Independent Study, A Hidden Application Gem

As I mentioned in the post on international experience, one of the chief reasons why you should aim to leave your fall and spring semesters free to focus on academics is so you can do research.  Another thing that you want to be doing during this time is engaging in independent studies.  For those who might not have heard the term before, independent studies provide students with an opportunity to pursue a topic that may be covered briefly or not at all in a regular course offering.  Typically, a student and professor or teacher agree upon a topic for the student to research with guidance from the instructor for an agreed upon amount of credits.  The experience is designed to allow students to learn specialized material or gain research experience without jumping right into a full-fledged project.

What does an independent study do for you?

It shows b-school admissions officers that:

  • You like to learn and solve problems
  • Can handle a project without constant supervision
  • You are willing to go above and beyond the minimum academic requirements
  • You are passionate about your field and want to better your related skills/knowledge of it

It also:

  • Allows you interact with a professor in a much more personal way
    • Leads to better, more substantial letters of recommendations
      • “Student X took course Y with me and got an A” vs. “In addition to earning an A in course Y, student X also assisted me on project Z where we…” …you get the idea
  • Gives you a trial with a professor and research field
    • Lets you figure out if you could work with that prof./do that research long term
  • Gives you material for a poster show or thesis

Something to also think about is the fact that some professors are open to allowing students design a small course.  Essentially, you decide on a topic with the professor, choose materials, and find a few students willing to enroll.  Then, the small group of you meet maybe once a week for 1-1.5 hours and the professor teaches a mini-course on a subject not otherwise taught.  I opted to do this when I realized there were no data visualization courses on campus.  I worked with the professor to select books, recruit students, and even decide what might be on the lesson plan.  This was a great talking point for me in interviews when I was asked about a time that I took initiative (something almost every b-school is going to ask).

Obviously, try to do an independent study that is related to your field.  Since independent studies are so specific, you can do something that really emphasizes the niche you want to get into (I was big into data so instead of just taking an Excel course I focused my independent study on how to make beautiful charts and graphs, a skill that will come in handy for me).  Sometimes circumstances won’t work in your favor, though, and you may need to search outside your field.  During one summer I really wanted to get an independent study done (mistake…like I said, keep the academia in fall and spring, if possible, and leave summer for internships), but I couldn’t find many professors who were available.  I ended up working with a political science professor on a data analysis project because I reasoned that even though it wasn’t my field, I would be practicing and honing relevant skills that I could then utilize in my field.  You can do the same.  If circumstance seems to be working against you, see if you can find a professor that, despite being in an unrelated field, allows you to bring something pertinent to you or your field into the project.

All in all, I would recommend that you aim for two independent studies during your collegiate career.  If you can do more, by all means do it, but two is a good number to keep as a goal.  Doing just one sort of makes it seem like you just wanted to check it off the list.  Two speaks a bit louder.

For reference-independent studies I did:

  • The data visualization course design mentioned above (fall semester)
    • Gained skills pertinent to my field, showed initiative creating the course
  • A data analysis project for a political science professor (summer–not ideal due to internship–avoid if possible)
    • Honed relevant skills even though the project wasn’t in my field

One last thing to note if you wish to continue your research on independent studies and their benefits is that there is a big difference between engaging in an independent study with a professor and being enrolled in independent study, in general.  The former is what I’ve been advocating on behalf of and the latter is a way for you to take classes without being in a classroom or with other students.  The latter is not as common and you can usually assume material you come across is referring to the former, but always double check before enrolling in something just to be sure.

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