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  • Writer's picturePirie McIndoe

Academic, Artistic, & Creative Competitions for High School Students

Updated: Apr 22, 2022

Competitions for High School Students

Students often look for ways to challenge themselves, while gaining valuable knowledge and experience. Many do this through academic competitions, and there is certainly no shortage of options to choose from. Most of these are generally coordinated through the student’s high school, and some may require memberships to participate.

Many students participate in organizations like DECA, FBLA, and HOSA. They are wonderful and provide students with a great experience. Many schools around the country, and particularly in NC, already sponsor these groups.

Some competitions, for the most ambitious students, can really set them apart. In some cases, students will spend hundreds of hours on these endeavors, often conducting college level research or preparing for intense, knowledge-based quiz competitions.

Be Proactive & Start Early

Many of the research related competitions require significant planning. Many students think about a project in freshman year, plan it in sophomore year, and execute it in junior year.

If you are interested in one of these and your school does not offer it, see if you can start it at your school. Being a founder shows leadership.

Some of my favorite competitions are below.

Academic Decathlon

The Academic Decathlon features 10 different events. This academic competition has teams of nine students. One team includes three students with GPAs between 3.75 and 4.0, three with GPAs between 3.0 and 3.75, and three with GPAs below 3.0. During the event, students will answer multiple-choice questions, give speeches, respond to interview questions, and write essays.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Local, State, National

Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge

The Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge has small teams of two to five students, along with a coach, work to find solutions for serious global problems. The Conrad Challenge encourages students to think outside the box and create solutions to address one of the following categories:

  • Aerospace & Aviation

  • Cyber-Technology & Security

  • Energy & Environment

  • Health & Nutrition

  • Transforming Education Through Technology

  • Smoke-Free World: Eliminating & Reducing Teen Vaping

  • Smoke-Free World: Repurposed Farmlands & Tobacco Crops

Like other high school science research competitions, there are multiple rounds competitors can advance to. Those that reach the Innovation Summit level are invited to present their project to a panel of expert judges at the Kennedy Space Center. Finalists can earn grants, scholarships, and even investment opportunities.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Regional, National

Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (Regeneron ISEF)

The Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (Regeneron ISEF) Is one of the most prestigious science fairs for high school students. A top 100 finish will help your college application stand out. You must start in a regional science fair. Do well, and advance to the next ISEF rounds.

Key factors for winning include being innovative and original. To show originality for the ISEF, you need to tackle a problem that's interesting to the scientific community.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Regional, National

Regeneron Science Talent Search

The Regeneron Science Talent Search is highly regarded and highly competitive. Over the years it has been sponsored by Intel and Westinghouse. Students research complex problems in science and math, eventually writing papers exceeding twenty pages in length.

The work is comparable to high level college/graduate research. When you look at the list of scholars, many of the same high schools come up several times. Finalists are highly sought after by top universities. By the way, did I mention the top prize in 2022 was $250,000!

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: National

Davidson Fellows

Open to students 18 and under, the Davidson Fellows competition features the following categories: engineering, literature, math, music, outside the box, philosophy, and science. Entrants must have completed a “significant work” in one of those categories to compete for up to $50,000.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: National

Destination ImagiNation

This can be a place to start, even before high school! If you have a penchant for problem solving, Destination ImagiNation can help you refine your skills. An international competition for students in kindergarten through college, Destination ImagiNation teaches life skills while encouraging imagination. Work in teams of five to seven students, thinking creatively to solving team challenges.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: National

Odyssey of the Mind

Schools do need to purchase a membership to allow students to participate in Odyssey of the Mind. High school students need to think outside the box, as this challenge involves identifying problems and brainstorming creative solutions.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Local, State, National

Quiz Bowl Tournament of Champions

The Quiz Bowl Tournament of Champions invites high school students to show off their knowledge of general academics. This event features a triple-elimination tournament, so more students have the opportunity to participate. Jeopardy for high school students!

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Local, Regional, State

MIT Think Scholars Program

The MIT Think Scholars Program is primarily an individual competition. While many competitions require participants to have already completed the project, the THINK program is different. Students only need to have completed background research for a project in the science, technology, or engineering fields before applying.

If a student’s project is selected, they receive $1,000 funding and mentorship from MIT students. They also get a paid trip to MIT's campus to meet professors in their field of research, tour labs, attend MIT's xFair.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: National

National Science Bowl

The National Science Bowl is one of the best-known science competitions. Students compete in groups of four (along with a coach and an alternate member) to verbally answer questions in all areas of math and science. Thousands of students compete each year. You need to be able to answer questions quickly to do well.

(Ken Jennings speed of recall helps for sure). There are local, regional, and national competitions, and questions are designed to be at a college freshman level of knowledge.

  • Grades: 6-12

  • Competition Type: Local Regional, National

Science Olympiad

Schools competing in Science Olympiad have a 15-member team. Each member typically participates in three or four events. There are 23 events, some of which are "study" events where you learn about a specific topic and are tested on it. Others are "building" events that are hands-on and require you to design something (a plane, bridge, protein model, etc.).

The events are varied and cover topics such as human biology, geology, and circuits. You'll be scored for each of your events, and those scores are combined into a team score. There are regional, state, and national competitions each year.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Regional, State, National

Biology Olympiad

The Biology Olympiad competition is known to be fairly memorization heavy, particularly in the early rounds. As you progress further, there will be lab components and short-answer questions. For the hands-on portion, you need to be skilled at following memorized procedures. Nearly 10,000 high school students participate in the Biology Olympiad each year.

Students take timed exams and those with the highest scores proceed to the next round. As long as your school is registered, you can sign up for the USABO open exam. If you score within the top 10%, you'll move on to the semifinals, and potentially the national and international competition.

Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Local, Regional, National, International

Chemistry Olympiad

The Chemistry Olympiad Is similar to the Biology Olympiad, in that both exams are widely open to high school students. If you score high enough, you'll keep advancing to more challenging rounds. However, the Chemistry Olympiad does include more of a lab component than the Biology Olympiad.

Any high school student can compete in a local Chemistry Olympiad competition. Students are then nominated for subsequent competitions based on their scores. Local competition exams are all multiple choice, while subsequent competitions include short/long answer questions and labs.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Local, Regional, National, International

Microsoft Imagine Cup Junior

Now in its third year, Imagine Cup Junior is an exciting opportunity for students aged 13-18 years old to learn about technology and how it can be used to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges. It’s a great introduction to technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and new for 2022, cybersecurity. This competition is suitable for all levels, especially beginners. Teams of up to three members can compete.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: International

FIRST Robotics Competition

Self-described as combining the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology, FIRST Robotics Competition may be the ultimate sport for the mind. High-school student participants call it “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.” Under strict rules, limited time and resources, teams of students are challenged to raise funds, design a team "brand," hone teamwork skills, and build and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: District, Regional, National


Envirothon is a competition designed to promote environmental education in schools. Competitions are held during the school year, with the national competition held each summer. Students compete in teams of five to answer questions, do lab work, and provide an oral presentation. There are five testing categories: aquatic ecology, forestry, soils/land use, wildlife, and a current environmental issue that changes yearly.

  • Grades Eligible: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Regional, National

Harvard MIT Math Tournament

The Harvard MIT Math Tournament (HMMT) is for the math kids who hope to attend Harvard, MIT, or Harvey Mudd. Founded in 1998, HMMT is one of the largest and most prestigious high school competitions in the world. Each tournament draws close to 1,000 students from around the globe, including top scorers at national and international Olympiads. HMMT is entirely student-organized, by students at Harvard, MIT, and nearby schools, many of whom are HMMT alumni themselves.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: National, International

Stemanities Research Competition

A national competition, the Stemanities Research Competition invites students to conduct research in STEM and the humanities to develop a more sophisticated understanding of a topic. Stemanities is sponsored by the Institute for Biomedical Sciences, and finalists are invited to La Jolla, California to present their work and compete for monetary awards.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: National

AAN Neuroscience Research Prize

An interesting competition for those with a medical future in mind is the AAN Neuroscience Research Prize. Students focus on researching and solving problems related to the brain and nervous system. If you decide to compete for this prize, you'll submit your own research on neuroscience. This will be judged on relevance to neuroscience, creativity, interpretation of data, and research reports.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: National

Speech and Debate

Students compete in a wide variety of events in Speech and Debate. Colleges value the skills learned in this process, including communication and the ability to think on your feet. Top performers get accepted at top tier colleges and often earn significant scholarships. There are multiple tournaments held around the country and a national championship each year. Teams are normally school based, and top teams often have collegiate coaches.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Local, Regional, National

Scholastic Art and Writing

Scholastic Art and Writing recognizes the artistic contributions that teens around the country make each year. They accept various types of pieces, with categories ranging from creative writing to ceramics, and offer students many different levels of recognition and awards. The competition culminates in an award show at Carnegie Hall in New York!

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: National

Congressional Art Competition

The Congressional Art Competition allows you to compete with other students in your congressional district to have your artwork hanging in the U.S. Capitol Building for a year. Perfect for those with artistic skills.

  • Grades: 9-12

  • Competition Type: Regional, National

Guidance in Choosing the Best Fit

If you are unsure where to start, talking with a college advisor can help. An Advisor for College has helped students shine for years, ensuring that they stand out with their college applications. Make sure that you are putting your best foot forward.


These competitions are not for the faint of heart. Some students spend many months on their projects but may not make it past the regional level of the competition. That’s okay. Students still learn a tremendous amount about the subject matter, research methods, and collaboration, which will help them in the future.

Many wonderful college essays originate from the stories told by students engaging in these types of competitive events.

I encourage students to investigate options and discuss them with their school administrators. Each of these allows a student to set themselves apart, particularly during the college application process.

Fun fact on MIT Hacks

MIT Dome R2D2 Prank
Photo Courtesy of MIT News

MIT students regularly pull off some great pranks (known as hacks). Many are centered around the Institute’s Great Dome, the most iconic building on campus. In 1999, just prior to the opening of the Phantom Menace, some industrious students transformed the Dome into R2D2.

About An Advisor for College

My name is Pirie McIndoe, and I am the founder of An Advisor for College. Having worked with over 350 colleges and universities during my 35 years in the higher education market, I bring a unique perspective to the college admissions process. I know what college admissions officers are looking for as they seek to develop a diverse student body. I am fully invested in each student’s success; helping them present the best version of themselves for college consideration. Contact me to learn how I can help you navigate this complex and competitive process.


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