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15 Best Physics Competitions for High School Students

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A student on a classroom. STEM

15 Best Physics Competitions for High School Students

Exploring the best physics competitions for high school students provides a platform for skill showcases and deep physics learning. These contests improve problem-solving abilities and knowledge, providing an advantage in college admissions and future job prospects.

They cover many activities, from solving theoretical problems and conducting experiments to applying physics in new ways, enriching students’ learning beyond the classroom.

Participating in these competitions can lead to scholarships, awards, and recognition, opening many opportunities. The list of 15 top physics contests we’ve compiled helps students find competitions that match their interests and abilities.

Each has its rules, eligibility, and rewards, catering to every aspiring physicist. Participating in these events shows a dedication to academic excellence and connects students with a global community of young scientists ready to explore discoveries and innovations in physics.

15 Best Physics Competitions for High School Students

Physics competitions and programs allow high school students to explore the subject, encouraging exploration, critical thinking, and innovation. These opportunities enhance understanding, problem-solving abilities, and interest in science.

Here, we highlight some of the best physics competitions for high school students:

A female and male students smiling in the camera

1. UPenn Experimental Physics Research Academy

  • Location: University of Pennsylvania
  • Cost: $9,700 (tuition fee); $75 (application fee)
  • Contest Dates: July 6 – July 27, 2024
  • Application Deadline: February 15, 2024
  • Eligibility: Open to current 9th-11th grade students, including international students

The UPenn Experimental Physics Research Academy, hosted by the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, offers a remarkable opportunity for high school students passionate about physics. This three-week residential program immerses students in advanced physics topics such as mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum dynamics, and astrophysics. This program offers an in-depth exploration of physics beyond typical high school education. Living on campus, students get a real taste of college life, enhancing their educational experience through academic engagement and social interaction.

Participants benefit significantly from the academy’s focus on contemporary physics, engaging in hands-on experiments and projects under the guidance of experienced instructors. This deepens their theoretical understanding and builds practical skills crucial for scientific research. The program’s culmination is a certificate of completion, which, while not contributing to a university transcript, serves as a valuable asset in college applications, showcasing the student’s dedication to physics and preparedness for higher education.

2. Advanced Physics Summer Girls Program at the University of Maryland

  • Location: University of Maryland
  • Cost: $315
  • Contest Dates: July 29 – August 9, 2024
  • Application Deadline: Unspecified (for 2024)
  • Eligibility: Rising 9th-12th graders are welcome to join the program

The Advanced Physics Summer Girls Program at the University of Maryland offers a unique opportunity for female high school students passionate about physics. This program, set in a respected institution, dives into complex physics areas like relativity, antimatter, biophysics, and quantum mechanics, usually not covered in high school syllabi.

The program fosters a diverse learning environment with a history of attracting over 1,700 students from various regions, including Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and beyond. This diversity enhances the educational experience and mirrors the program’s commitment to encouraging young women to explore physics, where female representation has traditionally been low.

The program’s benefits extend beyond the academic. Participants demonstrate their dedication to science, potentially giving them an edge in college applications. The experience at the University of Maryland connects students with high-quality resources and networks, laying a solid foundation for a future in STEM fields.

a female student looking at the camera

3. Sir Isaac Newton Exam

  • Location: University of Waterloo
  • Cost: Free
  • Contest Dates: early May
  • Eligibility: Any grade

The Sir Isaac Newton (SIN) Exam, hosted by the University of Waterloo, combines fun and learning in a physics competition. It’s designed to challenge students’ understanding of physics through engaging problems, enhanced with humor to keep the experience light and enjoyable. This inclusivity welcomes students globally, promoting a rich exchange of ideas and problem-solving strategies in physics.

Teachers play a pivotal role in registering their students for the SIN Exam, emphasizing the educational community’s support for student participation in science. The exam’s online format ensures wide accessibility, allowing students from various locations to take part. This setup and a flexible exam schedule accommodate different school schedules, ensuring a smooth experience for all participants.

The exam challenges students to apply basic physics principles to practical situations. Drawing from the Ontario Secondary School Physics Curriculum, it’s designed to be accessible yet challenging, encouraging learning and exploration in physics without impacting college admissions prospects. Top-performing students receive recognition and awards, highlighting their excellence in physics.

4. PhysicsBowl

  • Location: Varies (local schools/testing centers)
  • Cost: $10
  • Contest Date: Varies (between March 20 and April 5, 2024)
  • Application Deadline: February 26, 2024
  • Eligibility: High school students can register for the program individually or through their school

The PhysicsBowl stands out among the best physics competitions for high school students, offering an engaging way to study the subject. Organized by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), this annual event challenges students with 40 multiple-choice questions that span the breadth of the high school physics curriculum, including conceptual topics, AP Physics, and modern physics. This variety ensures a comprehensive test of students’ knowledge, from basic principles to more advanced concepts.

The PhysicsBowl is designed to be accessible to many students, inviting participation from individuals or school groups. The eligibility criteria are broad, allowing high school students to showcase their skills and compete nationally and internationally.

Participating in the Physics Bowl is more than just an academic challenge; it’s a significant achievement that can enhance college applications, demonstrating a student’s dedication and proficiency in physics. Colleges often favor students who engage in such competitions, seeing it as a sign of their commitment to STEM education and their ability to tackle demanding material.

5. International Online Physics Competition (Physics Brawl Online)

  • Location: Online
  • Cost: Unspecified
  • Contest Dates: Registration for the 2024 is not open yet
  • Eligibility: Teams of up to five high school students from all over the world can participate

As one of the best physics competitions for high school students, Physics Brawl Online brings teams of up to five high school students into a virtual contest. This three-hour event challenges teams to solve as many physics problems as possible within a limited time. Starting with seven problems, each solution earns points and presents a new, tougher challenge, keeping the contest dynamic and stimulating.

The Physics Brawl is accessible and inclusive, breaking down geographic barriers and bringing together students worldwide. It’s available in Czech and English, and as a non-profit, free event, it’s open to all students, ensuring broad participation.

A computer science student

6. USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad (USAAAO)

  • Location: Online
  • Cost: $30
  • Contest Date: February 10, 2024
  • Application Deadline: January 31, 2024
  • Eligibility: Open to high school students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents and have yet to complete 20 years of age before July 1st in the year of the competition. Additionally, they should not have completed their high school education (i.e., grade 12) before January 1st of the same year.

The USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad (USAAAO) is a distinctive online competition designed to select the national team for the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA). With its focus on astronomy and astrophysics, the USAAAO has been instrumental in fostering a nationwide interest in these disciplines since its inception in 2013. This competition is particularly notable for its rigorous selection process, which includes two rounds of proctored exams held in February, March, or April. These exams are crafted to challenge and identify the most talented students in the field, comprising multiple-choice and free-response questions covering a wide range of topics in astronomy and astrophysics.

The USAAAO’s eligibility criteria are inclusive, welcoming high school students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents and who have not reached the age of 20 years before July 1st of the competition year. Moreover, candidates should not have completed their high school education (i.e., grade 12) before January 1st of the same year, ensuring that the competition remains accessible to a broad spectrum of high school students with a passion for astrophysics and astronomy.

Participation in the USAAAO is a gateway to the IOAA, one of the most prestigious international science competitions. The selected team undergoes extensive online training for several months, preparing them for the rigors of international competition. This training covers advanced topics in astrophysics and astronomy, equipping students with the knowledge and skills needed to excel at the international level. The 17th IOAA, scheduled to take place in Vassouras, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, from August 17-26, 2024, represents an excellent opportunity for students to showcase their abilities on a global stage.

7. Regeneron ISEF

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Cost: Unspecified
  • Contest Dates: May 11-17
  • Eligibility: All high-school students

Regeneron ISEF, administered by the Society for Science, is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition, offering a prestigious stage for high school students to present their independent research. The competition attracts the brightest young minds from around the globe, all competing for nearly $5 million in awards and scholarships. Regeneron ISEF encourages students to pursue their interests in STEM fields by providing a platform for them to showcase their research projects to a panel of expert judges and the public.

Set to take place in Los Angeles, California, Regeneron ISEF 2024 promises an in-person event complemented by a virtual showcase, allowing for broader participation and engagement. This blend of formats ensures students can share their work with a global audience, offering unparalleled exposure and networking opportunities. Participants are evaluated based on their scientific rigor, creativity, and the potential impact of their research, with projects covering a wide array of scientific disciplines.

The competition’s structure, including a detailed preliminary program and supportive housing arrangements, fosters a community among participants, encouraging collaboration and exchange of ideas among the next generation of scientists. Regeneron ISEF also emphasizes health and safety, adapting to current global health guidelines to ensure a safe environment for all attendees.

 

a STEM major student working on a tiny machine

8. AAPT High School Physics Photo Contest

  • Location: Online
  • Cost: $10 per photo (for non-members); $5 per photo (for AAPT members)
  • Contest Date: Unspecified (for 2024)
  • Application Deadline: May 18, 2024
  • Eligibility: High school students in grades 9-12, or their equivalent international grade level, can participate in the photo contest

The AAPT High School Physics Photo Contest uniquely combines art and science, inviting students to express physics concepts through photography. It broadens participation by allowing creativity to demonstrate scientific principles. This contest highlights the students’ ability to apply and visually communicate complex ideas in physics and offers a platform for innovative exploration.

By capturing photos that depict physical phenomena, students explore a practical understanding of physics, making abstract principles tangible and engaging. The contest’s online format ensures wide accessibility, encouraging diverse submissions and fostering a global exchange of ideas and perspectives.

Winners and their educators receive recognition and awards, emphasizing the importance of mentorship in scientific exploration. Monetary prizes for the top entries and certificates for participation celebrate the fusion of scientific insight with visual storytelling. Beyond individual accolades, educators associated with winning entries receive resources to enrich science education further.

9. Physics Unlimited Premier Competition

  • Location: Worldwide
  • Cost: Unspecified
  • Contest Dates: No schedule yet for 2024
  • Eligibility: High school students around the world with a stable Internet connection

The Physics Unlimited Premier Competition is an individual contest aligning with the U.S.-based AP Physics curriculum. This annual competition tests students’ physics knowledge and analytical skills across various topics. With the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, the event has added a virtual component, enabling global participation from the comfort of home.

Competitors have 1.5 hours to tackle four challenging problems. The competition offers transparency by making past papers and results available online, helping students gauge the difficulty level and prepare effectively. Prizes include recognition certificates at various levels; all distributed digitally to accommodate the international scope of participants.

10. National Science Bowl

  • Location: Washington D.C.
  • Cost: Unspecified
  • Contest Dates: April 25 – 29, 2024
  • Eligibility: Middle and high school student teams from diverse backgrounds, comprised of four students, one alternate, and a teacher who serves as an advisor and coach

The National Science Bowl, initiated by the U.S. Department of Energy, tests students’ knowledge across all science and mathematics areas, including physics. It’s a team-based competition emphasizing collaboration and fast-paced problem-solving, reflecting the collaborative nature of scientific inquiry.

Regional tournaments lead to national finals, making the competition an exciting journey for participants. The team format fosters teamwork and demonstrates the collective effort often required in scientific endeavors. Sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the Science Bowl is a significant event encouraging students to pursue STEM careers.

Participants in the National Science Bowl® are motivated to expand their scientific knowledge and skills. The competition covers a wide range of science topics, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the field. It’s an opportunity for students to prepare for future academic and career paths in STEM, supported by the Department of Energy’s commitment to advancing science education.

Math test

11. Yale Summer Program in Astrophysics

  • Location: Yale Leitner Family Observatory & Planetarium/Online
  • Cost: $7,500
  • Contest Dates: June 24-July 5, 2024 (online); July 7-August 4, 2024 (residential program)
  • Application Deadline: March 8, 2024
  • Eligibility: Open to rising high school seniors, which means students who are in their junior year at the time of application. International students are also welcome to apply, provided they have proficiency in English

The Yale Summer Program in Astrophysics (YSPA), one of the best physics competitions for high school students, offers a unique and enriching opportunity for students interested in astrophysics. This program, based at Yale University’s Leitner Family Observatory & Planetarium, combines online and residential experiences to provide participants with a comprehensive introduction to astrophysics. The program is specifically designed for 32 rising high school seniors, including international students with a good command of English, aiming to spark an interest in scientific research and astrophysics careers.

YSPA is structured into two parts: an initial online phase followed by a more immersive residential session. This structure allows students to familiarize themselves with key concepts remotely before diving into a more hands-on and intensive learning experience on Yale’s campus.

The curriculum at YSPA is rigorous and engaging, designed to challenge students and foster a deeper understanding of physics, mathematics, and astronomy. Classes in the advanced Leitner Digital Planetarium Theater provide a dynamic and interactive learning environment. Here, students spend about two and a half hours on most weekdays exploring complex astrophysical concepts and theories.

12. ExploraVision

  • Location: United States and Canada
  • Cost: Unspecified
  • Contest Dates: Unspecified
  • Eligibility: K – 12 students enrolled in public, private, or home school in the United States and Canada

Since its inception in 1992, ExploraVision has grown into one of the best physics competitions for high school students globally, with over 450,000 students from the United States and Canada participating. Sponsored by Toshiba in partnership with the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), ExploraVision stands out for its unique approach to competition. It challenges students to envision and explore potential future technologies by extending current scientific principles. This forward-thinking competition encourages participants to think critically about the future applications of science and technology, urging them to research and propose innovative solutions that could exist in the next decade.

Participants work in teams of two to four, under the guidance of a teacher, to select a current technology and then project its development over the next ten years. The competition emphasizes real-world problem-solving, creativity, and collaboration—invaluable skills in any scientific endeavor. Past projects have included revolutionary ideas like a hand-held food allergen detector and devices to aid mobility for those who have lost limbs, demonstrating the competition’s potential to inspire real-world scientific advancements.

13. Regeneron Science Talent Search

  • Location: Washington, D.C.
  • Cost: Unspecified
  • Contest Dates: Unspecified
  • Application Deadline: Early November 2024
  • Eligibility: Any student living in and attending their last year of secondary school in the US and its territories, regardless of citizenship. US citizens living abroad may qualify. Students attending American schools abroad but who are not US citizens are not eligible

The Regeneron Science Talent Search is a landmark competition for high school students, established in 1942. It’s designed to identify and support future leaders in science, inviting them to showcase original research. The competition emphasizes the need for innovative thinking and rigorous scientific analysis, setting a high bar for participants. It operates through an online application process, stressing the importance of detail and adherence to deadlines, mirroring the professional standards of the scientific field.

This contest evaluates the submitted research’s scientific merit and assesses the participants’ potential as future scientific leaders. It provides a platform for young scientists to gain recognition, encouraging them to engage with a wider community that values scientific advancement. By participating, students demonstrate their ability to tackle complex problems and propose impactful solutions, highlighting the role of young minds in driving scientific progress.

a male student sitting inside a library and holding up a piece of paper

14. International Physics Olympiad (IPhO)

  • Location: Islamic Republic of Iran
  • Cost: €500 (participation fee)
  • Contest Date: July 21-29, 2024
  • Application Deadline: To be announced
  • Eligibility: Students currently engaged in higher secondary education and those who have completed it but have yet to commence university studies are welcome to participate. Applicants must be at most twenty years of age by the 30th of June in the year of the competition. Importantly, participants must have qualified for their National Olympiad in Physics.

The International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) is a distinguished global event that challenges high school students in both theoretical and practical physics. This event marks its 54th edition, inviting talented students who are currently in or have just completed higher secondary education but have not yet started university. The competition is intense, with five-hour exams covering theory and experiment, separated by a rest day. This format is designed to test the student’s knowledge of physics deeply, applying it to solve complex problems and real-world scenarios.

The rewards for excelling in the IPhO are significant. Medalists receive global recognition, with gold, silver, and bronze medals highlighting their achievements. Honorable mentions recognize the promise of other participants. Beyond these accolades, the IPhO experience opens doors for academic and career opportunities, signaling a student’s exceptional physics skills, commitment to excellence, and competitiveness at an international level.

15. Davidson Fellows

  • Location: Washington, DC
  • Cost: Unspecified
  • Contest Dates: September
  • Application Deadline: The 2024 application is closed. The 2025 application will open in the Fall of 2024.
  • Eligibility: Must be 18 or younger as of the application deadline, be a U.S. citizen residing in the United States, or a Permanent Resident of the United States residing in the United States, or be stationed overseas due to active U.S. military duty

The Davidson Fellows scholarship targets individuals under 18 for projects that deliver “significant work,” focusing on innovation and the potential for societal impact. This scholarship welcomes U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and those abroad on military duty, promoting diversity among its participants. The program sets high standards, looking for work that rivals college-level research, ensuring recipients are recognized for their exceptional capability to innovate and contribute to society.

Furthermore, the Davidson Fellows scholarship emphasizes the importance of community and recognition in the growth of young scientists. Finalists are invited to an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., offering them a chance for national acknowledgment and to connect with peers and professionals. This exposure to a network of scientists and innovators is invaluable, fostering collaboration and personal development and positioning the Davidson Fellows as key contributors to the future of science.

How do I prepare for physics competitions?

Preparing for the best physics competitions for high school students demands a strategic approach, blending theory, practical insights, and intensive problem-solving. This multi-faceted preparation ensures a deep understanding of physics concepts and the ability to apply them in various contexts, a skill critical for excelling in these competitions. Below is a detailed guide to help students manage their preparation journey effectively.

Dive into Theoretical Study

A solid understanding of physics theories is the foundation of successful competition preparation. Start with the basics: ensure you’re comfortable with fundamental concepts before moving on to more complex topics.

Utilize textbooks, online courses, and educational videos to cover a broad spectrum of topics, from mechanics to quantum physics. Focus on understanding the principles behind the formulas, as this will aid in applying them to different problems.

Young teacher talking to a group of students.

Embrace Practical Application

Physics is not just about theories; it’s about seeing those theories in action. Engaging in practical experiments helps bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world application.

Whether it’s through school labs, DIY home experiments, or virtual simulation tools, getting hands-on experience is invaluable. This reinforces theoretical learning and stimulates curiosity and innovation, traits that are highly beneficial in competitions.

Hone Your Problem-Solving Skills

Participating in the best physics competitions for high school students often involves tackling problems that test not just your knowledge but also your ability to apply that knowledge creatively. Regular practice with past competition problems is crucial. Websites of prestigious physics competitions often have archives of past papers.

Set aside regular study times to work through these problems, treating them as if you were in the actual competition setting to familiarize yourself with the pressure and time constraints.

Join a Physics Club or Team

Collaboration can significantly enhance your learning experience. Joining a physics club or forming a study group with peers interested in physics competitions offers multiple benefits. It provides a platform for exchanging ideas, solving problems collectively, and learning from each other’s strengths. Clubs often bring in guest speakers, organize workshops, and simulate competition scenarios, all of which are excellent preparation tools.

Engage in Online Forums and Communities

The internet is a treasure trove of resources for aspiring physicists. Online forums and communities bring together students, educators, and professionals from around the globe. Participating in these forums allows you to ask questions, share knowledge, and stay updated on the latest physics research and competition tips.

Utilize School Science Fairs as Practice Grounds

School science fairs offer a less pressured environment to apply your physics knowledge creatively. They encourage you to think about practical applications of physics and can be an excellent way to prepare for the problem-solving aspect of competitions.

Additionally, presenting your projects at these fairs helps improve your communication skills, which can benefit competitions that include an interview or presentation component.

Simulate Exam Conditions

Familiarity with the competition environment can alleviate anxiety and improve performance. Try to simulate exam conditions at home or in a study group by timing yourself on practice problems or full-length exams. This practice helps with time management, a critical skill during the actual competition when you need to allocate your time wisely across multiple problems.

Continuous Review and Reflection

After solving practice problems or completing a mock exam, take the time to review your answers thoroughly. Identify areas of weakness and focus your studies on improving these aspects. Reflecting on the strategies that worked well and those that didn’t can help refine your approach to problem-solving.

Seek Feedback and Mentorship

Don’t hesitate to seek feedback from teachers, mentors, or peers. A different perspective can offer insights into areas you might have overlooked and suggest alternative problem-solving strategies. If possible, find a mentor with experience in physics competitions to guide you through your preparation. Their expertise and advice can be invaluable.

Stay Motivated and Persistent

Preparation for physics competitions is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be challenges and setbacks along the way. It’s essential to stay motivated and persistent. Celebrate small victories, maintain a positive mindset, and remind yourself of your goals and why you’re passionate about physics.

The Impact of Physics Competitions on College Admissions

Participating in the best physics competitions for high school students can significantly impact college applications. These competitions highlight a student’s commitment to excellence, willingness to face challenges, and ability to think critically—qualities highly sought after by college admissions committees.

Young woman holding her books on a school campus.

Showcasing Academic Strength

Success in physics competitions signals to colleges that a student is passionate about science and excels in it. This particularly appeals to universities with strong STEM programs, indicating students’ readiness for challenging college courses.

Achievements in these contests often involve understanding complex topics beyond the regular high school curriculum, showcasing a student’s initiative to learn independently.

Developing Problem-Solving Skills

Physics competitions challenge students with difficult questions that require innovative and critical thinking. Excelling in these contests demonstrates a student’s capability to apply scientific knowledge creatively and solve problems effectively. These skills are essential for college and professional success, especially in fields that rely on analysis and innovation.

Enhancing Teamwork and Leadership Abilities

Many physics competitions encourage teamwork, allowing students to develop and demonstrate their ability to collaborate, communicate, and lead effectively. Colleges value these skills, understanding that working well with others is crucial for academic and extracurricular success.

Participating in team-based competitions can highlight a student’s potential for positive contributions to group projects and the broader campus community.

Standing Out in College Admissions

In the competitive college admissions landscape, students seek ways to distinguish themselves. Physics competitions offer a unique opportunity to do so, enabling students to showcase their talents and dedication in a manner that grades and test scores alone cannot.

Success in prestigious competitions can catch the attention of admissions officers, signaling a student’s potential to thrive in a challenging academic environment and contribute to their field. Engaging in the best physics competitions for high school students is beneficial for college applications and personal and intellectual growth.

These competitions prepare students for college-level studies and help them stand out in a crowded pool of applicants. They offer a chance to explore scientific interests, challenge oneself, and build a foundation for future success in STEM fields.

Conclusion

Physics competitions for high school students are not just about winning medals; they are about exploring the mysteries of the universe, challenging oneself, and preparing for a future in the fascinating world of science. Whether you’re capturing the beauty of physics through photography, solving complex problems in a team, or presenting innovative research, these competitions can be a transformative part of your academic journey.

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