How to Stand Out When Applying to STEM Programs

The Huffington Post

By Dr. Kat Cohen
October 25, 2016

The demand for STEM degrees is growing, and more and more students are applying to top universities with the goal of pursing a STEM education. As more students and parents consider the ROI of a college degree, STEM programs are growing in popularity, leading to larger applicant pools and an even bigger struggle for students to stand out and gain admission.

In 2016, nearly 36% of students admitted to the class of 2020 at Harvard intended to study a STEM concentration. Over the past two years, Harvard has seen a dramatic increase in the percentage of applicants who intended to study computer science, with a 38.9% increase in computer science applicants in 2015 and a 22.1% increase in 2016. Last year, Yale’s most popular course, Introduction to Computing and Programming, was taken by nearly 10% of all undergraduates at the Ivy League institution. At the country’s most elite colleges, where even exceptional students have stiff competition, there are a growing number of STEM applicants vying for the opportunity to set themselves apart even more. So what can STEM students do to stand out of from the crowd when applying to college?

Take the Right Classes
Grades and course load are two of the most important things that colleges will consider when evaluating students’ applications, so it’s important for STEM students to take the right classes and perform well in them. Students need to take appropriate math and science courses, with increasing difficulty each year. Taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses is also important if offered. If a school does not offer AP courses for certain math and science courses, students can self study and take the exams in order to show proficiency in the subject. STEM applicants should also consider taking SAT Subject Tests in relevant math and science subject areas.

Students can also take courses at a local college to gain credit for advanced science and math courses that are not offered at their high school. Not only does this show that students know their math and science material, but it also shows colleges that students are taking initiative and challenging themselves in order to prepare for the rigors of a college education.

Get Creative With Extracurriculars
Extracurricular activities for STEM students may seem limited, but there’s actually a lot that students can do outside of the classroom to showcase their STEM interest. Some schools have robotics teams, where students build robots and compete in local and national robotics competitions. Other schools might offer a math club where students can practice and compete in local and national mathematics competitions. Physics and biology clubs are also popular, with students meeting after school to work on physics experiments or study the biology of local plant life.

Don’t have those clubs at your schools? Create your own! It’s important for STEM students to seek out activities that match their interests, and if there’s nothing available many choose to start their own. This is a great way for students to get involved with something they’re really passionate about and make an impact. It also shows colleges leadership, creativity, initiative, and dedication to learning more – something all colleges want to see in applicants.

Make the Most of Summer Breaks
For most STEM students the summer is the perfect time to really delve into activities and projects that they might not otherwise have time for during the school year. For STEM students there is a lot of potential to secure a local internship, research project, or summer program that is focused on their field of interest. Because STEM opportunities are so targeted, it’s often easier for STEM students to secure a meaningful activity for the summer since they don’t have to spend a lot of time searching for or creating opportunities. IvyWise can help students explore these summer activities more fully, with the help of research and internship placement services.

Showcase Your Personality
When applying to college as a STEM student it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers – focusing on demonstrating good grades, test scores, and more. In many cases students can lose their voice and personality in the process, which can make it hard for them to stand out against other applicants with equally impressive grades, courses, and STEM experiences. While students need to demonstrate their specialty, they also need to show their personality. Who are they outside of the classroom? What are their interests outside of STEM? How will they contribute to the campus as a student and as a citizen? These are the things colleges ask themselves as they build the next freshman class, and students’ applications need to answer those questions.

Students should use the essay to reveal something new that can’t be found anywhere else in the application. Students can also use the school-specific essays to address how they fit into the campus as a student outside of STEM. Applicants shouldn’t let their focus on demonstrating their STEM interest keep them from showing other facets of themselves.

Even with all the competition, STEM students can separate themselves from the rest of the crowd if they take advantage of all the opportunities around them. At the end of the day, if students take challenging courses, perform well in the classroom, pursue their interests in extracurricular activities, and build a well balanced list of best fit colleges, they will get into a college where they will be successful and happy.