November 26, 2010

Some Tips for a Successful Research Science Institute Application

It's application season. This means that I am frantically writing my college apps (which is unfun), but it also means that this year's batch of juniors is starting in on their summer program applications. Well, this year's batch of prepared juniors--I sure didn't start mine until mid-December, and I did just fine program-wise, but I've started getting messages of "omg plz hlp me so confsd!" except spelled a lot better than that, because these are intelligent, motivated individuals.

Regardless, RSI applicants are getting nervous, and I'd been telling myself I'd get this blog to be a good resource (we'll ignore the fact I haven't finished writing up my posts from the last week of RSI, which was months ago), and, I think, showing some parts of a successful application would be helpful.

First, though, we should look at another blogger's post from last winter, about how not to write this very application.

I have no idea what the name of said blogger is, so we'll call him Joe. Or her, I suppose, since I don't know the gender, but Joe it is. Italics are quotes or paraphrases of Joe, non-italics is yours truly.

Good Advice from Joe
  • Send application in a punctual manner. Rumor has it that someone in my year got wait-listed (then accepted) because his application came in late.
  • The odds are really slim. Joe seems to view this as something discouraging (and claims that applications are, as a result of high interest, given less attention than they would otherwise). This is probably not true--the number of applicants we usually hear numbers well under 5,000, and everyone (aside from the international mathematics olympiad silver medalist) could be heard at some point during the program worrying that they were the stupidest one there, and that everyone was so much smarter, and why were they accepted, etc. Including a guy who had "only published one scientific paper" (for comparison, I have published no scientific papers). So all the odds do is guarantee that everyone who is accepted is totally shocked, and the people who aren't accepted know (or come to realize) that it's not the end of the world. I don't remember what the point of this paragraph was....oh, right. Odds are slim. It's worth applying, because no one expects to get in, but disappointment if you don't get in should not be allowed to crush you.
  • Ask for teacher rec letters well in advance.
  • "Go on a brag fest without exaggerating to levels you can't actually follow up on." Don't understate your achievements, yes, but don't turn the application into a list of every single thing you've done awesome on ever. Talk confidently about your potential as a scientist, about your abilities in research, about mathematics competitions, whatever. But avoid avoid avoid making a resume.
  • "StarCraft is not an acceptable extracurricular." Joe is underestimating the amount of StarCraft played at RSI . I'd say that one line about StarCraft, relating it in a positive way to yourself as a scientist, is acceptable. That said, don't allow StarCraft to interfere with your mentorship work at RSI. Because your privileges will be revoked.
  • Don't lie. Duh.
Bad Advice from Joe
  • Scores are everything. This is not true. The CEE, like any high end college, wants to see that you're smart on paper, so you need to have reasonably high scores. Top percentile scores. On SATs, you should break 700 on each subject. If you're the sort of person who wants to spend his/her summer totally entrenched in scientific research, you probably have those scores. If you don't, you were probably so busy designing nanobots that you didn't study for the verbal portion of your SAT (that's a joke. Seriously, if you're crap at testing but love doing research/learning science, talk about that in your app and hope that it balances out, but don't not apply).
  • Don't ask your junior year math/science teachers for recs. If you're top of the class, hang out afterwards to talk about quantum mechanics, know the teacher, whatever, don't be afraid of doing this. Pick someone that knows you, but that doesn't mean junior year is bad. Also, if you're a science person, don't be afraid of picking two science teachers to write your letters. I did it, and it worked for me.
So, that is some advice. Now, Joe also made A Formula designed to determine if someone will get into RSI. I think we might as well dig through that, and then, tomorrow, I can give you the blow-by-blow of my own application. My comments are bulleted underneath.

Start at 50.

Take Dec-01 2010. Check your application’s date of submission. Subtract 0.2 for every day of difference if submitted later, or add 0.2 for every day earlier. Subtract 5 more points if sent a week before the deadline.

  • People who overnighted it got in. People who got it in way early got in. You're better off getting it in sooner, but I'm not sure how much it matters.

Subtract 15 if living on the East Coast or in a state with above-average student performance.

  • What, no points off for Cali?

Subtract 2 if not a US citizen. Subtract a further 8 if nationality is East Asian.

  • It's a meritocracy. This shit don't matter.

Add 15 if URM.

  • Would you like me to repeat myself? We had 1.5 URMs my year. It doesn't matter.

Add 25 if female. Swear silently if male.

  • What part of "this is a meritocracy" do you not understand? My year was only 1/3 girls for the Americans. The international situation is almost worse, because Singapore and Saudi Arabia (12 total students) send only guys.

Add 3 for each AP/IB course taken, except Calculus and Computer Science (add nothing in those cases, unless Computer Science AB was taken, in which case add 1).

  • Okay, this is legit. Even though I'd only taken 1 AP test (and I'd taught myself the difference between my non-AP music theory class and that test).

Subtract 1 for each mention of non-AP courses completed on or prior to 2007.

  • I'm too lazy to figure out what's significant about 07.

Add points for each 200+ university course taken (CHM 304, MAT 217, COS 226, etc.); exact amount of points added is the leading digit times 2 plus one-tenth the numerical designation mod 100. (For example, COS 226 would be worth 2 * 2 + 26 / 10 = 4 + 2.6 = 6.6)

  • This is probably legit.

Subtract 1 for each “Other” field with non-AP/IB courses irrelevant to engineering/math.

  • But what if you think the courses are realllly cool?

Add 0, 2, 2.5 points (beginning, intermediate, advanced) in each programming skill level chosen.

  • If you're not doing anything with programming, this doesn't matter, though I did talk about how I was learning perl. Unfortunately, I stopped trying to lear perl around April, so I'm still terrible at it, but I don't feel bad about saying it because I was learning it at the time.

Add 5 bonus points for mentioning Python, but subtract 5 for mentioning BASIC regardless of skill level.

  • I'm going to pretend I know what this means.

Add 1/2 extra points each if intermediate/advanced in the following: Java, C++, Mathematica, MATLAB, SQL, XML, PHP, Delphi, and Ruby. Disregard Assembly/TOY, HTML and Flash.

  • Computers. Heh.

Add 5 bonus points for advanced LaTeX use, or add 2 for intermediate LaTeX use. Double the bonus received in this section if you used LaTeX in your short responses.

  • Using LaTeX for free response is beast (and indicative of geekiness), but they teach everyone LaTeX regardless--this is mostly used to place people into their first week computer courses.

Add WIN for mentioning StarCraft in any way in your application.

  • Dude, I *told* you it's a legit extracurricular.

Subtract 2 points for every 10 points lost on the PSAT/SAT II tests (disregard language/history/English tests).

  • I'd say to start this countdown after you get below 700 or 750. Because perfect vs. 1/2 wrong is not a big deal (except on SAT-IIs, where you've gotten more than one wrong)

Subtract 5 points for each use of a test score from 2007 or prior.

  • Unless used to demonstrate severe precociousness a la Gabriel See.

Subtract 8 if research field choices were copied from this.

  • I see nothing wrong with copying field choices so long as you can write coherently about them.

Subtract 5 for each failure to meet “PSAT math scores should be at least 75, and combined math, verbal, and writing PSAT scores should be at least 220.ACT minimum math scores should be 33 and reading, 34.”

  • Okay, yeah, sure.

Add 5 for pointing out the grammatical mistake on the teacher’s recommendation form.

  • No! Don't do this! Rude rude rude rude! Hide your head beneath the sand!

Subtract 15 if at least one of your answers to question 3 was one of the six remaining Clay Math Institute Millennium Prize Problems. Disregard if you included proof/disproof as supplement.

  • Lolz, math.

Add 10 for each research internship with a reputable organization. Subtract 5 for each deliberate mention of petri dish washing internships or paper shredding internships.

  • Legit.

Subtract 3 for mentioning programs that depend on ability to pay and not merit.

  • But what if it's ability to pay *and* merit? (I have no idea how to answer that question)

Add 5 for being a Intel STS semifinalist. Add 15 for being a STS finalist.

  • Yes

Add 8 if undertaking of personal research is demonstrated. Add 12 more if said research has been published or reviewed.

  • Hear, hear! However, this should be worth a lot more points than being female.
Add 8 for every piece of creative “supplement” sent with the application that demonstrates personal talent.

  • Kevin Hu! Google him, he's legit.

Add 17.5 for each non-frivolous patent held (Meaning not including any of these or similar)

  • If you're just applied for one, I think that counts, because the review process is long enough that for you to have one, you'd have to have filed before high school.
Add 1/2/4 for every bronze/silver/gold medal (or equivalent honor) received in reputable competitions (USAMTS, HMMT, PUMaC, etc., and not just math ones.)

  • Helpful, yes, but not necessary for acceptance. Plenty of non-competition people attend.
Subtract 5 for each long-range goal that alludes to money, power, or cars.

  • Yeahhhh.

Subtract 4 more for each long-range goal not involving science.

  • Unless it's saving the world.

Subtract 3 for every other piece of “padding” content.

  • What is this padding you speak of?

Subtract 2 for deliberate inclusions of school-wide extracurriculars or exclusively in-school recognitions.


Subtract 3 for mentioning non-national MATHCOUNTS trophies.

  • Math, lolz.

Subtract 5 if you asked a teacher who did not know you well beyond the course to write your recommendation. (Subtract 15 if both teachers fall under this.)

  • True dat.

Subtract 10 if question 6 was not answered in a straightforward manner.

  • How do you discuss extracurriculars in a non-straightforward manner? I'd love to see this.

Subtract 25 if you flagrantly mention that you are applying to TASP.

  • Poor form.

Subtract 10 if answer to question 7 fails to use any of the languages mentioned.


Subtract 2 if postcard was not enclosed.

  • Why?

Add 10 for each USA_O contest attended, minus ones open to public registration.

  • Kk.

Add 15 for each I_O contest training camp or contest attended.

  • Legitimate, this.

Add 25 for each I_O medal, +25 more if gold.

  • Okay, these metals should be worth way more than being female. Seriously.

Add 5 for mentioning Project Euler. Add 0.1 for each problem completed.

  • I did that! I need to get back to those problems.


Anonymous said...

People need to spend less time freaking out about details and gaming the system and more time doing awesome things. Pays off better in the long run.

That "formula" is such nonsense.

Also nonsense: the "rumor" about the late application.

Tea said...

I agree, but you still need to figure out how best to transcribe those awesome things into a three-page application.

That would be why I said it was a rumor (but yes, probably nonsense. Even Rickoids are not immune to the stuff :P)

Andrew said...

I'm kind of worried about my RSI app... I feel like I have some stuff going for me (ie., work in a good lab, lots of independent research, science competitions), but am worried. Your list has been really helpful, but I was wondering if you read apps / essays or are too busy with school?

Tea said...

I'm busy. Totally and utterly swamped. Besides, I don't know you, so my edits are going to be stabs in the dark. You should ask a friend, or one of your teachers (science OR english, doesn't matter), or a guidance counselor, or a parent--someone who knows you. My parents read my RSI app about 3x each, and I think that helped a lot more than some random person in the internet would be.

Anonymous said...

what's I_O?

Tea said...

I_Os are the international olympiads. The one that I hear the most about is IMO (international math olympiad), but to my knowledge there is also an IPO (physics), IBO (bio) and ILO (linguistics), though I'm not 100% sure on the last one.

Anonymous said...

What was your PSAT, Tea?
I got a measly 207.

Dandy said...

Thanks Tea! I'm applying to RSI next year so I'm guessing I should start prepping around now.

haha i'm such a tryhard

Tea said...

Own your tryhardness, is helps you be awesome! Good luck with your application!

HeyTsay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hi Tea! Since the maximum number of recommendations is 3, do you think I will be lowering my chances of acceptance by submitting 2?

Anonymous said...

I write as a teacher who has written recommendations and as a school administrator of a highly selective high school. The recommendation is very, very important. I know of a student who had no research background; had never entered a science fair since middle school yet made RSI because I teacher thought the world of the candidate. You will know if a teacher will write you an "over the top" recommendation if they offer to write you one without your first asking for one. In the case I cite, the student did not feel qualified to apply for RSI. The teacher even wrote the recommendation before the student even applied. The teacher compelled the student to apply and the student reluctantly applied. The student didn't even bother to check if s/he made it and was shocked to later find that he had made it. (RSI called the student's to see why the student had not responded.) One piece of advice: never disrespect your teacher, even if you thing that the teacher is unqualified, incompetent, etc. They may get back at you through the recommendation. I even once got a 3 page single spaced letter from a teacher stating why a student should not be admitted to the institution that I lead. I was shocked; the letter even included "cut and pasted" portions from the helicopter parent.

Kyle Mayer said...

I began exploring your blog on this thread which feels almost selfish because it admittedly was: me looking for a way to boost my chances of getting into RSI come next school year. But also because I almost closed out of this page afterwards and would have therefore missed out on your moving insight into the mundane, (which can often include people) and offer relatable experiences not as just a motivated high school student, but human being proficient enough in feeling and emotion that she could offer such insight on blogspot. I have spent the last few hours combing through your rehash and rhetoric, and very often wet eyelashes as a result, and would like to take this time to thank you for all that you have contributed. The world is a better place because of it. Please write more if you're still out there. I love it.