Are you interested in joining your school’s Science Olympiad team or are already a member and want to learn how to become a better competitor? This is the guide for you!
I was on Science Olympiad for six years in middle school and high school. Four of those years my team went to Nationals, and I eventually became team captain and placed first in the nation in one of my events, so I know all the ins and outs of this competition. I’ll go over everything you need to know about what Science Olympiad is, what team members do, how competitions work, and how you can be a standout competitor.
What Is Science Olympiad?
Science Olympiad is a team competition activity for middle school (referred to by Science Olympiad as Division B) and high school (referred to as Division C) students. This guide will focus primarily on high school Science Olympiad teams although most of this information is true for both Division B and C.
There are currently over 7,000 Science Olympiad teams across the country. A school’s team has up to 15 members who will compete at Regional, State, and National competitions. Teams can also have alternate members, although those members won’t compete except in special circumstances (learn more about alternate members in the next section).
Division C has 23 different events that cover nearly every area of science, from earth science to cell biology to robotics and more. Each competition will have every event. Team members are usually assigned three or four events (typically only experienced members will get four events). Most events have two people working on them, although for some events you are allowed to have three members on the event.
Science Olympiad team members often meet throughout the entire academic year. A team is usually assembled in the fall and competitions are held in the spring. If more than 15 people at a school want to join Science Olympiad, the school will often hold tryouts, similar to sports teams. Candidates will typically take science tests and the 15 students who score the highest will make the team.
Read on to learn what members do once they join the team.
What Do Members of Science Olympiad Do?
Science Olympiad members spend most of their time preparing for their events. You will have to meet regularly for each of your 3-4 events to do well in competitions. Each event will have its own meeting time when you will work with your teammate(s) for that event as well as the event coach (usually a teacher but can also be a parent or other adult who knows the subject). For example, you could meet for your Forensics event Mondays after school, Experimental Design Thursdays after school, and Wright Stuff on Saturday afternoons.
Each school creates a different meeting schedule, but many schools, particularly if they have a history of performing well or are trying to strengthen their team, will have a meeting once a week for each event. This can make Science Olympiad a significant time commitment, similar to a sport, except that it often lasts most of the year.
Alternate Team Members
Alternates are often members who didn’t quite make the official team but are still allowed to attend meetings and help the team prepare. Many students are alternates for a year before they join the team, and that year of preparation can help them gain a lot of knowledge on Science Olympiad and specific events.
An alternate will only officially compete if a team member drops out or can’t make it to a specific competition. However, some competitions have special events that are only open to alternate team members. These events don’t affect a team’s final rank or score, but they give alternates a chance to become familiar with competitions and see how they compare to alternates from different schools. At some schools, alternates help with all events while at other schools they only focus on a few events, similar to team members.
Science Olympiad Events
As mentioned above, Division C has 23 different events, which you can view here. You can click on each event to get more information about it. At most schools, each team member will make a list of the top events they’d like to have, and the head coach will assign events. Members who have been on the team longer usually get first pick, and most members keep all or most of their events the same from year to year.
The events are organized broadly by topic, such as life science, technology, and chemistry. This is useful if you are looking to sign up for events that match your specific interest. For example, if you are interested in biology, you may want to join the Cell Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, and/or Invasive Species events.
However, there is another important distinction to be aware of. Most events can be sorted into one of two categories: study events and building events. These aren’t official terms, but a lot of schools use them, and they can be very helpful when you are trying to figure out which events to participate in.
Study events are somewhat similar to preparing for a school science class. As the name suggests, they involve a lot of studying books and articles in order to prepare, and competitions often involve completing a written test. Some study events include Anatomy and Physiology, Dynamic Planet, and Astronomy.
Building events, on the other hand, are more hands-on and require participants to spend more time creating something than book studying. The creation can be a glider, protein model, or something else. For some building events, students spend the entire year creating whatever it is they need for the event, while for other events you are required to do the building from start to finish at the competition. Some building events include Wright Stuff, Bridge Building, and Protein Modeling.
Both categories can be interesting and teach you a lot. To learn more about how to choose the best events for you, scroll down to the section “How Can You Excel at Science Olympiad?”
How Do Science Olympiad Competitions Work?
Competitions are the main purpose of Science Olympiad; they are why you’re doing all that studying and preparation! Competitions are often held on college campuses, and the whole team (along with coaches) will travel to them to participate.
Smaller competitions, such as Invitationals and Regionals, often last only a day, but State and National competitions usually take place over an entire weekend. Different events compete throughout the day; your team will be given a schedule several weeks ahead of time, so you know when your individual event competitions take place.
For most events, members for that event from all schools will compete at the same time, although for some building events teams compete one at a time throughout the day. Your team will be assigned a homeroom, and when you’re not competing, you can prepare for your other events, relax, or meet people from other schools.
Award ceremonies are held at the end of the day on the last day of competition. Medals are awarded to the top teams in each event, and all-around awards are also given to the schools that had the highest scores when all event scores are combined.
Reminder: teams advance to different competition levels together. That means that, even if you get first place in all your Regional events, you will not advance to State unless your team did well enough overall to advance.
There are four levels of Science Olympiad competitions, and I explain each in more depth below.
The purpose of an Invitational competition is to help teams get more preparation; the results don’t affect future competitions or how far your team will advance. A high school will often organize an Invitational and invite other nearby schools to compete. They will be very similar to actual competitions.
Invitationals are a great way for you and your team to get more competition experience and see how well you are doing compared to other teams. If you are on a team that is new or would like to improve its competition results, talk to the teacher in charge of Science Olympiad and suggest the team attend an invitational or host their own. Unlike other competition levels, a school can compete in multiple Invitationals during the year.
Invitationals are held before the actual competitions, often in the late fall or early winter.
Regional competitions are organized by state. The number of Regional competitions a state has is determined by both how large the state is and how many Science Olympiad teams the state has. Some states have two regional competitions, while others can have a dozen or more. (Some states with very few teams don’t have Regionals. Instead, participants go directly to the State competition.)
The top schools advance to the State competition. The number of schools that advance varies by each competition. Some send the top two schools; others can send six or more teams to State.
Regionals are typically held in February or March.
Each state will have one State competition. The caliber of the teams is often significantly higher than it was at Regionals, so be prepared for that. The top 1-2 teams will advance to Nationals, out of often 20 or more teams competing.
State competitions are typically held in early-mid April.
This is the highest level of competition. If you and your team have made it this far, congratulations! The National competition takes place at a different college campus each year, so you may have to miss a few days of school so your team can travel there and back.
Nationals can be a lot of fun because you get to explore a college campus, meet people from all over the country, and there is no pressure like there is at State to advance to the next round.
Nationals are usually held in May, and the awards ceremony often has a prominent scientist as the keynote speaker.
What Are the Benefits of Science Olympiad?
Now that you know the basics of Science Olympiad, why should you consider joining it? Read on to learn about some of the top reasons to participate.
Benefit #1: You Can Get Advanced Scientific Knowledge
As a member of Science Olympiad, you can get very advanced scientific knowledge in certain subjects. Team members often use college-level textbooks and other learning materials in order to become experts on the subjects their events cover.
When I was in Science Olympiad, one of my events was Dynamic Planet, which focuses on a different earth science topic each year. My first year the topic was glaciers, and by the end of the year, my partner and I had studied so much that we knew more about glaciers than probably anyone except people who studied them for a living. Gaining such advanced knowledge in a particular area of science can give you a huge head start if you plan on studying that subject in college.
Even if your events don’t directly relate to your career goals (I did not become a glaciologist), the practice you get at studying a subject at a high level will help you when you enroll in college and have more rigorous classes. I know I felt much more prepared than many of my peers when I first enrolled in college science classes because I had a lot of practice in studying, researching, and understanding complex scientific ideas.
If you prepare enough for your Science Olympiad events, you could end up as smart as this guy.
Benefit #2: You Can Gain Research and Writing Skills
Another potential benefit of Science Olympiad is that, by preparing for your events, you can greatly improve your writing and research skills. Almost every event requires some research, and the study events especially will give you great practice in researching scientific topics. Some of the events that require the most writing include Write It Do It and Experimental Design.
Even if you don’t end up studying science in college, research and writing skills are two of the most important skills you can have if you want to do well in school. You’ll likely end up using them no matter what subject you major in, and if you’ve already developed these skills in Science Olympiad, you’ll be that much more prepared compared to your classmates.
I personally believe that Experimental Design is one of the most useful events to do. Although I initially didn’t think its description sounded very interesting, I was placed in Experimental Design my first year in Science Olympiad and ended up competing in it all six years.
In Experimental Design you quickly design, conduct, and write up a small scientific experiment. My two partners and I did a practice experiment almost weekly, and after six years of this, I felt like I could design a scientific experiment in my sleep. This was a huge advantage when I started college and took scientific lab classes. While my peers struggled to understand how to set up an experiment and write up the results, I already had years of practice. If you plan on doing any sort of research in the future, I’d highly recommend this event.
Benefit #3: It's Impressive to Include on Your College Applications
Colleges like to see applicants with extracurricular activities, and Science Olympiad can be a great one to include.
First, as mentioned above, participating in Science Olympiad will give you the opportunity to learn about multiple areas of science and develop research and writing skills. If you’re planning on majoring in science, this will be an even bigger bonus because participating in Science Olympiad will show schools that you’re interested enough in science to want to learn more about it outside of class. Colleges want to admit students who are passionate about the subjects they plan on studying and majoring in.
If you do well, you may also get awards, which you can include on your applications. There are many opportunities for awards at each competition level, and receiving an award further shows colleges that you’re knowledgeable about science and can apply yourself in your extracurriculars.
Finally, Science Olympiad also requires a lot of teamwork. You will use teamwork all the time, as you and your partners work out the best ways to do well in events. Because college also requires a lot of teamwork and team players often get along with their peers better, colleges like to see applicants who can show they have experience with teamwork and working well with others.
Benefit #4: There's a Chance to Win Scholarships
If you and your team are Science Olympiad standouts, there is a chance for you to win (sometimes very large) college scholarships. Sometimes at State competitions but often at Nationals, students who place top in their event will be awarded a college scholarship.
These scholarships are often specifically for the school that is hosting the event (so if the National competition is at the University of Illinois, the scholarship will often only be usable if you attend the University of Illinois); however, some can be used at any college or university.
Especially in Division C, these scholarships can be very generous. At many National competitions, the hosting school will offer students who place first in one of their events a sizable scholarship, and some even offer free tuition for all four years. This can save you tens of thousands of dollars and reduce your college costs dramatically.
Doing well in Science Olympiad can win you a lot of money for college.
What Are the Drawbacks to Science Olympiad?
In spite of its benefits, there are also potential drawbacks to Science Olympiad. The first is that Science Olympiad can be a significant time commitment. Many teams have their members meet several times a week throughout the majority of the school year, and you will also have to spend several of your weekends at competitions. This can be challenging to do if you are already trying to find time for other activities.
A second potential drawback is that Science Olympiad may not be particularly enjoyable if you aren't interested in science. While some events focus more on other subjects like math and engineering, it's likely that at least one of your events will have a heavy science focus. If you don't like science, this could make it very boring to prepare for your events.
Third, it's quite difficult and rare to win scholarships at Science Olympiad. Out of the tens of thousands of students who compete, only a handful will end up winning scholarships. This drawback is true for many activities, but it's important to keep in mind if one of the main reasons you're joining Science Olympiad is in the hope of winning some money for college.
How Can You Excel at Science Olympiad?
Science Olympiad is a team event, and how far you advance in competitions will depend not only on you but also your teammates and coaches. While you can’t control what they do, you can take it upon yourself to excel at your events. This can help you win awards at competitions and motivate your teammates to give their best effort as well. Follow the below tips to become a great Science Olympiad competitor.
Tip #1: Choose Events That Play to Your Strengths
Picking your events wisely is key to how well you do in Science Olympiad and how much you enjoy it. While you may not have complete control over which events you do, especially for your first year on the team, you usually can submit your top choices for consideration. There are two major things to think about when choosing events:
1. Which areas of science do you enjoy the most or want to learn more about?
As mentioned above, Science Olympiad events cover many areas, so you have some choice over what topics you’d like to focus on. If you’re planning on being pre-med, maybe you want to do the Cell Biology and Anatomy & Physiology events. If you’ve always been interesting in engineering and aviation, Wright Stuff may be a great event for you.
2. Would you prefer study events, building events, or a combination of both?
Preparing for a study event can be very different from preparing for a building event. Study events often include more reading and writing, and the amount of time you have to spend on them remains relatively consistent throughout the year. Building events are more hands-on and may require you to spend a lot of time on them (say an entire weekend) in order to get something right, and then not much time for a few weeks after that.
Think about which types of events you’d prefer and be best at. Students who want to continue to study a particular subject in college and prefer a consistent practice schedule may prefer study events, while those who prefer to be more active and don’t mind spending time tinkering to get the project exactly right may do better with building events.
It’s also very common for students to do a mixture of both events. I mostly did study events, but when I took on a fourth event I chose a building event, and I really enjoyed the change of pace. Also, don’t worry if you don’t get your top events right away. My first year on the team I didn’t get a single event I requested, and I still managed to enjoy myself and do well.
Tip #2: Be Prepared to Put in the Time
You can be certain that the teams that do best at Regionals and State and move on to Nationals meet about once a week for each of their events. Even if you’re getting great grades in your science classes, you likely won’t do well in Science Olympiad if you don’t study specifically for your events, since most events ask questions on specialized topics or require you to use specific skills.
Doing well in your events requires regular meetings for each of your events, and you should be prepared to set aside this time when you join. Set up regular meeting times with your partners and coaches soon after you know which events you have. It may seem like Regionals is a long way away at the beginning of the school year, but starting your preparation early will help you feel more confident and reduce the need to cram right before competitions.
If you want to be a stand-out competitor, be prepared to put in enough preparation time before competitions.
Tip #3: Be Ready on Competition Day
Competitions are when you get to show off all your hard work. Here are some tips to make sure these days go smoothly:
- Know exactly where and when each of your event competitions are.
- Get there early so you can set up your materials and be calm and ready when the timer starts.
- Make sure you bring along all the recommended and required materials for each event (there is usually a list given out before competitions that lets you know what to bring for each event).
- If you feel like something was scored incorrectly (and this does happen occasionally), tell your coach and have them talk to one of the supervisors immediately. The sooner this happens (ideally before the awards ceremony), the better chance you have of it being resolved in your favor.
Science Olympiad is a great extracurricular for students who enjoy science, math, or engineering. Participating in it can help you gain in-depth scientific knowledge as well as other skills that will be useful in college.
Science Olympiad competitions are a way to meet new people and show your knowledge and skills. As long as you choose your events wisely, prepare for your event throughout the year, and are ready on competition day, you have an excellent shot at doing well in your events and possibly winning awards and scholarships. Good luck!
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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.