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College Admissions Counselor on Undergraduate Research: Don’t Believe the Hype

Mark Montgomery, college admissions expert and educational consultant, speaks about the propensity of almost all colleges to extol their research programs on their tours. But beware: not all colleges are walking the walk.


I’ve been travelling around New England and New York for the last week visiting colleges, and it’s helpful sometimes to visit a whole bunch at one go because it helps me, anyway, to make some meaningful comparisons among schools and among the different approaches that these schools have, not only to specific academic elements of the curriculum, but also in how they market themselves. One of the things that’s interesting is that every one, every school I’ve been to this last week, has focused on research and how important research is at the university or the college, and how many opportunities there are for students to do research. Research is just seen as vital by all these colleges to present in their information sessions and in their tours.

But the comparison, again, is helpful because you start to see that everybody’s talking the talk, but not everybody’s walking the walk. So for example, a couple of universities that I visited, Bates and Princeton, both require a senior thesis. Every student who goes to those schools must do independent research with a faculty advisor. It’s not optional. So when those two schools talk about research, there’s no doubt that every single student at that school is doing research that is meaningful. Now of course, some are doing it really, really well and getting As on their research projects, and some are not doing so well and probably getting Bs because of grade inflation. But there’s a variety of student engagement in that research. But it’s required of everyone.

Then you go to a place like Tufts, and they were talking about how — I think 15 minutes of the one-hour presentation was on research. And the admissions officer was going on and on about all these different programs for research, and then it becomes clear that when pressed, it’s less than 50% of students actually do research, and he talks about these summer scholars programs and how kids are doing this and that and oh, my gosh, it’s so fantastic, and you could see the parents, their eyes widening, wow, totally cool! Well, that’s only about 40 students that do that every year out of 5,000. So while they’re emphasizing the research, it turns out that that’s not necessarily part of every student’s experience at the college. If you want to be lazy at Tufts and not do a senior thesis, you certainly can. You can’t do that at Princeton, you can’t do that at Bates.

The other school that was interesting was Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. And they were, again, emphasizing maybe 15 minutes of the whole presentation was all about research. And it’s true that there is a lot of research that goes on, and it’s certainly available to every student. But most of the students who do that are the students who are going for honors. And in order to do that research, they have to have a minimum GPA in order to do it. Now, Bates and Princeton, that’s not the case. It doesn’t matter what your GPA is at Bates; you’re going to be doing research because otherwise you don’t graduate. At Wesleyan, if you don’t want to do research, you don’t have to. Even if you have a high GPA, you don’t have to do it.

Now, again, the opportunities are there. Many students are doing it. But it’s less than 50%. So the fun thing for me is that I can see that these opportunities do exist, and it’s really important for students and parents to hear this in their marketing pitch when you go visit them. But it’s really important to think about your own priorities and also the kinds of people you want to be around. If you really believe that research is important for your own academic future, then go to a school that requires it of you. Go to a College of Wooster. Go to an Allegheny. Go to a Bates. Go to a Princeton. And make sure you do it. Or, if you go to a school that doesn’t require it, then make sure that you know what steps you need to take to ensure that you can, and that you will, do that research.

As the Princeton officer said yesterday, many colleges say, “Oh yeah, we have a lot of research! We have a lot of opportunity!” And then they just roll you out in the campus community and say, “Good luck! Do it if you want! Find a faculty member!” And then there are schools that actually require it of you. So I’m not saying that Tufts or Wesleyan are bad for not requiring it. That’s just market forces at work and differentiation of the service. But when you’re thinking about your priorities and what’s really important to you, make sure that you understand what the institution’s priorities are and how they’re structured, and are they walking the walk or are they just talking the talk? It’s a different emphasis. So figure out what you care about when it comes to research, and then find those universities that match that, and also understand how you are going to take advantage of those opportunities when you arrive on that campus.


Mark Montgomery
Expert Educational Consultant

Reader Interactions


  1. “But it’s really important to think about your own priorities and also the kinds of people you want to be around.” – well said. This is NOT “one college fits all.”

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