the respective fields. Alternatively, for the engineering or software path, firms in this field often require applicants to submit portfolios of relevant projects and conducting high school research is a good way to begin to build that portfolio.  

Universities and colleges’ interest in academic research at a high school level is rising, and so it is recommended that high school students consider taking their first steps into this fascinating world. We would encourage young minds to further nurture their academic curiosities and help contribute to the creation of knowledge by embarking on the process of academic research.       


This article is the first of a 3-article series on the importance and development of quality high school academic research. In future articles, we will be discussing starting a new research project and best practices in academic research.