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High School Research Projects — The Key to Test-Optional College Admissions

Posted by Janos Perczel on December 6, 2021

Insights from the Harvard Admissions Lawsuit

The pandemic has completely changed the college admission landscape. As colleges have gone test-optional, there has been a rise in the importance of strong personal narratives and activities that show evidence of academic creativity and independent scholarship. As educators are looking to help students navigate the ever-changing admissions landscape, it is important to base recommendations on real insights into the admission processes at selective colleges and universities. 


Generally, it is difficult to gain knowledge about how elite institutions select their freshman classes. However, the trove of data released by the Harvard Admissions Lawsuit provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to analyze what is important to admissions officers at elite institutions, like Harvard. Below I share insights gleaned about Harvard’s admissions process from extensive research done by our team of academics at Polygence, which was recently published as a White Paper.

To start, let’s review the profound changes that the pandemic has brought about in college admissions. In 2021, the CollegeBoard eliminated the SAT Subjects tests and the writing component of the SAT tests, the University of California system stopped accepting ACT/SAT scores and in the upcoming admissions season, more than 1,815 colleges and universities will not require test scores from applicants. 

So how can students stand out in a test-optional environment? To answer this question, let’s look at the data released by the Harvard Admissions team. 

Harvard states that “Most applicants are academically qualified to attend Harvard” and “more than 8,000 applicants for the class of 2019 had perfect GPAs, approximately 3,500 applicants had perfect SAT math scores, and nearly 1,000 applicants had perfect ACT and/or SAT composite scores.” 

To understand how Harvard distinguishes amongst applicants, we have to understand Harvard’s internal rating system, which assigns a score on a scale of 1-4 in four different areas — academic, extracurricular, athletic and person. A score of 1 marks extraordinary achievement and a score of 4 is the lowest score. According to the data released, less than 500 applicants out of 57,786 students who applied for admission in the 2020-2021 academic year got a score of 1 in any of the four areas. However, students who received a 1 were admitted at a disproportionately high rate into the class of 2025 at Harvard. 

The table below summarizes these findings from Harvard’s data:


Clearly getting a 1 in any one of the four areas is enough to increase a student’s chances of admission tremendously. However, out of the four areas, increasing one’s academic rating would appear to be the most accessible for most students (especially as almost nobody gets a 1 for the personal rating and varsity sports are not a viable path for most students). 

Harvard also helps us understand how they think about academic scores. They state that “[t]he academic rating summarizes the applicant’s academic achievement and potential based on grades, testing results, letters of recommendation, academic prizes, and any submitted academic work.” Harvard’s data also reveals that as one’s academic score improves from 4 to 1, the chances of admission skyrockets:


So what does a student need to do to get a rating of 1 or 2 for the academic component of their application? 

Harvard reveals that “An applicant receiving a “2+” academic rating is typically an applicant with perfect, or near-perfect, grades and testing, but no evidence of substantial scholarship or academic creativity.” Thus, unless a student shows that they have engaged and excelled in an independent project, a student has virtually no chance of getting the top academic rating.

This point is reinforced by Harvard’s statement that “In many circumstances, an applicant receiving a “1” academic rating has submitted academic work of some kind that is reviewed by a faculty member.” and that “If the applicant has submitted material that Admissions Office staff believe would be best evaluated by a Harvard faculty member, such as an academic paper or a recording of a musical performance, the application may be sent to a faculty member [...] for review and assessment.” 

Clearly, to give students the best chance of getting the top academic rating and having a 68% chance of admission to Harvard, students must submit an academic paper or a creative portfolio that showcases their ability to execute independent academic and creative projects.

In an effort to further corroborate these findings, we have drawn on our own proprietary data at Polygence about college admission. Polygence is an online research academy that pairs students with PhD-level experts to execute research projects. Polygence works every year with thousands of students and mentors, who work on projects ranging from machine learning to quantitative biology to fashion history. Students publish papers in peer-reviewed high school journals, present at conferences and other research outlets. 

For the purposes of our study, we sampled 128 Polygence alumni who applied to colleges in the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. Of these students, 95% were admitted to R1 universities, which are distinguished by “very high levels of research activities”. Of the admitted students, 78% decided to enroll at an R1 university, indicating their preference for a research-focused academic environment. 


In summary, data from the Harvard Admission Lawsuit and Polygence’s proprietary data show that conducting original research as a high schooler is one of the most effective ways to stand out in today’s test-optional college admissions landscape. This gives a unique opportunity to IECs to guide students towards academic endeavors that are not only highly beneficial for students’ admissions goals but also build on their innate creativity and help unlock their intellectual curiosity. 

For further details, read the Polygence White Paper


Previous analyses of the Harvard Admissions Lawsuit include Nick Anderson’s article for the Washington Post and in an influential blog post by, a leading writing education company.