Are you a coder or computer science lover and want to show off your skills? Computer science competitions are a great way to do that! We've gathered information on 11 of the best computer science and coding competitions high school students can participate in. Look over the descriptions that seem most interesting to you, then keep reading to learn everything you need to do to make participating in these competitions stand out on your college applications.
The Best Computer Science Competitions for High Schoolers
Below are overviews of 11 of the best computer science and coding competitions for students. For each competition, we give a brief description, along with who is eligible and what the prizes are. All the competitions below are solely or primarily focused on computer science. For competitions that are more about STEM generally (and could include computer science), check out our guides to the best math competitions and science competitions for high school students.
The Imagine Cup is one of the best-known computer science competitions for high schoolers. The competition is run by Microsoft, and, each year, students around the world compete in it. Students work in teams of up to three members to design a tech solution to a social, environmental, or health problem. The project must include a Microsoft Azure component and "take into consideration diversity, inclusion, and accessibility."
Eligibility requirements: Must be 16 or olderPrizes: Each winning team is awarded $100,000, as well as mentorship from Microsoft experts and grant money.
This computer science competition is designed to both encourage more students to study STEM and coding as well as connect them to their congressional representatives. Individual students or groups of up to four design an app. The app can be created using any programming language and platform, and it can be on any theme or topic. Each app is judged by congressional district, and the winners are judged nationally. New coders are encouraged to participate, and roughly 44% of competitors described themselves as beginning coders.
Eligibility requirements: Must be a middle or high school student in a participating congressional districtPrizes: Winning apps are eligible to be displayed in the US Capitol Building and featured on the House of Representatives' website. Winners are also invited to attend a reception on Capitol Hill and may be awarded additional sponsor prizes.
The US Air Force created CyberPatriot to inspire students to pursue careers in cybersecurity or other STEM fields. The National Youth Cyber Defense Program gives teams of 2-6 students assignments similar to those new IT professionals would receive. Teams work through online competition rounds where they must find and fix cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Top teams receive an all-expense-paid trip to the in-person National Finals Competition in Maryland where they compete for scholarship money.
Eligibility requirements: Middle school students, high school students, and students in JROTC programs each have their own division.Prizes: Scholarship money (award amount varies)
ACSL hosts one of the oldest computer science competitions in the world. To compete, your school has to have registered and paid the registration fee. Before the competition, the coach teaches coding with a focus on ACSL exam categories. Then, students work in teams of 3 or 5 students to complete four tests. Students can code in Python 3, Java 8, or C++ as defined on the programming platform. Top-scoring teams advance to regional, statewide, and eventually global competitions.
Eligibility requirements: Elementary, middle, and high school students (worldwide) whose schools have registered for the competition.
Prizes: Winners of the ACSL All-Star Contest receive prizes (amount not disclosed).
One of the world's most prestigious computer science competitions, IOI is open to secondary school students around the world. Each country sends a group of four students (who compete individually) to the two-day international competition. American students must win the USACO competition (see below) to be chosen to participate. IOI participants must know how to program (particularly in C++), be able to understand and implement algorithms, and have strong problem solving skills.
Eligibility requirements: Secondary school students who win their national competition.Prizes: Some countries award monetary prizes to their competitors, but IOI officially only gives medals to the winners. However, the real prize is being able to put "IOI winner" on your college application, which will give you a shoo-in to most top STEM college programs.
This well-known and well-regarded competition tests skills in areas such as algorithmic programming problems that can be solved using various programming languages. Students compete in three online contests, plus a national "US Open" competition. From these results, the top 24 or so scorers are invited to a training camp in the early summer, hosted at Clemson University. At the end of the camp, the top four participants are invited to attend the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI).
Eligibility requirements: Must be a middle school or high school student in the USPrizes: Top four participants go on to compete at IOI (see above).
For this competition, teams of 5-20 students write programs to control hypothetical robotic satellites aboard the International Space Station. Students will be able to control the satellite speed, rotation, direction of travel, and more. They'll use programming to get their satellites to complete obstacles while conserving fuel. There are several virtual competitions, and the finalists of those rounds are invited to compete in a live challenge overseen by an astronaut aboard the ISS.
Eligibility requirements: Open to students in grades 9-12 in the US or member state of the European Space AgencyPrizes: No cash awards
RoboRAVE is a computer science competition for students interested in both programming and robotics. Teams of 2-4 players (plus a coach) design, build, and program a robot capable of completing different tasks such as extinguishing candles, placing flags atop a steep incline, and traversing an elevated maze. RoboRAVE prides itself on being an open competition, and teams can compete from anywhere while using any kind of robot (that they built) and any type of programming software. It's a great option for students who are interested in robotics but don't yet have a ton of skills in the area, as they emphasize building computer science and robotics programming skills.
Eligibility requirements: High school division is for students 14-18 years old, although there are other age group divisions available as well.Prizes: No cash awards
The Technovation Challenge is designed to get more girls interested in coding and computer science. Girls work in teams of 1-5 and with volunteer mentors to use technology to design an app that helps solve real world problems such as climate change, bullying, and hunger. Both novices and girls with strong backgrounds in computer science can participate, as the competition is designed to help girls build their tech skills.
Eligibility requirements: Must identify as female and be between 10 and 18 years old.Prizes: Prizes and scholarships up to $2,000
Bebras is a computing competition where participants get 45 minutes to answer 15 multiple-choice questions on computational and logical thinking. Students complete the challenge at school, and they can track how their computer science skills grow over time.
Eligibility requirements: Any teacher can sign their students up for the competition.Prizes: Your teacher can print certificates with your level of achievement
There are a lot of robotics competitions out there, but First Robotics is one of the most prestigious, and, as such, requires a significant commitment (of both time and funding). Students work in teams of at least 10 (along with 2 adult mentors) to design and build an industrial-sized robot (about 150 pounds). They then must program the robot to compete in a sophisticated field game at competitions. Annual team registration fees are usually about $5,000, although fundraising guidance is given.
Eligibility requirements: High school students in the US
Prizes: Various scholarships and cash prizes for top scorers, as well as those voted to have most team spirit, resilience, etc.
What to Look for in Computer Science Competitions
The above list includes many of the best-known computer science competitions for high schoolers, but it definitely doesn't include every one of these competitions. In particular, we didn't include smaller, regional competitions in order to create a list applicable to the greatest number of students. If you're interested in other computer science competitions, you may want to do some research on your own. However, use judgement when considering unknown competitions, especially if they are new or you can't find much information about them beyond a website or their social media. Also be wary of competitions that charge large fees to participate.
Quality computer science competitions will have a clear and detailed website that explains what the competition is, who is eligible, how you can participate, and who you can contact to learn more. It's not required for them to be backed by a government entity or well-known corporation, but having some name recognition can help solidify their legitimacy. Additionally, older competitions, and those that are national (rather than just local or regional) typically are better known and can stand out more on college applications.
While some competitions offer significant prize money, just because a certain competition has smaller/no prizes doesn't mean they're not worth your time. Winners may receive other benefits, such as mentorship or invitations to conferences where they can network.
If you're ever unsure about particular computer science or coding competitions for students, ask a teacher or guidance counselor about it; they often know a lot about these things and can advise you if you should participate or focus your efforts elsewhere.
How to Include Computer Science Competitions in Your College Applications
Participating in a computer science or coding competition can be a strong asset to your college applications, especially if you plan on majoring in computer science, engineering, or a related field. Colleges love to see applicants who are passionate about and committed to their future field of study, and competing in a computer science competition shows schools you have both the skills and motivation to pursue computer science outside of the classroom. To make your participation as impressive to college admissions teams as possible, follow these four tips:
#1: Make Clear Your Time Commitment
The more time you commit to something, the stronger it looks to colleges because commitment shows dedication and a strong work ethic. So, instead of just listing the computer science competitions you participated in, be sure to include how long you prepared for the competition and what you were doing. Use numbers whenever possible, for example: "Took online coding classes on C++ and Python for 5-10 hours a week for four semesters" or "spent 25 researching how to build a robot, 50 building robot, 60 hours designing and testing programming codes" The more specific and detailed you are, the more colleges will understand how much work you've put into your competitions.
#2: Highlight Initiative You Took
Colleges love it when applicants show initiative because it indicates leadership qualities, aptitude, and motivation. Be sure to make clear any initiative you took with the project. This could include setting up a team, getting your school to participate in a competition it previously didn't have a program for, contacting mentors, designing research protocols, etc. If you came up with the idea on your own and followed through, make sure it shows up on your application!
#3: Connect the Competition to Your Spike
Your "spike" is what we call your overarching passion/interest/career goal. For example, your spike might be being a great basketball player, creating a blog with thousands of followers, conducting engineering research, etc. The stronger your spike, the more impressive you are to colleges because you'll show talent, dedication, and passion that will likely continue in college. If your spike at all relates to STEM, then you want to connect these competitions to it however you can. Even if you don't want to be a computer programmer, think of ways your dream career relates to computer science and requires programming/coding skills. For example, you could want to be a public health analyst and have a goal of designing an app that makes it easier for people without insurance to get connected to a low-income doctor. Then you'd tie that into your computer science experience and the competitions you participated in. You want to connect as much of the information in your college applications back to your spike as you can, and computer science competitions are a great thing to include.
#4: Don't Feel Like You Had to Win for It to Count
Many computer science and coding competitions for students have thousands of competitors, and only a tiny fraction of those participants will end up winning a prize. Additionally, many are meant for students to build their computer science skills, so improvement is valued more highly than an initial high score. This means that you don't need to take home a gold medal for your competition experience to matter. Preparing for a computer science competition takes time, skill, and a strong work ethic, all qualities that colleges appreciate. So if you work hard to prepare for a competition, be sure to still include it on your applications, even if you don't end up placing.
Interested in math competitions, too? Check out our article on the 12 best math competitions for high school students.
If you're skilled in science as well, check out our list of the 11 best science competitions for high schoolers.
Want to study IT in college? Learn the best schools for information technology by reading our guide.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.