3 Benefits Of An Independent Study Or Capstone Project

Independent studies or capstone projects allow students to pursue an area of personal interest in greater depth than the standard curriculum allows. But the benefits reach far beyond their interests. So as your student is deciding whether or not to pursue an independent study or capstone project, they should consider these other potential benefits:


Undertaking a project of this scope and scale is challenging. As students work through the project, they often experience a boost in confidence, which is crucial in terms of feeling ready for college. A student who has successfully completed a thorough study of a subject and collaborated with a mentor is more likely to feel ready to take the next step academically.


These types of projects are a wonderful opportunity for students to immerse themselves in a field of interest. In some cases, it serves to confirm a student’s interest in a field and clarifies a degree path. It also allows students to display a wide range of skills to prospective schools: things like critical thinking, writing, research, teamwork, planning, and public speaking. In addition to these “soft skills,” students who work on these projects are able to develop domain-specific knowledge and skills.


A great application highlights, throughout the entire application, the cohesive narrative arc of a student’s achievements. The activity section and the essays should complement each other, so a reader comes away feeling like they understand the “why” behind the accomplishments.  While interest and involvement in an area are necessary first steps, initiative and demonstrated impact are what set students apart for admission into highly selective colleges. Independent of projects during junior or senior year showcase that initiative and impact.

Independent projects are a huge undertaking, but for students who are ready to take on the challenge, it will benefit them both personally and as a part of their college planning journey.

Independent studies, or capstone projects, can be a fantastic way to delve further into an academic area of interest, by completing a long-term, multi-faceted project. Students can complete these projects over the summer or integrate them into a junior- or senior-year course load. Whether it’s developing an app, writing a play, or designing a robot, these projects allow students to pursue an area of personal interest in greater depth than the standard curriculum allows. And for students hoping to attend a highly selective college, digging deeper into an established interest is a great way to show schools that they’re motivated self-starters.

As your student considers whether an independent project is right for them, here’s what they should be thinking about.


In order to pursue an independent project, your student needs to have an area of focus that’s meaningful for them. Whether it’s a new topic or an extension of a project they did for another class, the project will only be successful if they’re excited about it. As they review possibilities, students should consider these key questions:

How much initiative does this project require?

Do I have the resources available to complete this project?

Am I taking a risk or challenging myself in this project?

What is the impact of this project, both for myself and for others?

They should feel comfortable with and encouraged by the answers to these questions if they choose to move forward with the project.


Before getting started, it’s important that students check in with their schools about how to best implement their project. For example, there might be an existing effort at the school that’s of interest to the student; coordinating their independent project with the school’s existing program will make the process easier for the student and more impactful for their community. Even if such an effort doesn’t exist, the school may be able to recommend a teacher or other mentor who has expertise in the focus of the student’s proposed project.

Many schools also offer independent study credit, which school counselors can typically help define. These projects may require an extended application process, so students will want to be sure they’re checking in and following it closely to gain approval.


If your student decides that an independent study project is right for them, here are three tips for making the most of it:

1. Start with a plan. Students should make a plan for how much time they’ll spend on the project to be sure they’re putting enough effort into it but not letting it get in the way of other work. Once they begin work on the project, students should keep track of how many hours per week they spend to be sure it lines up with their expectations. Going in without a plan can cause students to overwork and/or not reach their goals.

2. Find a mentor or advisor. Because they’re reaching beyond the standard curriculum, a student will have to go out of their way to find a teacher or advisor to help them with an independent project. This is especially important if they want the project to count for credit, but it’s helpful either way to have an experienced guide throughout the process. If there are no teachers at their school who are willing or able to assist, a student can reach out to a college professor or graduate student to assist with college-level research.

3. Focus on tangible outcomes. To be able to demonstrate that the time spent on this project will be meaningful, students should determine what the output or accomplishment of the project should be. Setting a goal will ensure that the project is feasible and impactful and will, of course, keep the student on task. For example, creative projects can be submitted for contests or publication. Or, if a student creates an app or an online video, a goal number for usage, followers, or revenue can help the student stay on track—and impress college admissions officers.

For many students, independent study projects become one of the most satisfying components of their high school academic career. Students we have worked with have completed projects ranging from works of art to research papers to software development projects. These projects require extra time and effort, but the results can be invaluable for the student and compelling for highly selective colleges.