By Katie, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
Do I have to participate in STEM Olympiads? Should I have a research internship? I need a wow factor independent project, right? How do I find my thing?
These are just some of the questions I frequently get from students and families I work with who are interested in pursuing something in the STEM field in college but feel boxed in by the arms race towards racking up as many Olympiad medals as possible. While aiming to reach the elite levels of Math Olympiad fame or becoming a Semi-Finalist in the Regeneron International Science and Engineering is noble and ambitious and can be a hook for some colleges, it’s not the only way. There are countless ways to explore your interests in creative and dynamic ways.
The Reality of STEM Competitions
The Science Talent Search is more selective than even the most sought-after colleges, with only 2.2% of students selected as finalists. Around 300,000 students take the AMC (American Mathematics Competitions) every year, 3,000 qualifying from the AMC take the AIME (American Invitational Mathematics Examination). Amongst AIME qualifiers, only about 300 earn a score to move on to the USA Math Olympiad Qualifying test. At the end of the day, you have higher odds of heading to the ER due to a Pogo Stick-related injury than reaching the USAMO (United States of America Mathematical Olympiad) qualifying test round.
Most students getting into the nation’s most selective colleges are not STEM Olympic medalists. They are admirable young students who have shown initiative to pursue their passions, found ways to make an impact on the world around them, and possess great potential to be a dynamic and valued member of an undergraduate campus.
The alluring part of the STEM competitions, Olympiads, and exams is the very linear path to distinction. It is easy to quantify how “good” you are based on the level you attain. In turn, that can make students (or, more often, parents) feel more in control over a very unpredictable process. I get it! But the path through life isn’t like climbing a ladder – it’s not straightforward. You don’t need to just focus on the next rung ahead of you as there are many ways to have fun on the playground (i.e., enjoy high school and get into the best-fit college for you). Spend time doing the things you love, pursuing the hobbies, activities, and interests that you enjoy, and stay genuine to who you are. You will be a happier person as a result, and that authentic passion and enthusiasm will be reflected in your college applications.
Brainstorming Creative STEM-Focused Activities
But Katie, do I explore the sandbox? Do I climb the jungle gym? Should I lobby for more swings on the playground? What will colleges like the most? How do I show off my creativity, my personal qualities, how do I explore what I love?
Be a sponge: Learn as much as you can about the topics and issues you are interested in. Peruse news articles about the latest achievements in deep learning, like a robot that can rap. Instead of binge-watching The Office for the umpteenth time, tune into some online courses through EdX or Coursera a few nights a week for 15 minutes and learn about smart materials and nanotechnologies. Listen to podcasts and hear from experts and/or just smart regular people talking about the things that interest you. I see so many students who produce amazing research projects, ideas for a new school club, or even an initiative they want to start by being surrounded by the topics that interest them.
Keep your eyes open: Armed with new knowledge from being a sponge, be an observer to the world around you. What connections do you see between what you have learned in your classes, heard on a podcast, read in a news article? What keeps you up at night or troubles your mind?
Take Initiative: To go back to that analogy of the playground, you are not going to magically end up at the other side of the monkey bars just by staring them down. To get to the other side, it will take hard work, practice, trying a bunch, probably failing, maybe getting hurt, and possibly having to change your approach. Ask yourself, how can I solve the things keeping me up at night? If you had a million dollars and infinite technology, what problems could you solve?
Phone a friend: Find other people who are passionate about these same problems or topics. Brainstorm solutions with them and try things out. Learn to be okay with failure because it is a chance to learn from your mistakes but show resilience to continue moving forward.
For example, my family dog Nico, a loveable golden retriever, and a former military working dog, is a master squeaky toy destroyer. He can take down the most rugged of squeaky toys in about 10 minutes, but we would love to stop buying him new squeaky toys. Insert motivated high school student who loves dogs and engineering and poof, the creation of a Nico-proof squeaker. What is the physics of how a squeaker works? Go down a YouTube rabbit hole of dog squeakers and read about the mechanics and manufacturing of squeakers. Watch some EdX or Coursera courses on Materials Science or Polymer development. Start playing around with fortifying pre-manufactured squeakers and recruit some local pups in your neighborhood to be test subjects. There are infinite possibilities, and you are bound to learn a ton along the way.
This might be a silly example, but some of the best inventions, solutions, projects, or endeavors in life start as silly dreams or aspirations. By immersing yourself in a world of knowledge, being an observer of the world around you, the world’s next dog-proof squeaker could be just a few creative brainstorming sessions away.
*Note: a dog-proof squeaker has yet to be invented, but I know a happy yellow dog who would love to be your test subject!
At IvyWise, brainstorming creative activities and helping students make the most out of their high school experience on the path to college is our passion. Our expert counselors can help you find new ways to explore your interests and, ultimately, stand out in the competitive college admissions process. Contact us today for more information on our college counseling services.