Why You Should Take an Independent Study

Ah, so here you’ve come, bright young padawan. You’ve already completed the full range of advanced courses in [insert your favorite STEM subject here], but you want to go even further! You’ve always been fascinated by those abstract symbols, and now you want to learn about how to find the improper integral under an infinite n-dimensional Gaussian distribution. Or maybe you have mastered the fine art of trajectory calculations and want to be able to design a launcher to troll your friends in the quad from Red Square by pummeling them with paper balls. To continue on your educational journey, you may want to engage in an independent study and occupy your time with a curriculum that Lakeside doesn’t even offer! Granted, you will have to design it yourself, but we’ll get to the nitty gritty later. 

If you want to. And have time to. And enjoy it.

Now, you’re probably wondering why a sophomore who’s never taken an independent study is writing this, but rest assured that I’ve talked with the most knowledgeable sources on this subject such as His Deanship, the college counseling team, Mr. Kresser, Dr. Parry, and His Deanship again, so that I can convey the most accurate information to you as possible. 

Let’s begin with the why. In general, independent studies fall into two broad categories: those that accelerate students in a subject (like real analysis in math—akin to calculus on steroids) and those that are just unique (see 1990s-era Soviet Math Olympiads, a real independent study done by a real person). Those of the first type are far more common, but they’re nonexistent in most humanities classes because there’s no real “progression” in those subjects—if you’ve already taken Victorian Literature as a sophomore or junior, take Chaos Theory next year. Meanwhile, in math, there’s a very clear direction in which you should go, and as Lakesiders are chronic overachievers, some students may max out Lakeside’s math or science offerings before their senior year. Always remember that an independent study takes up time that you could potentially use to explore other electives that are unique to Lakeside, like Seattle History or Understanding the Modern Middle East. But if you really crave a deeper dive into a specific subject, I am here to offer you some guidance. 

Despite the fact you may lose some frees or time for other classes, I firmly believe that if you want to do an independent study, do it. Even though you might be worried about things like college or your transcript, rest assured that, according to the college counseling office, independent studies denote a high level of interest and skill in a particular subject area — to do an independent study is to have outpaced Lakeside. And anyway, it’s better to spend half a year doing something you’re truly passionate about than doing something “because it looks good.” 

So you still want to proceed with an independent study? Then you must really like math (by far the subject with the most independent studies) or just be incredibly strong at science or a language. You have to submit a form by the second week of the semester with the signatures of the (momentarily) four most important people in your life: the teacher who will guide you, the department head, your advisor(s), and your parent/guardian(s). 

Argh, now what? You want actual suggestions? Well, here are some of my best ideas across a couple disciplines. 

(See 1990s-era Soviet Math Olympiads, a real independent study done by a real person.)

Magical mathematicians. If you’ve finished Linear Algebra, you can either advance with a course like Abstract Algebra, Real Analysis, Point-Set Topology, Set Theory, or maybe even Tensor Algebra (roughly in that order). All of these courses are very heavy on proofs and conceptual understanding rather than computation. Now, you won’t be learning a couple new concepts plus mostly new skills — concepts that you’ll have to figure out on the fly will continually be thrown at you for a semester or two. On the other hand, you can go the niche route via Olympiads/competition math, some specific Math-CS application, or Number Theory (the latter is actually quite useful — if it sounds fun, go for it). 

Solid scientists. Maybe you loved the Modern Electronics class, and you want to go further by studying quantum mechanics in all its mathematical glory (not recommended if you do not enjoy textbooks). Or maybe you want to do a cool experiment involving microbiology and toxicity that no class seems to offer, and you want to spend a semester formatting a lab report. 

Either way, there’s no shortage of expertise in the science (or any) department, and next year, I highly recommend that you push yourself in taking an independent study.