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What Do Admissions Officers Look for in STEM Applicants?

Computer science class explores computer hardware

By Katie, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

In recent years, even as undergraduate enrollment numbers have plateaued, students enrolling in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors have continued to grow rapidly. Admission rates into selective institutions are plummeting and the competition for STEM students at our nation’s top institutions is becoming increasingly competitive, so what exactly can make a great student stand out among the thousands of other good applicants to STEM programs?

As a former admission officer at MIT I have reviewed thousands of applications, and I want to give you some insider insight into what colleges are looking for in STEM applicants.

Challenging Courseloads

I can’t stress enough the importance of your grades and courses when applying to college, especially to STEM programs. Take the most rigorous courses available to you in high school and do well in them – especially in your math and science courses. Take math courses through calculus, and have biology, chemistry, and physics on your transcript. Even if you don’t want to study biology in college, demonstrating you can handle the challenges of multiple STEM courses especially at the honors, AP, IB or upper level is a key factor in helping admission officers feel you can handle the rigor at their institution.

Involvement in STEM Activities

It is not enough to have great grades and test scores. You need to be involved, and extracurriculars are a great way to highlight your passion for STEM. Although you are unlikely to discover the cure for cancer or engineer the greatest invention of the century, there are many ways to show that you have a significant involvement with STEM. Immerse yourself in opportunities in your high school and community to learn about the different STEM fields available. For example, join the robotics team. No robotics team at your school? Advocate to start one, or volunteer with FIRST Lego League. Take courses online in computer science, biological engineering, theoretical physics, or video game design. Get involved with the Math and Science Olympiads and reach out to local college professors or STEM companies to find a research opportunity or internship. Experiencing these opportunities will not only enrich your understanding of various STEM fields but will also help you figure out if you really like STEM, and if so, what discipline you like.

A Compelling STEM “Story”

Connected to “getting involved” is helping admissions officers to see how your interests have grown and developed over your high school career. Your resume of experiences and opportunities helps paint the picture of your STEM passion outside of the classroom. You might be involved in the math team or science club at your high school, but look for ways to take those interests to the next level. What are ways that you eat, sleep, and breathe STEM? Push for your school to administer the American Mathematics Competition test, or take a summer physics course so you can advance into AP Physics C.

It’s also important to consider how to make the world around you a better place using STEM. Rather than hiding in your room doing math problems, go out and get involved with tutoring younger students in math. Work with the technical crew for your high schools theater program or help the IT person at your high school design a computer program to make class scheduling easier. You might have to get creative, but if you look for opportunities to fuse STEM into everything you are doing, you will discover that the STEM fields are a foundation of so many things in our lives. Spread your passion, and through your application, the story of your STEM passion will be clear.

Ability to Communicate Your Interest in Your Major

It is great to say you want to major in electrical engineering, but being able to communicate through your essays, application, and in college interviews that you understand what it actually means to study engineering is key. It is very easy to tell when an applicant is not sincere in his or her understanding of a proposed major, and that can reflect poorly on those applicants. The field of STEM is broad and doing your research to know if you prefer theoretical physics or applied, or the difference between biological and biomedical, can go a long way in helping an admissions officer feel confident that you are a good fit for the program to which you are applying.

Good Personal Qualities

Very few people will enter a job in STEM and spend the rest of their career in isolation. You must be able to collaborate with others in a productive way, and admissions officers will be looking for that evidence in your application. Be a good citizen in your classes and in your broader community. Don’t underestimate how powerful good personal qualities can be within the realm of competitive and selective STEM admissions. If you build a foundation and reputation as a nice and kind person, that will come through in your letters of recommendation. Whether you’re always first to volunteer to help a peer struggling with a concept, or are the loudest cheerer at sports games, those qualities are important and extremely valued in the admissions process. Even if you are shy or introverted, there are ways you can demonstrate your strength of character through your participation in class and general involvement in your school community.


I can’t tell you the number of essays I read as admissions officer about the time the robot broke in the middle of the competition. Yes, the robot always breaks, but what I wanted to see from those experiences was how a student reacted to that setback and utilized their critical thinking skills, problem solving abilities, and most importantly ability to collaborate with peers to resolve the problem. STEM majors are challenging, and you will face countless instances where a project doesn’t go according to plan or your first 12 attempts at solving a problem fail. Demonstrating your ability to react well to setbacks with grace and dignity will help an admission office see your potential for success in a STEM major.

Passion and Fun!

Most importantly, you need to do what you love! Pursue your passions and interests and don’t be afraid to try new things. High school is a time to explore what you love and go after it! If you find something you love, pursue it relentlessly, and the rest of the things listed above will follow naturally and shine through in your application.

Applying to college as a STEM major can be very competitive, but if you start building your STEM story early by taking the right courses, getting involved, and making an impact inside and outside of the classroom, you’ll be in the best position to gain admission to your top-choice colleges. For more information on how IvyWise can help guide you through the college prep and admissions process, contact us today for details on our college counseling programs!

Want to learn more about Katie? Click here for her full biography and check out her video below!

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