Best Online Research Programs for High School Students (Updated 2022)

Table of Contents

· Intro: The Value of Online Research Programs
· CCIR Academy (Cambridge Centre for International Research)
· Neoscholar (CIS), American Scholastic Convention (ASC), Path Academics (GEC Academy), etc.
· Horizon Academic
· Lumiere Education
· Pioneer Academics
· Polygence
· Scholar Launch

Intro: The Value of Online Research Programs

Online courses and pre-college summer programs are familiar ways for high school students to build their profiles and, hopefully, gain an edge in undergraduate admissions. In recent years, however, the great admissions race has only grown tighter. These days, if you are hoping to actually stand out, to get that admissions shot at the top elite and Ivy League colleges, you truly do need to go above and beyond.

Gaining research experience is arguably one of the best ways to stand out in admissions. For not only does research experience showcase you as an intellectually passionate student, it also highlights those aspects of your personal profile—maturity, independence, organization, critical thinking—which admissions officers are always looking for.

There are a few ways to try to get your hands on a research opportunity. The most traditional way is to try and contact professors and researchers at your local university by bombarding them with cold emails. This is a great way to go—if it works—if only because the opportunities would then be free. But this method has some definite constraints: the process is murky, success rates are low, options are limited, and the quality of the mentorship experience varies greatly, hinging more or less on your luck.

This was why I ultimately chose to pursue a paid online research program—and why I think you should, too. The great benefit of many (not all) of these programs is that they help you avoid all the limitations of the traditional methods. First off, the process is simple and streamlined. Furthermore, the online format gives you access to a much broader range of faculty and research options. Moreover, even though many of these programs have admissions requirements (which is a good thing!), if you are a strong student, you can be fairly certain that you will be able to secure a research opportunity. Finally, since these are paid-programs, it is generally speaking far less likely for you to simply be neglected by your mentor—which is something that happens all to often with pro-bono research and internship opportunities. These programs are expensive—but! If you can afford them, I think, they can be well-worth your money.

Not all online research programs are created equal. And my goal here is to share my research and experience to help you guys navigate the field. Full disclosure: I did the Future Scholar Program at Cambridge Centre for International Research (CCIR)—and I loved it—and it is the only program I mention which I have taken part in, personally. So I am not without biases. That being said, I will try to be as objective as possible here. Prior to committing to CCIR, I did extensive research into all the programs I could find. I leafed through websites, talked with representatives, sat in on info sessions, gathered tuition information (which is not always upfront on their websites), all before making my final decision.

And what I’ve done here is I compiled all my research into one document, to help you make your best decision for yourself. I will be looking at seven programs in total—CCIR, CIS/ASC, Horizon, Lumiere, Polygence, Pioneer, and Scholar Launch—in alphabetical order. For each program, I’ve included (1) a short one-sentence brief, (2) an overview pro/con list, which I try to keep as objective as possible, (3) a detailed program summary—which includes faculty calibre, deliverables, tuition and scholarship information—and finally, (4) a short section summarizing my own opinion. The hope is that this will be a useful guide for anyone who is interested in pursuing one of these programs.

UPDATE (TLDR):

Thanks for all the emails and for reaching out. I’ve also made a chart below for people that want an overview.

Click to see a bigger chart: https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/1600/1*De9Ll9JZHFhGa016NaybWg.png

CCIR Academy (Cambridge Centre for International Research)

https://cambridge-research.org/

One sentence brief: CCIR is a research organization split into two parts: a researcher-facing CCIR Think Tank and a student-facing CCIR Academy. Under the Academy, they run structured research programs and tailored 1-on-1 research programs from current teaching faculty at select top US/UK universities.

Pros:

  • Actual current teaching faculty (not PhD students) from the eight select universities as mentors—namely, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, UPenn, Cornell, and Columbia.
  • A wide range of research options—and in the Future Scholar program, some really cool courses. All faculty and course information are available on their prospectus — they’re the most transparent of all the programs out here.
  • Robust research support: actively pushing every single student to publish at college and even academia level journals, while avoiding predatory journals.
  • About 30% of admitted Future Scholar students will automatically receive merit scholarships for a couple of hundred pounds.
  • Lowest faculty-student ratio and highest aggregate interaction hours with faculty of all online research programs (price per unit)
  • The acceptance rate is low (at around 30%)

Cons:

  • Even if you are academically qualified, the professor may not admit you in the end because of the small group size and professors’ availability.
  • Financial Aid is very competitive.
  • No financial aid for 1-on-1 mentorship.
  • The Future Scholar courses can be very challenging. They offer some hardcore courses (like the brain-computer interface or advanced mathematical logic) that most high school curriculums never touch upon. Although professors and TAs are very attentive, you have to work very hard to develop a good paper in these fields.

Program Summary:

CCIR offers two programs:

  • Cambridge Future Scholar: 13-week research program of 2 to 5 students from around the world, taught by professor and a TA, with additional weekly 1-on-1 office hours upon request. The first half is lecture-based and the second half is research-focused. This is for students who prefer group learning in a more structured course.
  • 1-on-1 Research Mentorship: 14-week with one professor throughout. They will find a professor that fits your research interest specifically from the eight universities they work with. The program structure is also tailored to your needs. The professor will design the course around you. You can pause and resume the mentorship at any time, so it’s really flexible.

As mentioned, the faculty calibre of CCIR is stellar, as they work exclusively with current teaching faculty from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Upenn, Cornell, and Columbia. For the Future Scholar program, you actually receive additional support from a PhD Teaching Assistant from these same schools. All mentor information is available on their prospectus.

In terms of deliverables, the goal for both programs is the same: a research project produced independently by each student. You are free to choose your own topic, and are usually writing your own project, even for the Future Scholar program.

CCIR has a real focus on publication, which is quite unique. Students are routinely getting published at undergraduate level or even higher level journals and conferences. CCIR has a designated professor-led publication support team that helps with the whole process, and this support (in my case) extended even after the program ended (publication can be a long process).

In terms of tuition and scholarship, the breakdown is as follows:

Cambridge Future Scholar: £2,950 (many students are paying in the £2,500/$3,400 ballpark)

  • Early admission waiver: automatically £200 off
  • One-third of their students will automatically receive a merit scholarship from £200 to £500
  • You can also request need-based Financial Aid that can cover the rest of the tuition, but from what I understand, it is extremely competitive.

1-on-1 Research Mentorship: £6,750(almost all students are paying in the £4,500 to £5,000 / $6,000 to $6,500 ballpark)

  • Currently, all admitted 1-on-1 students will receive around £2,000 scholarship. So the actual tuition is around £4,500 to £5,000.
  • Financial Aid to 1-on-1 is no longer available. CCIR says they want to focus on giving financial support to Future Scholar students.

My Opinion:

As mentioned, this was the program I ultimately chose. So I will be brief: all things considered, I thought this was the best program out there for me. The faculty calibre is stellar, the research options are broad and diverse, the programs are carefully designed and structured, the support you get is really excellent, the programs are really academically rigorous and robust—it isn’t the most affordable, but IMO, you are paying for a truly exceptional research experience.

Neoscholar (CIS), American Scholastic Convention (ASC), Path Academics (GEC Academy), etc.

One-sentence brief: Chinese “research” programs bringing Ivy League professors to Chinese students with large class sizes.

Pros:

  • Tenured professors at cream-of-the-crop universities.
  • Fairly broad range of options.
  • College credit from an affiliated Chinese university.

Cons:

  • Big classes (often with 12+ students)
  • Lecture style and low interaction (professors won’t supervise your work)
  • Insanely expensive (could go up to $20k — I’m not kidding); no scholarship
  • Very limited deliverables
  • Shady LOR practices

Program Summary:

I will be brief here, because I don’t think anyone should actually do these programs. These programs are insanely expensive, and the quality of teaching is almost non-existent.

In terms of deliverables, you don’t actually write a research paper at the end of this course; rather you write a paper abstract—presumably because most of these students can’t actually write a full research paper—presumably because it’s a simple pay to play program. Because your interaction with professors outside of the sessions is none, they also will not supervise your abstract at all. In most cases, it’s some PhD students editing your work. Essentially, what you are paying for here is—I hate to say it—a fraudulent letter of recommendation from an Ivy League professor.

The faculty calibre is indeed incredible—but you don’t actually get to interact with them, so what does it matter. This low interaction rate typically means, I imagine, that the LORs people are getting out of this program is canned. So basically, this is a LOR selling scheme—which seems shady as hell. Tuition is hard to get a hold of—but there appears to be a range, and it is all extremely expensive. At the upper end, you are paying close to 20k USD—and there is naturally no scholarship whatsoever.

My Opinion:

Don’t do it. In fact, CIS / ASC / Path Academics (also called GEC Academy) are representative of a whole class of programs that I think should be avoided. So I thought it would be useful to be aware of them, to avoid them.

Horizon Academic

https://www.horizoninspires.com/

One sentence brief: Group research program with professors & lecturers (Horizon Seminar) and 1-on-1 program with PhD students (Horizon Labs, where students are constrained by an approved list of research topics.

Pros:

  • The 15-week (20 hours) structure ensures each student has a good amount of time to finish the paper.
  • Started in 2016 — the second oldest program out there. It has some reputation among counselors and has over 1,000 alumni.
  • Choosing from a list of approved research topics means you are not starting from scratch. Although your research may not be completely original and is not what you want to write, this ensures the program have a better support system for high school students.

Cons:

  • For $5,500 it’s on the higher end in terms of tuition.
  • 1-on-1 Horizon Lab program is with a PhD student mentor only. And with $5,500 (no scholarship at all), it’s really expensive.
  • For the professor-led group research Horizon Seminar program, Horizon only offers 15 courses. Some general research areas are clearly missing.
  • Some professors are not from top-tier schools. Not saying they are bad, but they are not the most prestigious.
  • Students can’t come up with their own research topic. Horizon has 300+ pre-approved topics, but only around ~10 for each research area. It’s a very limited list. The paper you are writing is definitely something many of its 1,000+ alumni have written before. The end product doesn't showcase originality for college applications.

Program Summary:

Horizon offers two programs:

  • Horizon Seminar: Professor-led 20-week program with 4 to 6 other students. Horizon offers eight courses/areas. The professor will lead 14 sessions and the Teaching Assistant (a PhD student) will lead the rest 6 sessions. Each student will be writing their own research paper with a topic chosen from a list of around 10 pre-approved topics.
  • Horizon Lab: PhD student mentor-led 2-week 1-on-1 program. This program has about 12 research areas to choose from. Each student will still be writing their own research paper with a topic chosen from a list of around pre-approved topics.

Faculty Level: For the Horizon Seminar, they only have less than ten professor level faculty. Some of them are from great schools like Cambridge, Dartmouth, and Harvard. Some of them are from less stellar schools such as Georgia Tech. I’m sure any of the professor level mentors are capable of mentoring high school students. For the Horizon Lab, they have PhD students from many great universities as mentors. The PhD faculty level should be on par with Polygence and Lumiere.

Deliverables:

Like most of the other programs, the deliverable is also a research paper that each student write on their own. However, since each paper’s topic is pre-selected from their own database, the papers lack originality and it would be a moon shot to publish. They have some level of publication support, but on their Info Session and website, they keep telling students there’s no need to aim for publishing—which might raise some eyebrows.

The representative on their Info Session said the Horizon program used to be affiliated with a university and offers college credit. They got rid of it all because college credit programs have a lot of restrictions. They discovered students are less likely to produce ambitious and creative topics this way.

Tuition and Scholarship: The tuition for either the Horizon Seminar or Horizon Lab is the same at $5,500. They offer some scholarships for the Seminar program but not the Lab program.

My Opinion: From what I gathered from the Info Session, Horizon is pushing students hard towards the 1-on-1 PhD student-led Horizon Lab, which covers a lot more topics than the eight areas of the professor-led Horizon Seminar. It is understandable because PhD student mentors are much cheaper for them, but they charge the same tuition for both programs.

The program is suitable for students that want to auto-pilot their research. It’s less of an independent research mentorship but more of an online course. The value of the program is hence diminished considering the research paper has no prospect of publication, lacks originality, and doesn’t showcase your academic drive as much as other programs.

Lumiere Education

https://www.lumiere-education.com/

One sentence summary: Three different types of research-focused 1-on-1 programs taught by PhD student mentors.

Pros:

  • Research-focused 1-on-1 programs with different price points for different types of students.
  • The total 1-on-1 meeting time range from 9 hours ($2,600 program) to 30 hours ($8,400 program).
  • Robust publication support — if you chose the $8,400 program.
  • Four rounds each year and many research areas to choose from.

Cons:

  • Their faculty is PhD students (branded as “world-class researchers”).
  • Lumiere admits hundreds of students each year, all of whom enroll in the one-on-one program. Quality control at this level is hard since each program is individualized. Unlike Polygence, which is backed by VC fundings, Lumiere has a very small operations team. So the quality of the program is really dependent on the particular PhD student that is teaching.
  • Letter of Recommendation—if this is something you are after—from a PhD student doesn't carry the same weight as one from a professor.
  • The academic standard and result may be lower compared to other programs. They don't publish their acceptance rate and numbers. You also don't see they advertise about their students’ publications, even though publication support is a big part of their program.
  • My partent’s friend sent his son to Lumiere last year. They ended up recommending him to write an abstract instead of a paper (a couple of hundred-word description of an experiment proposal, not a full research paper) and then recommended him to submit to a pay-to-publish predatory journal. I can’t say it’s common practice for Lumiere, but it shows their academic standard is low.

Program Summary:

Lumiere offers three types of programs:

  • Individual Research Program: 12-week program with 9 1-on-1 sessions with your PhD mentor, 2 1-on-1 sessions with a writing coach, 5 hours group class on research.
  • Premium Research & Publication Program: 16-week program with 15 1-on-1 sessions with your PhD mentor, 4 1-on-1 sessions with a writing coach, 5 hours group class on research, plus 4 sessions with a publication specialist.
  • Research Fellowship: 24 to 30 sessions in a six-month to year-long program with additional support. This is the program if you want to publish at a college level journal.

Faculty calibre is solid in terms of the universities that they come from, but they are all PhD students. Again, if LORs are something you are after, a PhD student LOR is not the same as a faculty LOR. This isn’t always true but, in general, PhD students have much less teaching experience than faculty members do as well—which may end up affecting teaching quality.

In terms of deliverables, Lumiere focuses on students writing research papers as its sole end-product. The average research paper is 15 pages long. You can receive publication support if you choose the fellowship program, and you can also request letters of recommendation from your PhD student mentors.

Scholarship information for Lumiere is quite ambiguous, but their tuition is as follows:

  • Individual Research Program (12 weeks; 2600 USD)
  • Premium Research & Publication Program (16–20 weeks; 4800 USD)
  • The Research Fellowship (6–12 months, 8400 USD)

My Opinion: Lumiere is probably the least competitive program of the selective class of programs. It is not as academically rigorous as Pioneer or CCIR, and it’s not as flexible as Polygence (and definitely fewer mentors to choose from). Their students have no publication results showcased on their website. The whole experience hinges on the PhD mentors, in whom I have less confidence. Because they are a small company, quality control hundreds of individual courses is extremely difficult. My sense is that they are kind of in-between the better options, and they ultimately don’t do anything quite as well as anyone else.

Pioneer Academics

https://pioneeracademics.com/

One sentence summary: The OG online research program taught by US professors with college credits from Oberlin College.

Pros:

  • Well-known program with 10+ years in the running.
  • Actual current teaching faculty (not PhD students) from various US universities.
  • College credit from Oberlin College (I’ll be writing another article discussing the usefulness of college credits from online summer programs).
  • Low acceptance rate (received 2,000+ applications for ~700 spots in the most recent round)

Cons:

  • Under the so-called “Professor-blind” system, you don’t know which professor will be mentoring you until the last step, which is too late to drop out. According to some online forums that I looked at, many people think this system is simply a business strategy for them to use professors from lesser-known colleges.
  • Their 1-on-1 program is not really 1-on-1—which strikes me as a bit dishonest. For the first half of their 1-on-1 program, you are attending a class that can go up to 10 people. The 1-on-1 experience only comes in the second half of the program, which only leaves 5 hours of facetime with the professor.
  • Once you take into account the 5 hours of group meetings and 5 hours of 1-on-1 time, the $6,500~ tuition will appear to be poor value for money.

Program Format:

Pioneer is one standalone program that contains nearly 30 general research areas for students to choose from. Students will attend a group lecture of a general area with other students for 5 sessions/hours in the Foundational Research Seminars. This uniformed lecture can help students have a good understanding of the subject and develop their own topic. For the next 5 hours, students will be meeting with a professor on a 1-on-1 basis. The total time is around 10 hours.

As mentioned, the faculty-calibre is very good, as they work exclusively with professor-level faculty from various US universities. The caveat here is the professor-blind policy, which means you don’t know who you work with until you are paired with them.

Deliverables-wise, the goal here is to help each student produce an independent research paper (not a group project) that each student author. Students will be developing their own topic during the first half of the program and finalize it with the professor in the 5-hour 1-on-1 session.

Pioneer doesn’t provide much additional support (other than the professor’s advice) on external publication. Their focus is on encouraging students to submit to their own Pioneer Research Journal, which publishes once a year. The Journal, which only reviews papers from Pioneer students, has a low acceptance rate in the low single digits. Considering the level of students admitted to Pioneer, its Journal is probably one of the top high school academic journals out there.

The tuition is $6,450, and the scholarship takes the form of a “very limited” need-based scholarship that is available upon application.

My Opinion: Pioneer is suitable for students that want a good academic extracurricular that brings college credits. It is a mature program, it is the OG, and there are reasons why it is that. There are two issues that worry me, however: 1) Pioneer’s after-program support is lacking. Pioneer is not actively pushing students for publication, since instead, it relies on its internal journal. 2) The professor-blind system lacks transparency. Combined with the “1-on-1” structure with only 5-hour facetime with the professor, it’s really not worth it compared to some other programs.

Polygence

https://www.polygence.org/

One sentence summary: An educational marketplace where you can find all kinds of mentors for the 1-on-1 experience.

Pros:

  • Huge mentor list: you can literally find any mentor specialized in all kinds of niche areas.
  • True 1-on-1 experience for 10 hours.
  • College credit from the University of California (more info), but it requires separate applications and additional tuition fees.
  • For around $2,500, it’s the cheapest of all competitor programs.
  • Lots of scholarship opportunities (the company is backed up many VCs and companies like Alibaba)
  • Everyone can get in. They won’t reject people because it’s positioned as a marketplace for all.
  • EdTech company—so logistically it is quite user-friendly.

Cons:

  • Their mentors are PhD students or even working professionals. Their focus is not to bring professor-level faculty to high school students.
  • Since they admit thousands of students every year and every mentorship is 1-on-1, there’s isn’t much quality control here other than the standard training to mentors. The credential of your experience is really depended on the PhD student you ended up pairing with. Also, PhD students tend to be busy and in it for the money (because they are poorly paid by universities; more below).
  • The PhD-student-LOR is less valuable than the professor-LOR.
  • There is essentially no academic standard when it comes to admission. So getting into the program doesn't say much on your resume/CommonApp.
  • The Admission/Onboarding process is long. I got waited listed for over a month with no response.

Program Summary:

Polygence offers 10-hour 1-on-1 sessions with your mentor plus two additional External Project Review sessions. You can also chat with your mentor via their proprietary app—but it’s not clear that this makes any difference from sending emails like other programs. There are no foundational or group sessions to attend.

Faculty calibre, once more, is in this case PhD students from all around the world, but mostly US universities. You can peek into the life of a Polygence mentor in a podcast here, in which they mentioned they pay their mentors an hourly rate of $75 (compared to the ~$250 rate you are paying to them).

In terms of deliverables, this is the creative part of Polygence, which you can work on any project, not just research papers. CCIR’s 1-on-1 program allows you do this to some extent, but there’s still a greater focus on academic projects there. You can find a mentor to help you build an NGO, shoot a short film, build an influencer account, etc.

Tuition for a Polygence program is $2500 USD, before financial aid. According to their website, in terms of scholarship, they offer need-based financial aid to applicants from all over the world.

My Opinion:

The edtech branding and the technology that goes with it probably does make this a more user-friendly experience overall. If you want the most flexibility you can get in terms of the form of the project you work on, Polygence is a great option. By comparison, however, Polygence is not the best option for academically serious students who have research experience as their goal. It is relatively affordable, but keep in mind that the lower price point is a reflection of the fact that they work with PhD student level mentors.

Scholar Launch

https://www.scholarlaunch.org/

One sentence summary: Scholar Launch is an extension of an admissions counseling firm called Ingenius Prep based in Connecticut, with partners in China. Apart from group research programs for high school students, they also offer research programs to 7th to 9th graders.

Pros:

  • For the Summer program, they offer as many as 30 different courses covering a wide range of topics from Criminology to Pop Culture.
  • You are able to see which schools the faculty come from and their titles (although you are not able to access their names). Some of the faculty are from great schools and they are not PhD students.
  • About 45% of the students received financial aid from 5% to 100%.
  • They have a junior research program for students as low as 7th grade.

Cons:

  • There is no detailed information on the faculty and the course. Other than their titles, schools, and the course name.
  • Their parent company Ingenius Prep is insanely expensive. For their Chinese students, a quick look-around online told me that they start at 150k RMB (about 24k USD). It’s a crazy amount of money even for top counselors in the US. Their parent company’s profit-driven practice may affect how their research program is run.
  • I saw some open positions on their website. For some Scholar Launch student liaison positions, they require the employee to have “Native-like fluency in Mandarin.” It tells me the Scholar Launch program largely caters to the Chinese market. While attending a group program with mostly Chinese students is not an issue for me, I do fear the program’s practices are in some ways similar to the expensive and shady Chinese competitors mentioned above.

Program Summary

For Scholar Launch’s high school research program, students will join group sessions with a faculty advisor and 1-on-1 sessions with a Teaching Assistant.

Their faculty calibre is faculty level (not PhD students) from various universities. Some of them are from great schools like Harvard. Some of them are from not-top-tier schools like the University of Florida or UCSD. They also have some faculty from non-English speaking countries’ universities in Asia and Europe.

Little is revealed on their website for their Teaching Assistants. But they are not all PhD level like other programs. Some of them listed on their website are MAs or even BA degrees. I wouldn't worry that much though. I’m sure they are more than capable of TA’ing high school students.

Their deliverables are the most concerning part of their program. Unlike other programs which talk a lot about student’s research outcome and publication, this is literally the only information on their website on the outcome:

Academic paper or product/Paper publication/Chance to win a letter of recommendation from professor.

Their alumni projects are very vague and suspicious as well. None of their star students published their papers anywhere.

Tuition and Scholarship breakdown is as follows:

Advance Research Programs: $4,500 — $9,000 (depending on program type and scholarships)

Junior Research Programs (Group-based): $2,500

On their tuition and financial aid page, Scholar Launch claims around 45% of students received financial aid ranging from 5% to 100%. They also state they’ve given out $77,221 worth of financial aid in 2021. What does this mean? Well, I did the math: In 2021, they ran 45 courses, each from 3 to 5 students. Assuming their average class size is 4, about 81 students shared the $77,221 financial aid in 2021. The average financial aid is around $950 per student.

My Opinion:

This program looks decent on paper (their mentors are not bad and there are many courses to choose from), but there is little information on the courses and mentors (still better than some programs that revealed nothing!). Other than your paper and your letter of recommendation (if you “win” one from the professor), there is no real outcome of the program that you can use to build up your profile (like a publication). Lastly, their connection with their hyper-expensive counselor parent company Ingenius Prep is probably not a selling point.

 by the author.

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David Kim's Research Notes

David Kim's Research Notes

High school senior in Virginia aiming for Ivy League (applying 2022). This is my notes on my college application and research journey.