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Last updated May 15, 2023

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Quirky vs. Traditional Research Projects

Key Takeaway

Research projects don't have to be traditional—they can come in all shapes and sizes, such as podcasts, Instagram pages, music, plays, and more. In fact, case studies show that the flexibility of independent research projects can be effective in helping a student's admission chances.

Most people hear “research project” and think “30 pages in single-spaced 12-point Times New Roman sprinkled with a few charts and graphs.” Or they hear “creative project” and think “giant portfolio of charcoal still life drawings.” But the truth is that excellent research projects can also be creative and come in all shapes and sizes. And a lot of them don’t even use paper.

The importance of a research project is not so much the format, but that you really, really love the subject matter. If you love what you’re researching and can pour your heart into the process, the format is just a handy vehicle for its delivery. Colleges will accept podcasts (here’s one on teen skin and mental health), Instagram pages (this one introduces the cultural aspects of the Nung minority group living in Vietnam), music, plays, book reviews, and, of course, frisbee-throwing robots.

It’s true that most traditional academic papers do tend to be of that standard 30-page variety. These have specific word counts, citation requirements, and formatting parameters.  But quirky research projects are more creative, and they can be about anything. They can span topics across STEM, humanities, arts, you name it.

Here are some case studies that prove just how flexible the umbrella term “independent research project” is and how effective it can be in helping a student’s admission chances.

“Foggy Minds” by Tori

Topic: Neuroscience

Format: Podcast (7 episodes)

In her senior year at her New York high school, Tori did neuroscience research focusing on Alzheimer's and dementia. She worked with her Polygence mentor, Deborah, to compile a multitude of case studies, experiments, and academic sources into an amazing 7-episode podcast on the neuroscience behind our memories and called it "Foggy Minds." You can read more about Tori’s Polygence experience in this interview we did with her. When we asked Tori why she chose to deliver her research in podcast form, she told us she did it to reach a broader audience. Tori submitted her podcast as part of her college application, and she is currently a student at Brown.

AutoMelter: An Anti-Snow System for Driveways and TitanWandelaar: Four-Bar Linkage Mechanical Walker for Mars Rovers by Youssef

Topic: Engineering

Format: Device prototype, Animations, 3D Modeling

Youssef’s first project involved building a prototype for an automatic device that uses an Arduino along with a variety of sensors to melt snow whenever it senses its presence. AutoMelter’s primary usage would be to melt snow off driveways. For his project, he wrote a paper and presented his novel device at Polygence's 5th Symposium where he won the award for Most Innovative Project.

Youssef’s second project involved him one-upping NASA rovers and their problematic wheel design with his own version that utilizes 4-bar linkages. He called his invention the TitanWandelaar. Youssef also presented this research at a symposium, wrote a detailed report about TitanWandelaar, and produced Solidworks models and animations. Youssef is now a student at Northwestern University

The Myth of Io in Ovid and Beyond: Voice, Sexuality, and Lamentation by Tatiana

Topic: Literature

Format: Podcast

Tatiana started a podcast called “Changing Voices” and her first episode dealt with myths relating to gender and sexuality in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. She focused primarily on Io, who Zeus turned into a cow as a way of concealing his love for her from his jealous wife, Hera. Tatiana analyzed various interpretations of the myth over time, starting with ancient Greek pottery, then Renaissance paintings, and finally modern readings. She conducted her research in Latin and has also written her own translations of the original poem. Tatiana is now a freshman at Stanford.

More ideas for quirky (aka non-traditional) projects

  • Annotated anthology
  • App
  • Blog
  • Book
  • Brand
  • Documentary
  • Graphic essay (writing that includes drawings, photos, videos, animation, sound, etc.)
  • Live exhibition with catalogue
  • Map
  • Music performances
  • Plays
  • Public service announcements
  • Prototypes / physical product
  • Redesign an existing site, app, or product
  • Scale model

And a list of alternative venues for publications:

  • Instagram
  • Medium
  • Spotify
  • Wix or WordPress
  • Vimeo
  • YouTube

Check admission guidelines before you submit

One thing you should definitely do before submitting your quirky or even your traditional research along with your college application is to read (and re-read) their guidelines. They may have strict policies about length or digital formats. It goes without saying that your project should be relevant to the thing you want to study in college and you should make the connection explicit.

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