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Looking for a "Research Opportunity?" Listen First!


Listen in to learn how to find amazing research opportunities that can help you get into the college of your dreams.

| “If the research is done correctly, it can be a game changer for your application… if it is not done correctly, then it will be somewhere between meaningless and a hit on your application.”

As I continue helping more and more teens get into their dream colleges, and especially as I have become known as the person to specializes in helping students create their ‘standout factor,’ I have been receiving more and more questions about where teens and parents of teens should go to find "opportunities." 

 Even though I have a lot more to say about it, this podcast is my response to that question.


  • Why the research in high school can be a great waste of time & money if it's not done correctly
  • Under which circumstances do Yale and other top-tier universities want you to send an extra letter of recommendation
  • How doing research correctly leads to game-changer results
  • The one-step you absolutely cannot skip to successfully guide you through the college admissions process
  • A critical skill that you must develop to help you conduct effective research

     And so much more.


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Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

I have received this question, some version of this question, so many times in my direct messages recently, that I decided it was worth a full answer in podcast form, so that everyone can hear and understand everything about research. In high school and why it's so valuable, but why it is also the greatest waste of time and money if it's not done correctly. If the research is real and sincere and legitimate and done correctly, it can be a game changer.

It can absolutely turn the tide on your application, make a big difference, and be very impressive for the admissions officers. If it is not done correctly, then it'll be somewhere between meaningless and maybe even a hit on your application. So I guess we'll start here.

I've been teaching my students to reach out to professors and collaborate with them for a number of different reasons for several years. And when I first started doing that, yes, there were other teenagers who were doing that. There were middle school and high school students reaching out to professors and collaborating and researching with those professors.

But it was on a micro scale. It was individuals reaching out to professors and doing the work. Somehow over the last couple of years, the idea has really caught fire.

And now I see a number of programs that offer to give high school students or middle school students research opportunities where you pay a fee and you're connected with a research professor of some kind and you can contribute to the research that's being done. So the good news is, if you are meaningfully contributing to real research that is happening at a university level, then that's extremely impressive. That's impressive for undergraduate students to be able to do effectively.

And that's why Yale and other top tier universities invite extra letters of recommendation only under these circumstances. It's interesting as I have talked to Yale admissions officers and learned that they really do not want you to send extra letters of recommendation. With one exception.

They absolutely do want to receive a letter of recommendation from a professor. If you have been collaborating with that professor, why? Because it's so impressive. They want to know what your level of collaboration was.

They want to understand from the perspective of the professor, the person who understands the rigor of the research, understands the subject matter, understands all of this very well. They want to understand from his or her perspective how you contributed and how you might further contribute to research that's done as an undergrad or as a graduate student. So Yale University and other top tier universities are very interested in the opinions of that professor who worked with you.

And if you've done a good job, it will be a game changer on your resume. These admissions officers will actually reach out to the science departments or the history departments or the language departments or whatever research you have done, economics, whatever it is, they will reach out to professors to get an even better feel for how your research and your contribution to that research might have an impact on campus. They're very interested in that.

However, just like I described earlier, this whole idea of reaching out and collaborating with professors has really morphed into something new in the very, very recent history, just over the last couple of years. Now, there are programs in place where you pay a fee, and as a result of paying that fee, you're placed in a research team or you're placed with a professor in that environment you're asked to contribute. Now, that may be very helpful for you.

You may learn a lot. You may learn a lot about research and what it means to do research. You may even be able to contribute a little bit.

However, there's an equally good chance that you learn almost nothing, that you contribute in very superficial and meaningless ways, and that in fact, you would have zero interest in having that professor write a letter of recommendation on your behalf and explain exactly what contribution you made to the team. Because you were there in a learning role. You had no expertise to contribute.

You weren't able to do anything, but you paid the fee. The professor gets some extra money. You think you get some awesome badge on your application that says that you've done college level research.

And in the end, the admissions officers can see right through that because they've seen the programs pop up just like I have. They know what's happening. So let's talk about how to do this correctly.

Obviously, the incorrect way is to find a program and spend two or ten or $20,000 paying your way into a research opportunity. In fact, that's just a waste of your time and money for 99% of you. But if you do it correctly, then it's a game changer.

So let's talk about how to do it correctly. So to preface this, I need you to understand that I've had a professor outreach program for quite some time. And the truth is, this is nuanced enough that I could do an entire podcast season.

We're talking 40 or 50 episodes about all of the things you can do to prepare before you do the outreach, about how to do the initial outreach, how to find the professors, how to make sure that they're doing the research that's aligned with what you're doing. How to ask the right questions, how to come across as professional and intelligent and curious in all the ways that you should come across when you speak with the professors. How to take that first meeting and turn it into a way to collaborate, how to continue with that collaboration.

And so on. So this podcast is not 40 or 50 podcasts. I'm not going to do an entire season on it, but I am going to give you a higher level understanding of what you can expect if you want to do it the right way.

It all begins with self awareness. As a middle school student or an early high school student, you have things that you care about. You have core values.

And the first step, honestly, is to understand yourself well enough to be able to pick your area of interest. What are the things that you're truly curious about? What do you spend time thinking about when you don't have to think about something, when you don't have to be busy with something else? What are your core values? Use that self awareness to guide this process. That should be the first step, and it's a step that you cannot skip.

Absolutely. Do not skip that step. But once you have developed that self awareness and you know exactly what direction you want to be going in, the next thing you need to do is develop one critical skill.

And that skill is journalism. Because you're going to be tempted to think that you already know enough to have an idea of what you could be doing as far as research is concerned. And that's just not true.

When you're in middle school or early high school, you do understand, perhaps more than even your parents about the subject that you're interested in. But if you haven't done a rigorous study, if you haven't really pursued that curiosity, then you don't know what the real issues are, or you understand vaguely what they are, but you don't know what the issues within the issues are. And it's going to be very difficult for you to know exactly where that research will take you.

Instead, don't assume you know. Ask questions, investigate. Learn how to ask better questions, and you're going to get outstanding answers.

As a journalist, stay curious and pursue your interest wherever it leads you. Once you know enough about this topic to understand the right questions to ask and the right people to ask, you know who the thought leaders are in the world. You know which professors are contributing and how they're contributing.

You know which universities place a premium on this type of information or this type of research. That's when you do appropriate outreach, which is the second skill. So the first thing, step one, total self awareness.

Step two, develop your first skill, which is become a journalist. Learn how to be curious and ask the right questions. Then you need to develop your second skill, which is appropriate outreach.

And you do need to be careful. I have brought professors from Harvard, from UT, Austin, from other schools into my professor outreach program to speak with my students, to show them examples of horrible emails that have been sent to them. The truth is that there is an appropriate way to reach out to professionals or professors.

And there are a myriad of inappropriate ways. So I created templates just to make it super easy for my students to do their outreach. And briefly, I'll let you know.

If you want your email outreach to be appropriate, you need to make it professional. It needs to be concise and it needs to be appropriate to the audience. So if you're a teen listening right now and you're not able to participate in the Ivy League challenge, you're not able to work through my professor outreach program, then work with a teacher and work with your parents and work with an adult that you trust to help you make sure your emails are professional, concise and appropriate, that they're tying directly into the research that the professor is doing.

And that will be an excellent start. And the last step on this list is to actually communicate with those professors. Because if you've written the emails correctly and you have enough substance in those emails that they know that you're not a faker, that you're asking the right questions and you're asking them in intelligent ways, you will get responses.

When you get responses, the next step is to join the team or to ask the professor to join your team. Because as you pursue your interest with curiosity, you're going to identify problems in that area, in that area of interest of yours, you're going to identify problems that violate your core values. There are issues all around the world in all different arenas.

And as you identify those problems that do violate your core values, you can begin to think through solutions. Maybe those solutions are, we need further research. And your job at that point is to reach out and join a team and contribute in meaningful ways to that research to solve that problem.

But for many of you, solving that problem will not be a matter of doing more research. It will be a matter of applying best practices to your community to solve that problem in your community. And so at that point, you may reach out to professors or professionals to ask them to join your team.

And they will. I'll give you a really quick example. This is just top of mind because it's happening right now, but I have a student who is 14 years old who is about to submit a proposal to the government of her country.

That proposal will be about reducing food waste throughout the country. And how did it get here? When she began in the Ivy League Challenge, she knew that she had interests in science and that she had core values around environmental sustainability. She knew little else.

But she began to be the journalist. She began to ask better and better questions and research those answers with extreme curiosity. Unexpectedly, she discovered that one of the biggest problems that violates her core values in her community is food waste.

Then she discovered that laws have been proposed in the UK that were adopted and effectively reduced food waste in those areas. So what do you do? You're 14 years old and you understand enough to realize that this is a problem and that you can contribute in a meaningful way to solving that problem in your community. She reached out to the professionals that contributed to the bill that was submitted in the U that became law. Some of them were elite professors at elite universities.

Some of them were professionals. She reached out and in intelligent and appropriate ways talked with these people. And now, when she submits the bill to the government of her country, she is not the only name on the bill.

Her name is the first name, but it is followed by a number of names with a whole bunch of initials behind them, like PH. D. And so on, because these professors have contributed and collaborated with her to help her identify the best solution for her country's unique circumstances and to draft that proposal in a way that's very well done and is highly likely to be adopted by the government.

I want to remind you this person is 14 years old. She's about to turn 15. But as I'm recording this, she's 14.

And the other thing I want to emphasize is something I've said before on this podcast. When I talk to my classmates at Harvard and you look at what my peers did before they got admitted to school, many of them did something like this. They solved problems that were meaningful to them in their community while they were still in middle school and high school.

And that's how they developed their curiosity, that's how they grew their self awareness, that's how they developed their problem solving skills, their emotional intelligence, self efficacy, all of that. It grew by leaps and bounds because they were engaged in something that activated their core values, that was of sincere interest to them, and that really enabled them to shine. It allowed them to be a hero on a mission.

And what I've discovered is that it's not that people are born with greatness or have these tremendous advantages that lead to getting into top tier schools. Actually, you and I are normal people until we have a mission. There is nothing as compelling as a hero on a mission.

So if you're in middle school or high school right now, or you're a parent thinking about your teenage children, I want you to know that they might feel normal to you or a little bit special, but not special enough to be proposing law changes in their government. And it might feel like what I'm describing here is a pipe dream or totally impossible for the average student. The reality is, I have worked with so many students who believed they were average, who then adopted a mission just like this.

And yes, it takes time. Yes, you need to identify your core values, which is not easy for a lot of people. And yes, you need to develop skills around being a journalist and asking the right questions and following those answers wherever they lead you.

And yes, you need to have skills and awareness around how to collaborate, how to do outreach for professors and professionals. And yes, middle school and high school students generally do not have experience communicating with professionals, but that can all be taught. And you, even if you consider yourself an average person, you can do amazing things.

It's the mission that makes you great.