5 STEM Extracurriculars for High Schoolers
- School Clubs
- Summer Programs
- Self-Driven Projects
- How Do Extracurriculars Impact Your College Chances?
If you’re planning on studying science—subjects like physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and earth science—in college, then you know that STEM programs are competitive. The earlier you start planning for college, the better you can prepare your application to demonstrate that you are worth accepting.
Strong grades and test scores are important in college admissions, but many STEM applicants will have these same scores. You need more than academic ability to stand out; you will need to demonstrate the personal qualities that you possess that make you a strong fit for the major—things like leadership, dedication, and a passion for science.
Extracurriculars are the perfect way to do this. Read on for extracurricular ideas for aspiring scientists!
1. School Clubs
The most obvious extracurricular activities are clubs. Not only do clubs provide a community of like-minded students, but they are easy to find and join when run through your school. Regular meetings and activities provide a consistent way for students to engage with their passions each week.
Most science clubs are dedicated to a specific field or topic. If you know what you want to study, joining one of these can help you meet other students with the same interests who you can grow with and learn from. If you don’t know exactly what you want to study, joining one or two of these will help you explore your interests in a structured way. Below are a few examples of the science clubs you might encounter:
- Astronomy Club
- Astrophysics Club
- Biochemistry Club
- Chemistry Club
- Earth Science Club
- Food Chemistry Club
- Future Scientists
- Oceanography Club
- Rocket Club
- Physics Club
You might also consider joining the Science National Honor Society (SNHS). Students join SNHS through their school’s local chapter. To qualify for membership, students must take Honors or AP-level science courses, maintain a certain overall GPA and a certain science GPA, and complete volunteer hours.
The impact of SNHS on your college admissions chances depends heavily on your involvement. If you simply pay a membership fee and add it to your resume, you will not stand out. On the other hand, if you rapidly improve your school’s outreach and philanthropy then join the national board, that is meaningful and may affect your admissions chances.
Science competitions for high schoolers come in two major forms: science olympiads and science fairs.
Olympiads are knowledge-based competitions where tests and challenges show your expertise in a subject. Here are the major Olympiads:
Science Olympiad is a team-based competition where students compete in 23 events across various scientific fields. Subjects include Anatomy and Physiology, Forensics, Mechanical Engineering, and more. Succeeding in this competition demonstrates teamwork and quick-thinking skills. If you are interested in participating, check out our ultimate guide.
Chemistry Olympiad is a science competition that focuses specifically on students’ knowledge of chemistry. Chemistry Olympiad is a series of exams, where the top qualifiers move on to the next round. If you love chemistry and excel at standardized tests, look into local exams being offered in your area.
Physics Olympiad is a science competition that involves a series of tests in physics subjects. There are two levels of exams, and the top twenty finishers of the second level exam go on to an intensive study camp and eventually represent the United States at the International Physics Olympiad.
While success in an Olympiad shows your breadth of knowledge within a scientific discipline, success in a science fair demonstrates an understanding of methods, the ability to master a nuanced issue, and the ability to follow through on your curiosity.
Science fairs range in size and prestige, from ones at your local school to national ones like the Google Science Fair. No matter what level you’re competing at, having a new and interesting scientific endeavor on your profile can help demonstrate where your interests lie as well as your capacity for innovation. Think hard about your topic and spend time on your research proposal to give your project its best shot.
3. Summer Programs
Summer programs come in many shapes and sizes. Prestigious programs are often free, and they sometimes even reward students for their work with a stipend. Some of the best programs include:
The Anson L. Clark Scholars Program is open to students in a wide range of fields, from biology to computer science to history. Students from across the globe travel to Texas Tech University where they are afforded the unique opportunity to gain hands-on research experience in their field while working one-on-one with faculty over the program’s seven intense weeks.
Many Clark Scholars use the experience to shape their future college and career goals. The Clark Scholar Program is free for chosen applicants—the only cost students are responsible for is their transportation to and from the program. This program is open to high school juniors and seniors and is extremely selective; only 12 students are chosen each summer.
MITES is a residential program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aimed at students interested in pursuing a degree—and subsequently a career—in the STEM fields. Program participants are academically talented and come from diverse, underrepresented, or underserved backgrounds.
Throughout this six-week residential program, high school juniors develop the skills necessary for success in STEM fields while learning about the value and reward of acquiring advanced technical degrees. MITES is free—the only expense students need to cover is their transportation to and from MIT.
The Research Science Institute gathers 100 of the world’s most outstanding high school students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a free, five-week program where they can experience the research cycle in its entirety.
Combining on-campus coursework in scientific theory with off-campus work in science and technology research, RSI students produce individual projects guided by experienced scientists and researchers, culminating in written and oral presentations of their projects.
Many colleges and universities offer residential pre-college programs, where students stay in dorms together while taking a class for a few weeks during the summer. While these programs are usually not free and require students to pay tuition and housing, many offer the opportunity to earn college credits that can go on your college transcript. Popular programs include:
- UCLA Summer Sessions
- USC Summer Pre-College Programs
- Cornell Precollege Studies
- Brown Pre-College Programs
- Rice Summer Programs
- UC San Diego Pre-College Programs
- Georgetown Hoya Summer High School Sessions
Check out our other program lists:
- 20 California Summer Programs for High Schoolers in 2023
- 26 Most Prestigious Summer Programs for High Schoolers
- 20 High School Summer Engineering Programs in 2023
- 20 Computer Science Summer Programs for High Schoolers in 2023
4. Self-Driven Projects
Self-driven projects are very impressive to admissions officers, as they show motivation, dedication, and creativity. That said, for a self-driven project to be impressive, you have to actually finish it. If you have trouble holding yourself accountable, we recommend that you gather with peers (who you meet through a club, summer program, or course) to complete self-driven projects.
Different projects require different skill levels. When deciding on a project, do internet research, read online forums, and most importantly, talk to someone who is experienced in research about your project. A mentor will be extremely helpful for establishing reliable methods, maintaining a schedule with deadlines, and making smart financial decisions.
Popular beginner projects include:
- Build your own telescope
- Analyze the macronutrient concentration of your favorite food
- Make a Rube Goldberg machine
- Build a projectile or racecar
- Make a battery to power your everyday appliances
- Code an app or website
There has been a large push in recent years to introduce children (specifically those of underrepresented races and genders) to STEM at a young age. Because of this, there are many opportunities for STEM-inclined high schoolers to mentor and teach younger students.
Start by reaching out to the elementary schools and middle schools in your area. You could become a classroom assistant or lead the STEM seminar each week for a school’s after-hours program. Also, keep in mind that olympiads and science fairs exist at lower levels. You could become the coach of a local school’s Physics Olympiad team or you could become a science fair project advisor.
How Do Extracurriculars Impact Your College Chances?
Admissions committees don’t just care about which activities you pursue; they are interested in the quality of your involvement and what that activity tells them about you as an applicant. If executed correctly, extracurricular activities can be very impactful during college admissions.
Some activities are given more weight than others, so you need to focus your energy. At CollegeVine, we find it helpful to break extracurricular activities down into Tiers, based on how impactful they are for admissions.
- Tier 4: These are activities where your involvement is largely surface-level. College admissions committees see these activities most frequently, so they don’t have as much of an impact as higher-tier activities.
- Tier 3: These activities are a step up from Tier 4 activities, usually involving some degree of accomplishment. This could be holding a minor leadership position or winning a small competition.
- Tier 2: These activities show a high level of accomplishment or leadership and are a great asset to your overall profile. This could be a major leadership position, placing in a prestigious competition, or founding a successful new club.
- Tier 1: These activities show the highest level of achievement. College admissions committees look on them incredibly favorably because they are rare and impressive. This could be winning a national or international competition or attending an extremely selective or distinguished program. These activities are uncommon.
As you choose your extracurriculars, think about what will stand out to admissions officers. Additionally, put your extracurriculars into CollegeVine’s free chancing engine, which will tell you how certain extracurriculars will affect your admissions chances at specific colleges and universities.