Colleges want students who show initiative and have intellectual curiosity.  Tons of student have both those traits, but they’re difficult to show on paper.  Sure, taking a variety of challenging courses and joining clubs show those qualities in action.  But, there are hundreds of straight A, debate club presidents applying to UC Berkeley every year.  How can you differentiate your passion for learning from that of other students? One great way is entering a science fair.  I’m not talking about the vinegar and baking soda volcano variety, but rather one which demands students carry out an original, groundbreaking research project.  By joining a STEM competition, you’ll have the opportunity to put your love of science to work while improving the world (and your college application).

There are many STEM competitions you can enter, depending on your interests.  Perhaps the most well-known is the Intel Science Talent Search where students compete at the local, state and national level by presenting original research to a panel of judges.  Google recently rolled out a similar project where students compete online internationally.  Both those competitions award sizable scholarships to winners and runners-up. Each competition has a slightly different focus, however.  The Intel Science Talent Search is often more “technical” in nature with students writing bona fide journal articles while the Google Science Fair has a stronger focus on practical applications and helping communities, coupled with a lessened demand for technical writing.  You can find a short list of other competitions along with brief descriptions and eligibility requirements here and here.  The competitions emphasize everything from robotics and aerospace engineering to biotechnology.  As with the rest of your high school experience, do work which you find interesting. Don’t dedicate hundreds of hours to writing a computer program when you want to be studying mouse physiology.  If you do a good job, colleges will take note.

But before you decide which competition to enter, you should talk to your guidance counselor about what resources your high school provides for students interested in independent research.  Some schools offer a class where you learn about research methods and are connected to a mentor who assists you in designing a full research project. Other schools set you up with a teacher with whom you have periodic one-on-one meetings, but they’re otherwise very hands off.  Completing a rigorous scientific experiment without any prior experience is not easy. There’s no shame in asking for help; science is a team sport.

For readers who might not be interested in doing independent research and entering a STEM competition, I have some advice.  There’s a lot of research that working on these types of projects can awaken a love of science.  Too often we think our goals and passions are immutable. That isn’t the case.  Instead, people discover what they to do through trial and error – or the scientific method.  Take a chance and see if you change your mind. It’s better to have tried and failed, rather than never done so in the first place.