The 11 Best High School Science Competitions


Love science and want to show off your skills? High school science competitions are a great way to do that! But which competitions will impress colleges the most? We've gathered information on 11 of the best science competitions for high school students. Look over the descriptions that seem most interesting to you, then keep reading to learn everything you need to do to make them stand out on your college applications.


11 Best Science Competitions for High School Students

Below are overviews of 11 of the best science competitions for high school students. For each one, we state which grades are eligible, whether it's an individual or group competition, and whether it's a research-based project or an exam-based competition. We then give a brief overview of what you can expect as a participant in the competition.


AAN Neuroscience Research Prize

  • Grades Eligible: 9-12
  • Individual or Group: Individual
  • Research or Exam: Research

Students in this competition focus on researching and solving problems related to the nervous system/brain. If you decide to compete for this prize, you'll submit your own research on neuroscience, which will be judged on relevance to neuroscience, creativity, interpretation of data, and research reports.


Biology Olympiad

  • Grades Eligible: 9-12
  • Individual or Group: Individual
  • Research or Exam: Exam

The USA Biology Olympiad (USABO) is one of the more memorization-heavy olympiads, and much of it, especially in early rounds, involves recalling the text of Campbell Biology in a timed fashion. 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.


Chemistry Olympiad

  • Grades Eligible: 9-12
  • Individual or Group: Individual
  • Research or Exam: Exam

The U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad (USNCO) is similar to the Biology Olympiad in that they're both exams widely open to high school students, and, 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, and 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.


Conrad Challenge

  • Grades Eligible: Ages 13-18
  • Individual or Group: Group
  • Research or Exam: Research

The Conrad Challenge is a competition that challenges teenagers to think outside the box and create solutions to address local or global problems. Students work on teams of 2-5 (along with an adult coach) to create a product or service in 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, and Smoke-Free World: Repurposed Farmlands & Tobacco Crops.

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




Davidson Fellows

  • Grades Eligible: Anyone 18 or younger is eligible
  • Individual or Group: Individual
  • Research or Exam: Research

The Davidson Fellows Scholarship awards $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 scholarships to students 18 or younger who have completed a project in one of several fields, including STEM. It's both a prestigious and competitive scholarship to win, and the projects the winners produce are often at the level of college-graduate research projects. Research projects should "contribute a work that is recognized as an outstanding accomplishment by experts in the field and has the potential to benefit society."



  • Grades Eligible: 9-12
  • Individual or Group: Group
  • Research or Exam: Exam

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 give 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: K-12
  • Individual or Group: Group
  • Research or Exam: Research

The Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision program is a competition designed to build STEM skills in students. Participants research a current technology of their choice then envision what that technology will look like in 20 years, including development steps, pros and cons, and challenges. Students work in groups of 2-4, along with a teacher as a mentor.


MIT THINK Scholars Program

  • Grades Eligible: 9-12
  • Individual or Group: Mostly individual, although groups of two are allowed
  • Research or Exam: Research

Most research competitions require participants to have already completed the project, but the THINK program is different in that students only need to have completed background research for a project in the science, technology, or engineering fields before applying. Those whose projects are selected 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.


National Science Bowl

  • Grades Eligible: 6-12
  • Individual or Group: Group
  • Research or Exam: Exam

The National Science Bowl is one of the oldest and best-known science competitions, having been around since 1991. 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, and you need to be able to answer questions quickly to do well. There are local, regional, and national competitions, and questions are designed to be at a college freshman level of knowledge.


Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (Regeneron ISEF)

  • Grades Eligible: 9-12
  • Individual or Group: Either (groups can have up to three members)
  • Research or Exam: Research

Regeneron ISEF (formerly Intel ISEF) is one of the most prestigious science fairs for high school students. In fact, it's the premier science fair in the United States and one of the best-known high school science competitions. If you rank within the top 100, that's enough to help your application stand out even for Ivy League schools, and if you win the entire competition, you get a $75,000 prize!

You can't apply directly to the ISEF. Instead, you have to start out first in a regional science fair. If you do well in that, you can 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. Since few high school students have a good overview of the academic science literature, it's important for any student to have a professional academic scientist or engineer as their mentor. This will ensure that you work on a problem the field considers important.


Science Olympiad

  • Grades Eligible: 9-12
  • Individual or Group: Either
  • Research or Exam: Mix

We've written an in-depth guide on how to excel at Science Olympiad, but here's a brief overview. Schools that compete in Science Olympiad have a team made up of 15 members. 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, and 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.




What to Look for in High School Science Research Competitions

The above list certainly doesn't include every science competition for high schoolers, and if you don't find one that quite fits what you're looking for, feel free to do some additional research of 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 those that charge large fees to participate.

Quality 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 an academic or government entity (such as the Department of Energy) or a well-known corporation (such as Toshiba), but having that 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 a science competition, ask your science 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 High School Science Competitions in College Applications

Participating in a high school science competition can be a strong asset to your college applications, especially if you plan on majoring in a STEM field. Colleges like to see passion and commitment to your future field of study, and participating in a science competition shows them you have both the skills and motivation to pursue science outside of the classroom. To make your participation as impressive as possible, use the following tips:


#1: Make Clear the Time You Put In

The more time you commit to something the stronger it looks to colleges because it shows dedication and a strong work ethic. So, instead of just listing the 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: "Studied chemistry and biochemistry topics 5-10 hours a week for four semesters" or "spent 25 hours researching biotech innovations, 20 hours contacting and meeting with biotech experts to gather advice and feedback, 60 hours designing prototype…" The more specific and detailed you are, the more colleges will understand how much work you've put into it.


#2: Connect It 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 science competitions to it however you can. Say you want to be a doctor, and your spike is an interest in human biology. If you competed on Science Olympiad, you'd want to be sure to mention any events you were on that related to human biology, mentoring you got from medical professionals, etc. Keep connecting it back to your spike to make your participation in high school science research competitions even stronger.


#3: Highlight Any 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!


#4: Don't Feel Like You Had to Win for It to Count

Many science competitions for high school students have thousands of competitors, and only a tiny fraction of those participants will end up winning a prize. However, that doesn't mean they're the only people with a strong extracurricular to add to their applications. Preparing for a 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.




What's Next?

Do you love science? Check out our guide to learn which science classes you should take in high school.

Interested in math competitions, too? Check out our article on the 12 best math competitions for high school students.

Want to learn about other impressive extracurricular activities? Read our guide to see four examples of outstanding extracurriculars that are sure to impress colleges.



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About the Author
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Christine Sarikas

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.

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