7 Ways to Stand Out as a STEM College Applicant


7 Ways to Stand Out as a STEM College Applicant

So you’ve known you love chemistry since your first volcano experiment in 5th grade and continue to get your best grades in chemistry class. Or maybe your love for engineering stems (no pun intended!) from all of the times that you’ve taken apart your family’s VCR as a kid, much to your mother’s dismay, just so that you could figure out how to put it back together (that last one may have just been me — now that VCRs are extinct). 

Whatever inspired you to study in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, you are certain that you want to apply to college as a STEM applicant. However, you should know that the number of STEM college applicants is exploding. At Cornell, for example, the number of applicants to the engineering school continues to grow, going from 9,473 in 2012 to 13,234 in 2018. You need to make sure that your application does not get lost amongst the endless number of other STEM applications. Here are some steps you can follow to stand out as a STEM college applicant: 

Take challenging science courses

The STEM applicant pool is a cutthroat one. In order to be a competitive candidate, you have to step up your game. Admissions officers want to know that you’ve challenged yourself academically by taking the most demanding course load that your school offers, especially in the sciences. So if your school offers AP classes, Early College Experience courses, or the IB diploma, make sure that you’re enrolled. Even if your school does not offer those advanced classes, you must pursue the most rigorous course load available. If you want to be seriously considered as a STEM applicant, make sure you take courses in math (make it up to calculus!) and sciences throughout all four years of high school! Sciences should include physics, chemistry, and biology, but if your school offers even more specific STEM opportunities catered to your interests, take them.

Colleges want to see how much you’re willing to challenge yourself, your excitement for learning, and your level of science knowledge. Sometimes, in order to stand out as a STEM college applicant, you may want to take an online course or a course at a local community college. 

Listen to me talk more about becoming a competitive STEM college applicant in this video:

Have STEM experience

Your experiences will allow admissions officers to gauge your level of commitment to STEM fields. This means being involved in STEM-related extracurriculars, for example, Science Olympiad, math clubs, biology clubs, etc. Remember, however, that lots of high schoolers join these activities so they are not unique in themselves when applying to the best STEM programs. You’ll need to do more - start your own mini lab, build a robot to support your community, find out exactly how safe your local river is for swimming. Thinking outside of the box is important for standing out in STEM.

Don’t just join clubs; find meaningful ways to establish yourself as a leader. If your interest is too niche for the clubs in your high school, why not just start your own? Take your interest even further with hands-on research experience, STEM-related internships, and competitions. Some of the most prestigious STEM competitions are listed below.

12 of the most prestigious STEM competitions:

Opportunities like these will allow admissions officers to note the seriousness of your interest and your depth of exposure to the field. See if you can conduct research with a professor or volunteer at the local lab! Your extracurricular interests as a STEM college applicant become more tangible when you actually have experience in the field.

Excellent grades

This one is perhaps the most obvious for all applicants, regardless of your area of interest. But sometimes, students fail to take the academic piece seriously enough. The bottom line is, good grades are incredibly important. In fact, your grades should be excellent if you’re hoping to go to a highly ranked school as a STEM college applicant. The average unweighted GPA at tech-heavy schools such as MIT and Caltech is 4.0! You need to be on top of your game at all times throughout high school.

Admissions officers often scan your GPA and test scores and quickly determine whether or not you’d be able to survive a rigorous STEM curriculum. So they will not take your interest in the subject seriously if you’re cranking out grades of “C” or lower. 

Relevant standardized tests

Although many universities realize that standardized test scores aren’t a perfect measure of intelligence, the majority of top-tier schools will expect you to take them and do well on them, especially in the Math section. Let’s look at the median Math section scores at some top STEM-heavy colleges:

School Name Median SAT Math Range
MIT 780-800
CalTech 790-800
Georgia Tech 750-790
Harvey Mudd 740-800
Carnegie Mellon 710-760

As you can see, the standards are extremely high! While we are on the subject of standardized tests, it should be emphasized that STEM applicants who are taking the SAT Subjects Tests should absolutely take tests in STEM-related subjects. It’s awesome that you can get a score of 800 on the SAT II French Test, but what does that mean for your STEM application? Not much.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t submit Subjects Test in non-STEM subjects, but you’ll be expected to have some scores in hard STEM subjects. As a STEM college applicant, you definitely want to take the Physics, Chemistry, Biology, or Math I/II SAT Subject Tests to further demonstrate your strengths in the field of your interest.

Know what excites you about STEM

It is not enough to choose the STEM fields because you want to be pre-med and go to medical school after undergrad. Admissions officers from top tier schools will not admit you simply because you want to become a doctor. They are not factories that produce prospective medical students! They want you to be truly passionate about STEM for the sake of learning. 

STEM is a wide and ever expanding umbrella. So know which specific area you want to study in the STEM fields and be able to articulate that in your application. You can start with something general such as biology and then elaborate in your essays and Common App how you might want to work in more specific fields such as marine biology or molecular biology. You could apply as an engineering candidate, but know for your application and interviews whether you want to be an aeronautical engineer or nuclear engineer, and what you might want to do in those specific concentrations. This clear interest should be reflected in your activities, personal statement, and even your supplemental essays. Saying you enjoy science isn’t enough. Go as deep as possible into what excites you and you will have the potential to be an excellent STEM college applicant. 

Seek learning outside of the classroom

The strongest STEM applicants tend to be students who take the initiative to learn outside of the classroom or carry their passion for STEM to areas outside of school. These students are not only scientists or mathematicians in school, but are scientists and mathematicians in their everyday life. If you enjoy the chemistry of cooking, start your own YouTube channel. If you enjoy inspecting the garden behind your house, start keeping field notes and publish them on an Instagram page. Admissions officers can tell from tangible achievements such as video views or Instagram followers how wide your reach is. As a STEM college applicant, creating a path geared specifically to your activities and interests is important in helping you stand out.

Having a humanities or social science interest can help!

Showing ways that you are different from every other STEM applicant could definitely give you an edge. This is especially helpful for STEM college applicants who are applying to liberal arts schools and have a humanities interest. Liberal arts colleges love when STEM students have other academic interests because that indicates that the student may take a broad range of courses. Liberal arts colleges emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of academics and learning in subjects that are outside of your area of focus. You never know, you might just be able to find an area in the humanities that perfectly blends with your interest in STEM and can actually help with your own research! And the bottom line is, students with dual interests may stand out to admissions officers more than the thousands of typical pre-med applicants in their pile. Don’t be afraid to show different sides of you!

Although there are many other things that can help you stand out as a STEM college applicant, these 7 things can help you avoid getting lost in the pool of thousands of other applications. Some may be obvious, but it is sometimes the most obvious things that aren’t taken seriously. The use of STEM is all around us. It’s up to you to take advantage of your interest in it, and showcase your skills to build yourself up as a unique and qualified applicant that your dream college will be excited about.

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