A good application for the Institute?

Here are some notes on what mentors might want to see in a young researcher, and what might be distractions and side shows in how they present their application.

A background thought to all of this is that you should be thinking of yourself as a college sophomore or junior, not a middle or high school student.

Another background thought is that many of the applications from a given city appear to have indistinguishable resumes. This is often because there is a buzz in that city that channels the students into certain competitions so that they can prove how good they are. What we do at the Institute is very different: we do research, and we strive to fit into the collaborative stream of the research world. You should certainly be happy with what you have achieved in competitions, but it is only relevant here if you have turned that work into something useful that becomes a lasting product for others to use.

So here are some specific ideas that you might want to consider when you allocate space on your resume and cover letter.

Thoughts on resume categories

We are a research program, not a STEM program. STEM fields are only some of the areas in which people do research. We see too many applications that seem too focused on computer science.

Lack of engagement ahead of time. Before you apply tou need to engage with us about your research interests and your intention to train for research. Otherwise we will view your application as a “resume dump” and are unlikely to take it seriously.

Audience. Immerse yourself into a researcher or scholar or artist who wants to work with you. Write things that help them decide quickly if you are a good fit. Remember: they are busy.

Passion for an academic area or research problem. This should stand out clearly: what you want to do for yourself and the world. Beware of canned statements of passion.

Programming knowledge. The bare minimum is the “Serious Computer Programming for Youth” workshop, after which you should learn how to apply programming to your area of interest. This could be political science, physics, psychology, economics, music, art, biology, computer science, pure math, digital humanities, or any other subject. One good way to do this is to join the mini courses after the workshop: we apply programming to many academic areas.

You do not have to be an advanced programmer. You do need to learn the programming we teach you, but you should not shy away from research just because you programming is not your top hobby. Many research projects require rather simple programming skills.

A unique combination of skills. How the various interests you have pursued make you unique.

Past writing. If you have written essays then it would be great to see these available in a blog post. If you have written technical documentation and tutorials then they should be online as well.

Past research projects. This would be a nice thing to report. Make sure you have put written materials in an online blog, and any accompanying software in a public repository, released under the General Public License or another free/open-source license.

Linux experience. The bare minimum is the “Serious Computer Programming for Youth” workshop, but an application would gain from stating a plan to go farther in using programming editors and the command line, which are crucial research tools.

Usefulness of past advanced programming. If your thing is advanced programming then you should demonstrate that what you have done is useful by contributing code to a community software project with a free/open-source license, or even creating and leading such a project yourself. This should be published with a free software license on a public source code repository, like on a gitlab instance or on codeberg or github. Put the code there, specify GPLv3 as your license, and you have something cool. Please do not emphasize STEM competitions or prizes: they are loosely related to research, and they do nothing to differentiate you from others. If a competition led to a useful project for the world then we will be happy to see how you published that project. We will not care about prizes, unless they are internationally recognized achievements, like being a chess master or an author published in a serious journal.

Teaching and outreach. This is wonderful and always welcome.

Something outside of school and typical extracurricular activities. Your resume should show that you have crafted your own path to learn disparate things.


(remember: people are busy!)

Please avoid:

  • More than one page for cover letter.
  • More than one page for resume.
  • Statements that are obvious, like “excellent written and verbal communication skills”, or “team player”, or “fast learner”… Just point to the papers you’ve written that are online, so we can see how you communicate. This can be summarized as “list hard skills, not soft skills”. We will expect everyone to have soft skills, or to develop them very quickly before they start, so your resume should list the hard skills.
  • Don’t put goals or objectives in the resume. In the cover letter you can present research interests, and maybe you can also state how the research interests are part of a career plan.
  • Do not say “references available upon request” – it is a strange thing to say. For the Institute application you will have them sent to us directly, so don’t mention references.
  • Photographs of you. It might seem like a nice idea, but scholars would be put off. Maybe save the photos for a resume for acting jobs.
  • Do not put work or school email addresses. Use a personal email address.
  • Do not have a paid competition coach or college prep coach write your recommendation letter.

How technical people look at resumes

For some fun, and some insight, look at:


it has some dated bits, but it is still mostly valid.

Other no-nonsense technically oriented resume discussions are at: