Computer Science Competitions for High Schoolers
September 23, 2023
The (tech) kids are alright. Given the centrality of technology in today’s world, nonprofits, government agencies, and corporations are keen to foster youth tech skills. To that end, these organizations host a dizzying number of computer science competitions at local, national, and international levels. Whether your passion lies with competitive computing, hackathons, robotics, or app design, odds are there is a competition for you. This list offers a non-comprehensive view of some of the more prominent computer science competitions available to high schoolers. The contests can be online or at an international summit and require extensive background training or little experience at all. Our list includes a small handful of entries that also appeared in the article on the best math competitions of high school students, but also tracks less math-focused contests.
When possible, this list indicates eligibility criteria and potential prize earnings. However, while you may be tempted to keep your eye on the prize, it’s important to keep in mind the other benefits of entering. Notably, many of these competitions help students understand how their tech skills can impact large political issues like climate change and social inequality. Further, even just participating can help you engender community and confidence and prepare you for college and career tracks. And, perhaps most importantly, these competitions offer a creative way for you to have fun doing what you love to do.
Computer Science Competitions —The List
*Please note that while numbered for convenience, these are presented in alphabetical order and are all among the very computer science competitions for high schoolers.
In its 46th year of operation, the ACSL is one of the oldest and most popular K-12 computer science competitions. Thousands of students in the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia compete in any of its four contests throughout the year.
The organization provides resources for advisors to help students prepare for each competition. Students participate by completing online tests that include multiple-choice computer science questions and programming problems. Test concepts range from Number Systems to Boolean Algebra to Digital Electronics. Students who score best in each competition cycle are then invited to compete in an online Finals competition.
Organized to encourage students to learn computational thinking, Bebras runs in over 60 countries and involves over 3 million students. It offers an invitingly low-stakes approach to competitive computing. Any teacher can enroll their students in the competition, which is completed online at school.
During the 40-minute exam, students complete as many problems at various levels of difficulty as they can. Bebras helps teachers track their students’ progress in developing computer science skills, offering certificates they can print to mark various levels of achievement.
The U.S. House of Representatives hosts this district-by-district computer science and app competition each year. Students can create and submit original apps to win the prize in their district. Apps that win are eligible to be displayed in the U.S. Capitol Building or on Congress’s website. And their creators are invited to a reception in the nation’s capital.
The competition is open to middle or high school students, who can participate individually or in groups of up to four. At least half of each team must reside or attend school in the district they submit to. To create their apps, competitors are encouraged to use any programming language and any platform.
Computer Science Competitions—Continued
CyberPatriot is one of the more interesting hackathons, as its mission is to train contestants to find and fix vulnerabilities from being exploited by hackers. The competition tasks teams of middle and high school students with protecting a fictional small company’s computer network. Hosted by the U.S. Air Force, the program is aimed at inspiring students to pursue careers in cybersecurity and related STEM fields.
Top teams in the nation take a free trip to Maryland for the National Finals Competition, where they can earn scholarship money. They also enter an exclusive alumni network of CyberPatriot participants.
The robotics nonprofit FIRST provides two competitions open to high school students. Both involve designing, building, programming, and operating robots in teams. Teams then square off against each other using the robots they’ve developed.
In addition to computer science elements, the programs emphasize aspects like teamwork, branding, and community outreach. Participants can benefit from being eligible to apply for up to $80 million in FIRST-specific college scholarships.
This international competition builds on the fact that programming is a universal language, drawing competitors from 88 participating countries. Students are expected to have facility not only with programming but also the mathematics undergirding it. As you might expect from an Olympic competition, winners of this highly competitive and prestigious competition earn a gold medal.
Each country submits a team of up to four students for two days of coding and algorithmic problem-solving. Countries select students through national contests to attend a final competition in a designated host city. Last year’s host was Hungary, and IOI 2024 is hosted in Egypt.
Computer Science Competitions (7-9)
Another team-based global competition in competitive computing, the Microsoft Imagine Cup boasts impressive prize winnings. Winners earn a championship trophy, $100,000, access to Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub, and a mentorship session with Microsoft’s CEO. These prizes are meant to encourage young tech innovators to address a range of pressing local and global challenges.
Teams of up to four eligible students can submit their technology project and plans to be evaluated by a panel of judges. The top projects of each region advance to the World Finals, where they give detailed presentations of their projects.
Unlike the other project-based programs on this list, this competition does not require students to submit completed projects. Instead, as the name suggests, the MIT THINK Scholars Program accepts students who have been brainstorming around potential projects. Project proposals can focus on science, tech, and engineering topics across fields.
Students who have done extensive background research around a project idea are paired with mentors for technical guidance. Additionally, the finalists are given up to $1,000 to realize their project and invited to MIT’s campus. Projects must be completed on budget and in one semester, have clearly defined goals, and a clear procedure for implementation.
Modeling the Future bills itself as a “real-world competition” in math-modeling, data analysis, and risk management for high school students. Students are asked to develop a research project that models actual data to analyze risks and make recommendations for institutions. While more math-focused than many of the other computer science competitions on the list, Modeling the Future’s emphasis on data analysis and modeling might appeal to some CS enthusiasts.
Working in teams, students work through scenarios, datasets, and a series of questions in different expertise areas. The top research teams present their work at a national symposium, for the chance of sharing a $60,000 scholarship.
Computer Science Competitions (10-12)
This robotics competition is open to a wide age range of prospective engineers, from 6th graders to graduate students. It is also admirably accessible, with low entry fees and no mandatory kit to buy. Students are evaluated based on their application of technology principles, engineering concepts, and team-based problem-solving. It also offers a range of contest challenges specific to knowledge areas of manufacturing, technology, robotics and automation. Winners receive gold, silver, or bronze certifications and are eligible for the Honda Innovation Award.
Two events of note are hosted by the biotechnology group Regeneron. The International Science and Engineering Fair, a massive high school science competition, is hosted in different international cities each year. Contestants must advance through regional, district, and state fairs to qualify for the international competition. Winners across its 22 science categories share scholarships and prizes of up to $5 million. Computer science categories include robotics, computational biology and bioinformatics, engineering, and mathematics.
Regeneron’s Science Talent Search holds the honor of being the oldest and most prestigious STEM contest for high school seniors. Participants must compete individually and are evaluated by a national jury of professional scientists. Like Regeneron’s other competition, the Science Talent Search hands out significant cash, with scholarships and prizes totaling around 3 million.
RoboRAVE International sees students squaring off with self-designed robots. Following the training and simulation phases, the main event brings participants together from all over the world. Further, students learn by building robots using several programming languages and enjoy a lively and collaborative environment. Across RoboRAVE’s bevy of on-site and virtual challenges, students can also win various amounts of prize money.
Computer Science Competitions (13-15)
Aimed at middle school and high school girls, this contest aspires to draw more women into coding and computer science. Supervised by mentors, contestants collaborate in teams of 1-5 to design apps or AI projects that solve real-world problems. Past winners addressed issues ranging from climate change and poverty to domestic violence and women’s equality. The goal of the competition is to help girls build their tech skills and understand the impact of applying them. Thus, the competition welcomes participants with any degree of computer science training.
Groups typically begin working on their projects in January or earlier and submit them for judging in the spring. Along with participating and potentially making it to the world summit, winners can take home up to $2,000 in prizes and scholarships.
This student association offers 40 high school competitions in math and science fields, including animatronics, coding, and engineering. Refreshingly, it uses its competitions to explore the many intersections between technology and more social and cultural fields. For example, students can complete a challenge that focuses on computer-aided architectural design or can participate in a debate about technological issues. There are different eligibility rules for each challenge, so you should consult their website for the full details.
This list has already covered the International Olympiad in Informatics, and the USA Computing Olympiad is one of its precursor hackathons. Students who have won the USA Olympiad have gone on to represent their country at the international event. Winning USA teams can also compete in other regional and continental Olympic events. But make no mistake: winning or even participating in this more local competition is a highly impressive achievement in its own right.
Computer Science Competitions—In Review
In conclusion, the above list is just the tip of the iceberg as far as computer science competitions for high school students goes. We encourage you to do your own research if you are interested in getting some competition experience under your belt. There are many local and regional contests that offer a great way for students to engage without devoting heaps of time and mental resources. At the same time, use your judgment and consult mentors about entering competitions that are not publicized beyond their websites. And don’t feel compelled to pay prohibitively high participation fees, as there are many others that will be more accessible.
Several of the above competitions undoubtedly boast prestigious awards and eye-popping prize winnings. However, it is important to keep in mind the other real benefits of participating in contests like these. Like computer science summer training programs, computer science competitions are a terrific extra-curricular means of acquiring further tech skills. Further, these venues are fantastic ways of networking with like minded computer science enthusiasts and professionals. These connections can help you as you consider pursuing academic and career computer science pathways.
Participating in computer science competitions can be just as valuable as winning them. In your college applications for the best computer science schools and top colleges recruited by Silicon Valley, you can point to your experience in these competitions as evidence of the commitment and creativity you will bring as a college student. Keep a mental or written log of these experiences so that you are prepared to discuss how they impacted you and your future plans. Lastly, keep track of the enthusiasm and joy you felt in competing, as this will evidence the kind of dedication you will bring as a computer science expert.