Are science fairs meaningful experiences “for college”?


Almost weekly, students and parents jump through the doors of my college admissions coaching office with the same question: “I wanna be pre-med! So, do I have to participate in science fairs (and win) to get into a good college? And do I have to get my research published?”

To this, I say: what would be a meaningful experience for you? 

Meaningful is a powerfully thought-provoking word that teenagers on the road to “getting into college” must consistently ask themselves. 

Let’s be blunt: As a college admissions professional, I can easily pinpoint an applicant who is clearly doing initiatives, from journal publications to science fairs, simply to beef up their resume “for college.” 

Where do I get this data point? 

Most notably: their list of activities and college application essays.  

When the time comes to actually write the college application essays, I’d ask these students: 

  • What inspired you to tackle this research problem? 
  • What’d you learn in the process of conducting this research?
  • How’d you grow — as a person and as a student of science — from these experiences?

Very rarely do students have an answer with a layer of depth. 

Depth and reflection are incredibly important. Why? Because you must convey what you’ve learned, and how you’ve grown from an experience in your college application essays (if you choose to write about your research, of course).

Students who approach research, science fairs, and journal publications with the end goal of winning in mind haven’t stepped back to think about the why’s behind their actions. Why is this research meaningful to me? Why is it meaningful to others? Because, after all, research at its core is to tackle tough problems with the hopes of translating solutions into real world applications. 

I have the incredible opportunity to work with extremely motivated high school students — those who are admitted into coveted Ivy Leagues and top tier schools, from MIT to Stanford. 

And you know what? Do they all do science fairs? No. Are they all published? Nope. 

But they do have several themes in common, and I’ll give you one hint: They all take action on meaningful opportunities. They find meaningful experiences. 

So the next time you find yourself asking this question, “Do I have to do X to get into a top college?” STOP. Instead, ask yourself: “Do I find this opportunity meaningful to me? Can this be a meaningful contribution to others?”