Entering competitions do wonders for your resume, demonstrate admirable personal qualities like self-initiative and curiosity, and give you a serious advantage in the admissions process. Think about it like this: not only do competitions show that you went out of your way (without being asked!) to work on an extracurricular (and often time-consuming) project, but being recognized for your achievements sets you apart from (and above!) the crowd. The Common Application even has a section that specifically asks you to list any awards, honors or recognition that you’ve obtained throughout your time in high school, and while leaving it empty won’t necessarily hurt your chances, naming two to three of these achievements can make you more memorable as a candidate. Additionally, participating in a competition can have a lot of personal benefits: for instance, it is a less commonly explored way to expand your knowledge about a subject you are interested in. Finally, it’s important to remember that many competitions award significant cash prizes and scholarships, which can oftentimes be used toward your college tuition or other expenses associated with the application process.
It is worthwhile to spend at least a little bit of your time during high school on researching what kinds of competitions are looking for submissions, select several, and then invest significant time and effort into perfecting the entries you submit. This is likely to pay off more than trying to meet every competition deadline or submitting entries to competitions in distinct fields. At the same time, competing in different disciplines can also demonstrate your capacity for transdisciplinary thinking, and you being awarded in various fields can help you emphasize this quality in your applications. In this sense, it is important to be intentional in how many entries you submit and the different deadlines that must be met so that you can best coordinate your efforts and have your hard work be recognized.
Different kinds of competitions demonstrate different capacities: essay contests, for example, can show your rhetorical abilities. Science programs show that you have a mature and growing interest in a specific topic, as well as the ability to understand complex scientific concepts and phenomena. Mathematics can demonstrate numerical literacy and the ability to think logically as well as, which is important in almost every field. Engineering competitions often ask you to think about pressing contemporary issues and think of innovative and well-designed solutions.
Also, use the competitions as learning opportunities: you can do in-depth research about a particular topic and go into a level of detail rarely encountered in most high school classrooms. It also gives you a chance to connect with your teachers outside of the classroom: you can ask them for guidance, resources, or have them look over your submissions. In some cases, competitions ask you to have long-term mentors; getting to closely work with your teachers can be of great benefit not only for your personal and academic growth, but also when you need them to write your recommendation letters.
The plethora of competitions can’t possibly be summarized in one article; below you will find an edited selection of some interesting competitions for students of varying levels of skill. Gives you an idea of what information to look for when browsing a competition website, and what key information to pencil down to keep track of contests you are interested it. Before committing to a competition, it is wise to take a detailed look at its requirements; if a competition requires more specialized knowledge that you don’t necessarily have yet, it will obviously require you more time to develop your submission, and you have to plan accordingly.
The list below aims to highlight a variety of well-recognized competitions that ask you to think critically or creatively about a problem or ask you to demonstrate your unique voice, vision or perspective. However, compiling a comprehensive list is difficult not only because of the sheer range of competitions in an even wider range of disciplines, but because of the added complication of the level of difficulty of the problem that each competition asks you to solve. A biology olympiad, for example, would obviously only be appropriate for a very limited amount of students who already have a very firm grasp of the concepts in that field and are familiar with advanced material outside of the regular high school curriculum. In that sense, finding competitions more appropriate for your own level of proficiency or specific to your interests is up to you! Use this list as a starting point that gives you a better idea of what kind of contests you are interested in entering and what key information to look for (for instance, be very mindful of eligibility criteria and deadlines!), and then think of keywords that are more specific to your profile as a student to guide and direct your research.
The Google Science Fair is an online science competition where participants formulate a hypothesis, perform an experiment, and present their results. The competition was founded on the idea that Google itself was first conceived of as a research project by founders Larry page and Sergey Brin, who were both PhD students at Stanford at the time. This competition aims to recognize similarly creative and impactful ideas as well as encourage students to explore and expand their curiosity through scientific research and problem-solving. The submitted projects must be in English, German, Italian, Spanish or French. Evaluation of entries is based on the following four criteria: the student’s presentation, question, hypothesis, research, experiment, data, observations, and conclusion. For example, the 2016 Grand Prize-winning project explored the use of superabsorbent polymers from orange peels in agriculture as a way of reducing water depletion and promoting plant survival and growth. Other projects involved increasing the efficiency of jet rockets, infrared smartphone technology that can distinguish between substances, and using robots to help stroke patients cure hand paralysis. The next competition will be launched in fall 2018, so keep your eyes peeled for any announcements by signing up to the newsletter or regularly checking their webpage. In the meantime, you can browse projects from past finalists and get inspired!
Deadline: announced in fall 2018
Eligibility: students between the ages of 13 and 18 from around the world
Prize: There is a variety of prizes available; 16 global finalists, along with a parent or a guardian, will travel to Google headquarters to present their project and compete for prizes offered from some of the competitions partners, such as LEGO Education, National Geographic, Scientific American and Virgin Galactic. One Grand Prize winner receives $50,000 in scholarship funding that they can use to further their education. In case of a team winning the prize, the scholarship will be divided equally among the team members. Other prizes include generous scholarship funding, year-long mentorships, and access to educational resources. You can find a more detailed overview of prizes here.