Showcasing Talent: A Guide to Diverse Competitions for High School Students

10/01/202426 minute read
Showcasing Talent: A Guide to Diverse Competitions for High School Students

Are you a high school student looking to stand out in your college applications? This blog post explores the dynamic world of academic competitions and offers a comprehensive guide to an array of contests across various fields of study.

Aimed at students eager to enrich their high school experience, this post not only explores why academic competitions can bolster college applications but explains why they offer a unique opportunity to challenge yourself socially and academically, showcase your talents, and dive deeper into subjects you love.

We also survey a wide range of competitions — from science, to visual arts, to business and entrepreneurship — giving you the lowdown on what they involve, how to learn more about each one, and just how varied they are. Whether you're a math whiz, a budding scientist, or a literature enthusiast, there's a competition waiting for you.

Why Not Consider a Fun and Challenging Academic Competition...

Are you involved in sports and clubs, but thinking there's something you're ready to step into — something just a little more challenging?

Why not consider taking advantage of diverse academic competitions?

This is a chance, beyond clubs or sports, to boost and spotlight academic growth and achievement. And, you’ll be surprised just how many competitions you can consider, across virtually every kind of academic field — with organizations just waiting for high school students like you to get onboard.

For many high school students, the decision to join a competition is about boosting their chances for admission to a good college. But there are many other good reasons as well.

Let’s see why academic competitions are something to consider seriously if you’re in high school — whether aspiring to a selective university or college, or because you just want a unique academic challenge you won't forget.

Subsequently, we’ll look at a whole list of intriguing, high-quality academic competitions, breaking the competitions down by academic subjects and making it easy for you to discover what's out there and learn more about the competitions that interest you most.

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Why Are Academic Competitions A Good Choice for High School Students?

We all know that extracurriculars are critical to enhancing a college application, but with the most selective universities and colleges inundated with applications every year, academic competitions might surpass conventional club and sports activities when it comes to making your college applications stand out.

Many academic competitions are synonymous with qualities that admissions officers rank high in evaluating college potential, qualities such as academic curiosity and motivation, or the ability to think on one’s feet, public speaking skills, being a team player, or having an intrinsic interest in academics.

But, academic competitions are also a great opportunity — regardless of your college aspirations — to push yourself to attain new skills and knowledge and elevate your social network too — at a crucial time for intellectual, emotional, and social growth.

Some educators worry that fostering competition sends the wrong message to students, discouraging collaboration or negatively impacting the "losers." Yet we can see that competitive events, from world soccer to the Olympics, and even the Paralympic games, are ways to build unity, collective pride, and camaraderie.

In fact, many educators, psychologists, and behaviorists today are researching competition and discovering more and more ways all learners can benefit from well-designed competitive learning experiences. Here are just a few of the ways researchers at the Institute of Competition Sciences say academic competitions, done right, can benefit young people:

  • Improving Teamwork and Collaboration: When teams strive, with a common goal, to overcome a challenge, all the team members can discover a new level of motivation and become better collaborators
  • Accelerate Social Learning: Competitions can help students understand what it's like to achieve within constraints of very objective rules and processes or how, in team settings, to navigate conflicting opinions and ideas
  • Spotlight Academic Pride: Too often high school "heroes" are those on the gymnastics or football team. Academic competitions and academic "heroes" can encourage other students to pursue and take pride in their own academic commitments, passions, and aspirations.
  • Enhance Self-Esteem and Resilience: By participating in academic competitions, students learn how to lose, learning that losing doesn't devalue the courage and effort it takes to participate, and doesn't diminish one's own individual academic and personal growth. Thus, competitions can help students develop healthy perspectives on basic life experiences, such as the ups and downs we all experience on any road to success and fulfillment!

And, yes, in addition to all these upsides, when it comes to enriching your high school resume — with an eye to college — academic competitions can also be an exceptional way to spotlight your intellectual prowess, your willingness to grow academically, and your readiness to be a productive team player.

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What Kinds of Academic Competitions Are Best?

You may be the best judge for deciding what kind of academic competitions are best for your aptitudes, interests, and goals. In fact, academic competitions cover a full spectrum, with something for virtually all interests and aptitudes:

  • Creative writing
  • Essay writing and journalism
  • Art, photography, and design
  • STEM fields, including math, robotics, general science, and more
  • Business and entrepreneurship
  • Public affairs and activism

Checking in with trusted siblings, parents, high school guidance counselors, or other trusted advisors is also a good way to get some fresh and outside perspectives on your choices.

In terms of your college application planning itself, you may want to target competitions aligned with your areas of academic interest and anticipated college major.

Finally, you might want to think holistically about the kind of academic and extracurricular resume you want to develop.

What kinds of academic competitions will complement that effort in your circumstances?

Not sure?... There ae some important considerations for choosing extracurriculars.

As you consider your options, decide if input from a skilled admissions counselor might be an effective way to get the insights you're looking for.

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So, just how many kinds of academic competitions are out there? Well, more than we can list here, but let’s take a look at some great options to consider.

We’ll break them down by academic field as best we can to make it easier to find what you're looking for. (Be sure to read to the end to see the interdisciplinary & multidisciplinary category too!)

And, with a little research of your own, you should find local and regional competitions in your region or home state or country that may be a good fit.

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1. Writing Competitions

Writing competitions tend to be less team oriented, putting individual authors in competition with other individual authors. And, while some essay competitions involve specific areas of academic knowledge, others spotlight different kinds of writing formats and skills:

  • essay formats or research proposals
  • news writing skills
  • creative writing skills, such as poetry or short story

Writing competitions can be a direct avenue to getting published, or help you jump start or elevate your portfolio — the kind that is frequently required for applicants interested in selective journalism or creative writing programs.

Essay Writing

Essay writing competitions are the first category we’ll explore — they provide a great way to test, develop, and exhibit your research prowess and written communication skills.

Beyond your writing acumen, some competitions may emphasize academic content and/or critical thinking skills in relation to fields such as history, political science, or other liberal arts or social science disciplines.

Here are two outstanding examples:

  1. The Harvard Crimson Global Essay Competition boasts low barriers to entry, reaches participants from around the world, and is designed to accelerate learning as well as reward achievement.
  2. A second top flier in this category is the John Locke Global Essay Contest which uses stimulating prompts from a range of social science disciplines, such as politics, law, psychology, and more to inspire research, critical thinking, and great written communication.

In addition to  The Harvard Crimson Global Essay Competition and the  John Locke Global Essay Contest, you may want to consider some additional writing competitions like these:

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Creative Writing

Participating in a creative writing contest may seem less academic, but keep in mind that creative writing projects can be immensely challenging. Typically, admissions panels at top schools will also recognize that creative writing requires not just imagination, but passion, vision, and mental discipline — qualities that can lead to inspiration and excellence in any college field, not just creative writing.

Also, if you plan to apply to colleges with selective creative writing programs, getting involved in a competition can be a direct way to deepen and demonstrate your motivation and commitment, as well as your talents, while building up your portfolio.

The NSHSS Creative Writing Scholarship offers multiple prizes with separate categories for fiction and poetry, making it an excellent example of opportunities for students interested in creative writing competitions.

With a little research you can find many additional opportunities, such as:


Journalism competitions can engage a more varied range of writing styles than you imagine. These can include:

  • factual reporting of contemporary news events
  • public affairs commentary
  • feature stories
  • sports and entertainment reporting
  • editorial writing

For students passionate about current affairs and interested in exploring diverse perspectives in public discourse, journalism competitions can be a stimulating way to apply those interests in earnest.

Some of these opportunities involve submitting your piece of writing to judges, but others may offer additional resources to advance your journalism skills and knowledge.

One intriguing example is the Harvard Crimson Journalism Competition sponsored by Harvard University’s newspaper The Crimson, one of the nation’s oldest collegiate newspapers. By participating in the competition you can receive access to the paper's alumni network for support, and winners may be invited to take a summer intern role with The Crimson!

In addition to the Harvard Crimson Journalism Competition, other similar opportunities include:

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2. STEM/Science Competitions

The opportunities listed below span everything from biology, to chemistry, physics, computer science, robotics, and more.

Some are designed for teams, others may allow you to go solo or compete as part of a group. Some competitions involve building something, while others award prizes for an innovation idea or research proposal.

Depending on the competition, participating in a STEM field contest can also be your chance to experience a real lab, in a research facility or university setting. Vanessa Quinn, Professor of Biology at Purdue Northwest says this is one of the great unexpected benefits for many high school students in the university's Science Olympiad:

The competitors get to see that when you go to college you can continue doing these great events or lab projects because we have the facilities they compete in. They also see that college professors are not scary — they are really available and excited to have them here.

As you consider your options, keep in mind that some competitions are national, others international. Many, not all, also involve lots of educational learning support, such as workshops or mentoring.

One excellent example of an academic competition that includes STEM interests and is international in scope is the High School Academic Research Competition. Participants benefit from immersive academic workshops, get valuable experience writing a formal research proposal, and can choose from a range of STEM and non-STEM topics.

If you’re interested in a STEM field, why not consider stretching yourself by participating in an academic competition alone, with a team, or with some fellow members of a STEM club at your school?

In addition to the High School Academic Research Competition, here are some other competitions across various STEM disciplines:

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3. Business and Entrepreneurship Competitions

Business and Entrepreneurship competitions are fun, educational, and creative. The hands-on business experiences are a great way to build your college profile, get a feel for real-world business challenges, and test your own professional aptitudes well before you actually apply to college and declare a major!

These competitions come in a range of formats, scenarios, and case study designs, frequently emphasizing skills such as:

  • developing business plans or proposals
  • designing socially responsible business ventures
  • investing and risk management
  • applying problem solving skills to real-life business challenges

One intriguing business and entrepreneurship competition that’s open to international high school students is The Case Competition. Using a case study or business scenario format, The Case Competition encourages participants to enter as small teams, and puts participants in the roles of CEOs or business consultants tasked with presenting effective solutions for real-world business challenges.

With its international scope, team dynamics, and real-world, hands-on model, The Case Competition stands out as offering a rigorous learning experience along with some fun competition.

In addition to The Case Competition, here’s some similar opportunities to consider for business and entrepreneurship:

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4. Math Competitions

Math competitions are a great way to demonstrate an intrinsic passion for mathematics while also stretching yourself beyond the math learning you do in your prescribed sequence of math courses in high school.

In math competitions you’ll also engage in challenges sure to stand out on college applications, including mastering abstract theoretical concepts and terminology or using analysis and problem-solving prowess to tackle real-world problems involving complex variables, conditions, and factors.

A test format is common to the majority of math competitions for high school students.

One prominent example is the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). This competition will only allow a few top competitors from different countries. To qualify, students around the world participate in more accessible local or regional math competitions every year, which are valuable in their own right.

In the US, for example, math competitions at state levels and nationally are sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA).

Participants compete by preparing for and taking the American Mathematics Competition (AMC) test.

Students in 10th grade and below take the AMC 10, and students in 11th or 12th grade take the AMC 12.

Most universities allow international students to apply through their early action and early decision process

Both tests cover a wide range of high school math topics, including advanced geometry, advanced algebra, and trigonometry.

MAA-AMC global partnerships also make the competition accessible to some international participants.

The AMC provides a fun and competitive way to develop a positive, learning mindset toward analytical thinking and mathematics, and provides a stepping stone to qualifying for the American Invitational Mathematics Exam (AIME).

From there, participants with top scores can win an invitation to compete in the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) and United States of America Junior Mathematical Olympiad (USAJMO).

Here are some other competitions with a math focus you may be interested in:

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5. Art Competitions

Art competitions are a great way to mix your creative passions and individual artistic vision with some interactive networking and socializing.

Running the gamut from painting and drawing, to sculpture, digital design, and photography, art competitions are a great way to showcase your artistic talents, build your art portfolio, and connect with wider audiences.

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“Michigan Summers” by a student at Clinton High School was the winning entry in the 2023 Congressional Art Competition, in Michigan’s 5th Congressional District. (Source: Daily Telegram, USA Today Network, July 23, 2023)

Participating in a high school art competition is also a great way to demonstrate your commitment to a creative major ahead of applying to a top art and design program.

A great visual arts competition for high school students from around the world is the Sony World Photography Awards competition. The competition is touted as emphasizing inclusion, being free to enter, and for providing a platform for diverse artists who use photography to reveal insights into contemporary life.

Here is a list of other prominent art competitions high school students can consider:

"Serenity" by Isabella Dennison, an 11th-grader at Booker T. Washington Magnet High School in Montgomery, earned third place in the 2023 Congressional Art Competition for Alabama's 7th Congressional District.

“Serenity” by a high school student in Alabama earned third place for Alabama’s 7th Congressional District in the 2023 Congressional Art Competition. (Source: Tuscaloosa News, May 30 2023)

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6. Liberal Arts, Multidisciplinary, and Interdisciplinary Competitions

From foreign languages, to debate teams, to mock trials, there are myriad competitions that encompass a variety of liberal arts disciplines or are interdisciplinary.

A great example is the High School Academic Research Competition (SARC), which attracts talented students from around the world. Small teams compete by submitting a high-quality research proposal.

What’s exciting about this competition is that teams who enter can create proposals on any topic, so your team can come together around the topic of interest they want to explore, deepen, and spotlight. Along the way, critical thinking, research skills, and an ability to communicate in a lively but rigorous style are all part of the mix.

Another fun example is Questions Unlimited National Academic Championship which is kind of like the popular Jeopardy game show — meaning you test your knowledge across a range of different academic areas!

Here’s a list of more top academic competitions for high school students in the interdisciplinary and liberal arts categories broadly speaking:

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Final Thoughts

As you can see, high school students have lots of academic competitions to choose from. Some involve teams, some don’t. Some are online, others in person. Many prominent ones we’ve listed are international or in the US. Therefore, we also encourage students around the world to look for local or national competitions in their home countries, which may not be listed above.

Finally, let’s be real about what might hold you back… Signing up for a competition can feel like you’re putting yourself out there — making it a bit more daunting than joining a club or choir… But remember, educators today are more aware than ever of the ways academic competitions deliver positive experiences, not just for “winners” but for all participants.

That’s right, participating is where you get most of the benefits, so don’t get too focused on winning or competing as such. And, remember, some of these opportunities include free educational activities and invitations that take you beyond your day-to-day classroom learning experiences.

So don’t let your doubts stop you. Consider participating in areas that align with your academic interests and career aspirations, and contact the proper organizations for more information about the competitions and learning opportunities they offer!

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Do you want to know more about academic competitions or how to navigate other decisions about extracurriculars?

Do you want to learn the best way to build a plan for a more rewarding college journey?

Maybe it’s time to accept the challenge…

The earlier you start, the easier it is to discover and chart the right path, set goals, and improve your chances of attaining the most rewarding college journey possible. Book a free consultation today and let us know what part of the college journey you have questions about.