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A Guide to Pursuing Research Projects in High School

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Most common high school pursuits and interests can be fit fairly neatly into the academic or extracurricular categories. There are of course required courses that you take, and then there are the activities that you pursue outside of school hours, usually for your own enjoyment. You may play on a sports team, participate in a service project, or pursue visual arts. In most cases, even if your interests are somewhat untraditional, you can somehow package them in a way that neatly qualifies them as an extracurricular activity.


But what if your interests outside of school are more academic in nature? What if you’ve long been fascinated by the potential that carbon sequestration holds to limit the effects of climate change? What if you’re interested in the history of civil disobedience, or the ability of exams to measure actual comprehension? Whatever the case may be, there are some topics of interest that just don’t fit neatly into any extracurricular club or activity.


If you find yourself longing to pursue an interest such as this, you might consider conducting your own research project. While the concept may seem daunting at first, if you break it down into smaller, manageable tasks, you’ll quickly find that you probably already have the skills necessary to get started.



In this post, we will outline the process for conducting a long-term research project independently, including several avenues for pursuing recognition of your work and a step-by-step guide to completing your project. If you’re interested in pursuing an independent research project during high school, keep reading.


Why Pursue an Independent Research Project?

An independent research project is a great way to explore an area of interest that you otherwise would not get to learn about outside of school. By undertaking a research project on your own, not only will you explore a personal area of interest in more depth, but also you will demonstrate your dedication to pursuing knowledge for the sake of learning and your ability to work independently over a prolonged period.


Independent research projects, when conducted well and presented appropriately on a college application, can be a great advantage to you on your college admissions.


How to Choose a Topic for a Research Project

If you’re interested in pursuing a research project, you probably already have a topic in mind. In fact, the desire to conduct a research project usually stems from an existing interest, not just from the idea to conduct research on a vague or undetermined subject matter.


You should aim to narrow your research project to something that has some academic relevance. Perhaps it is related to your existing coursework. Maybe it reflects work you hope to pursue in the future, either academically or professionally. Try to fine-tune your project enough that you can easily explain the driving force behind it and its relevance to your future career path.


While you don’t need to decide on your exact topic or thesis quite yet, you should have a general idea of what your project will entail before moving forward.


Are There Existing Avenues for Undertaking a Research Project At Your School?

While you could certainly conduct your research project completely independently from your school, it is usually easier and more productive to conduct it in a way that is somehow connected to the rest of your schooling.


If the project is STEM-oriented, think about whether it would fit into a science fair or other STEM competition in which your school already competes. Also consider the AP Capstone Program if your school offers it. The second course in this sequence is AP Research, and it requires an in-depth research project as its culminating assessment.


If neither of these formal avenues are available, or neither provides a good fit, look into the possibility of pursuing your project as an independent study. If your school offers independent studies for credit, you can usually get information about them from your adviser. These types of projects usually require an extended application process that must be followed closely if you want to gain approval.


Finally, even if you can’t take advantage of one of the options above, if you have achieved advanced standing or enough credits, your school might still allow you to undertake an extended individual research project through some type of formal arrangement. Talk with a teacher, mentor, or adviser to learn what your options are. Clearly communicate your innate desire to learn more about this specific topic and be prepared to give some background on the issue that you want to research.


Steps for Undertaking the Research Project


1. Find a Mentor or Adviser

You will need someone to help guide and advise your work, so finding a willing and able mentor should be one of your first steps. This should ideally be a person with existing expertise in the subject area you wish to pursue. In the least, this person should share your interest and passion for the topic.


A teacher at your school who can also serve as an adviser is ideal, and may even be a requirement if you are formally pursuing the project as an independent study for credit. If that is not possible, you can certainly find a mentor somewhere else, even remotely if necessary.


Find out if your subject matter pertains to any local industries or companies, or if there are any scientists or professionals nearby who specialize in it. Consider checking the instructors of local summer programs or judges from past science fairs at your school.  Also consider a professional who has written an article that interested you in the field.


Before you approach a mentor to request their help, familiarize yourself with his or her work. Be able to speak articulately about what has drawn you to him or her specifically. Put some thought into informed questions you might ask him or her. Be upfront about your needs if you are going to require any specific guidance or extended time or energy from your mentor. It might be difficult to find someone at first, but keep trying. Finding a mentor for your project is an important step.


2. Set a Timeline and Stick to It

Once you’ve found a mentor, you can get started laying out the timeline for your project. When you do this, list each step of your project as specifically as possible. These will include at a minimum: background research, writing a thesis statement, in depth research phase, outlining your final paper, drafting your paper, editing your paper, and publishing your paper.


You will probably have a completion date in mind, whether it’s required by the school or simply the end of the semester or school year. Work backwards from your completion date to set a realistic timeframe for each of these steps.


It helps to have a calendar displayed prominently with your deadlines listed clearly on it to keep you on track. Also be sure to put your deadlines into your school assignment book or Google calendar so that you can see how they overlap and affect your other commitments.


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3. Conducting Research

After you’ve completed your deadline calendar, you’re ready to get started with the fun stuff:  the actual research. There are many sources for finding high quality research materials. You can use your school library, your local library, and sometimes even the library at local colleges or universities. Sometimes the libraries at colleges are open only to registered students and faculty, but if you contact a library official or a member of the department related to your research project, you might be able to gain access for research purposes.


You may also take advantage of online research tools. Google Scholar is a good place to find peer-reviewed, high quality publications. You may also find out if your school has a subscription to any online research databases like Ebsco, or JSTOR. These databases provide digital compilations of hundreds of research journals, both current and archived.   


Be careful what you choose to use as sources, though. You need to ensure that every source you rely on is high-quality and fact-based. Many internet resources now are not as accurate as they might appear. Some are outdated and some are just wrong. Remember that just about anyone can publish something online these days, so you can’t rely on information that you find on just any old website. Be particularly wary of pages like Wikipedia that look like fact-based resources but are actually drawn from unfiltered user submissions.


As you research your topic, take careful notes to track your work. Choose a system to organize your notes, such as writing on notecards that can be easily organized, or using different colored pens to color code different subtopics of your research. By carefully organizing your notes, you’ll be better set up to organize your paper.


4. Organize Your Paper

Once you’ve completed the research phase of your project, you’re ready to organize your paper. Go through your notes carefully to see how they support your thesis. If they don’t, be prepared and open to changing your thesis. Always allow the research to guide the direction of your paper, and not vice versa.


Organize your notes into the order that makes most sense in your paper. Use them to guide an outline of your paper. Once they are in order, write out a rough outline of your paper.


Prewriting is an important step to writing your paper. It allows you to go into the drafting phase with as much preparation as possible so that your writing will have a clear direction when you begin.


5. Write Your Paper 

After your organization and prewriting, you’re ready to draft your paper. Try to break this phase up into smaller pieces so that you don’t burn out. Your final product will probably be one of the longest papers you’ve ever written, usually ranging from 15-30 pages depending on your subject, so you’ll want to pace yourself.


Break up your writing deadlines into more specific sub-deadlines to help guide your work. Set goals for completing the introduction, various sections of the body, and your conclusion.


6. Edit Your Paper 

There will be multiple stages of editing that need to happen. First, you will self-edit your first draft. Then, you will likely turn a draft of your paper in to your mentor for another round of editing. Some students even choose to have a peer or family member edit a draft at some point. After several rounds of editing, you will be prepared to publish your work.


7. Publish Your Work

Publication sounds like a very official completion of your project, but in reality publishing can take many different forms. It’s really just the final draft of your project, however you decide to produce it.


For some students, publication means submitting a draft of your project to an actual journal or formal publication. For others, it means creating a polished draft and a display board that you will present at a school or public event. For still others it might just be a polished, final draft bound and turned into your mentor.


However you decide to publish your work, be mindful that this should be a reflection of an entire semester or year of work, and it should reflect the very height of your learning and abilities. You should be proud of your final product.


If you’re a high school student with in-depth interests in a subject area that doesn’t fit neatly into any of your existing extracurriculars or academic courses, you should consider pursuing a research project to reflect your interest and dedication. Not only will your pursuit allow you to further explore a subject that’s interesting to you, but also it will be a clear example of your independence and commitment on your college applications.


Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


For more information about research and independent projects in high school, check out these posts:



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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.