Making The Most of An Independent Study Project

For students hoping to attend highly selective colleges, independent research or study projects can be a fantastic avenue to delve further into an academic area of interest. From developing an app to writing a play to designing a robot, digging deeper into an established interest is a great way to show colleges that they're a motivated self-starter. Whether they complete it over the summer or integrate it into a junior- or senior-year course load, these projects allow students the flexibility to pursue an area of personal interest at their own pace—and in greater depth than the standard curriculum allows.

Choosing Your Area Of Focus

When students are interested in pursuing an independent project, they likely already have an area of focus in mind. If not, they should consider extending a project they did for another class and are interested in developing further. In any case, the student should use their idea as a springboard, but be sure that the project itself is feasible and meaningful. As they review possibilities, students should consider these key questions:

  • How much initiative does this project require?

  • Do I have the resources available to complete this project?

  • Am I taking a risk or challenging myself in this project?

  • What is the impact of this project, both for myself and for others?

Coordinating With Your School

Before getting started, it’s important that students check in with their schools about how to best implement their project.

For example, there might be an existing effort at the school that’s of interest to the student: coordinating their independent project with the school’s existing program will make the process easier for the student and more impactful for their community. Even if such an effort doesn’t exist, the school may be able to recommend a teacher who has expertise in the focus of the student’s proposed project.  

Many schools also offer independent study credit, which school counselors can typically help define. These projects may require an extended application process, so students will want to be sure they’re checking in and following it closely to gain approval.

3 Tips For A Successful Project

1. Start With A Plan
Students should make a plan for how much time they'll spend on the project to be sure they're putting enough effort into it but not letting it get in the way of other work. Once they begin work on the project, students should keep track of how many hours per week they spend to be sure it lines up with their expectations. Going in without a plan can cause students to overwork and/or not reach their goals.

2. Find A Mentor Or Adviser
Because they're reaching beyond the standard curriculum, a student will have to go out of their way to find a teacher or adviser to help them with an independent project. This is especially important if they want the project to count for credit, but it's helpful either way to have an experienced guide throughout the process. If there are no teachers at their school who are willing or able to assist, a student can reach out to a college professor or graduate student to assist with college-level research.  

3. Focus On Tangible Outcomes
To be able to demonstrate that the time spent on this project will be meaningful, students should determine what the output and/or accomplishment of the project should be. Setting a goal will ensure that the project is feasible and impactful and will, of course, keep the student on task. For example, creative projects can be submitted for contests or publication. Or, if a student creates an app or an online video, a goal number for usage, followers, or revenue can help the student stay on track—and impress college admissions officers.

For many students, independent study projects become one of the most satisfying components of their high school academic career. Students we have worked with have completed projects ranging from works of art to research papers to software development projects. These projects require extra time and effort, but the results can be invaluable for the student and compelling for highly selective colleges.