Elements of the Application – Academic Teams and National Awards

Academic Teams and National Awards

This is how you’re going to truly distinguish yourself from the rest of the crowd. If you don’t have any accolades or awards to flaunt to colleges (school and regional awards do count – not everyone has a National Award), kiss your chances of being accepted good-bye. Colleges know that at the National Level, things become extremely competitive and give off a “WOW” factor. The following list is very very far from being exhaustive; it is up to you to discover what competitions out there you are eligible for and can succeed in. Here are some of the more well-known national level competitions/events, especially in STEM. Also, keep in mind that not all states are created equal and winning a state level competition in California or New York is much more impressive than winning the same competition in Montana or North Dakota (but at least you get geographic diversity for the latter two).

Science Olympiad: Troy High School’s Science Olympiad team has garnered 14 consecutive state titles and is the only school to have claimed a “three-peat” win at Nationals. However, as other teams across the nation (especially the ones in Ohio like Solon and Centerville, with the help of “feeder” middle schools) become stronger, it is becoming more and more difficult to place and win in the events. This is further exacerbated by the rotation of events each year. If you get unlucky, you may only have one year (one shot) to win in your event before it gets rotated out for a different event. While many of the Science Olympiad team members go on to Group 5 “Big Kahuna” schools, participating in Science Olympiad does not guarantee such success (members are often highly involved in extracurriculars beyond Science Olympiad in addition to excelling academically – they most likely would have made it regardless of their Science Olympiad membership). However, note that winning a gold medal at the national competition will provide a huge boost to your application. Of course, this must happen before your senior year for it to matter. If you only manage to win a medal during your senior year, I strongly recommend you to contact me for further advice. I would strongly recommend you to consider deferring and taking a gap year so that you can reapply with the medal on your application.

Science Bowl: What’s left in the shadow of Science Olympiad is the Science Bowl team, a four-member team that competes in a Jeopardy-style competition. For many schools, either your Science Bowl team will be strong or your Science Olympiad team will be strong. Troy’s Science Bowl record pales in comparison to the Science Olympiad record: the only years we made Nationals were 2000 and 2001, taking 2nd place once. This is because the two competitions test for complementary skills that make it unlikely for the same person to be world-class at both.

Yet, I would like to think that overall, Science Bowl makes more of an impact than Science Olympiad on the application process – if you are able to earn the same awards. For example, I find that a national championship for the Science Bowl team is far more impressive than a Science Olympiad championship. This is because the level of competition at the Science Bowl is much higher than the lame tests given out by Science Olympiad. Science Olympiad tests pure regurgitation (you can bring 3 inch binders or laptops on many of these “open-binder” exams) and promotes fun. Science Bowl, on the other hand, requires a sharp mind, true knowledge, and true teamwork. Not only are you tested on your knowledge and critical thinking, you must also be fast and confident under pressure to perform well at the national level. Also note that there is no state level competition for Science Bowl; the top team at each of the regional competitions moves on directly to the National competition in Washington D.C., compared to Science Olympiad where the top 1 or 2 (for large states) teams from each state competition will advance to Nationals. This means there is no margin for error and it is difficult for schools to establish a “dynasty”, science you only need to field a team of 4 compared to a team of 15 for Science Olympiad.

Academic Decathlon: Don’t know too much about this competition. It tests non-science subject
areas including history and music etc. and also mandates participation from people with lower GPA (check their website for full details). Academic Decathlon at Troy was started fairly recently and has been having difficulty getting its feet off the ground (due to inexperienced coaching). It’s name recognition nationwide is higher than that of either Science Olympiad or Science Bowl, however. Talk to people who are already involved to get a better sense of whether or not this is for you. However, I would like to note that because of the GPA requirement, specifically you need 3 people with GPAs below 3.0, 3 between 3.0 and 3.5, and 3 higher than 3.5, succeeding in Academic Decathlon is in large part influenced by the coaches and the school.

A friend of mine went to West High School in Torrance for a year and he said the reason that West High School had a strong Academic Decathlon Team was because of the numerous practices to bring the lower GPA members up to standards. In addition, at some schools, students do poorly in classes on purpose because they know that while they won’t be able to make the Academic Decathlon team with a high GPA, they might have a chance if they get bumped into a lower GPA category. Of course, having a GPA below 3.5 (the cutoff for the second tier of GPAs), will essentially kill your chances of getting into a top college, especially with the rampant grade inflation at many high schools.

FBLA: Talk to someone heavily involved in FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America). They will be able to give you more details than this guide can. The competition is fun and easy and can help you meet new people. Unless you attain a position high on the leadership ladder though, however, its help in your college
admissions is questionable. Because the FBLA tests are not as difficult as the other National competitions, placing well at FBLA Nationals does not help as much. There’s plenty of people who make the National Tournament and even place first that do not make it into these Big Kahuna schools. For example, the word processing event basically tests if you know how to type fast and can format various documents (memos, briefs, letters, etc.) in Microsoft Word along with the difference between serif and sans serif fonts. It’s not ground-breaking and does not necessarily indicate academic prowess or high IQ. However, because FBLA is primarily a business club that stresses leadership, gaining a position within the organization, especially on the national level, helps a lot. For example, C. C. Gong and Kavya Shankar were vice president and president of California State FBLA, respectively, and now they’re both at Harvard.

International Science Olympiads (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Computer Science):
These are the most prestigious science competitions (aside from Siemens/Intel possibly) that are available to you. The Chemistry Olympiad (sponsored by ACS) is the only one of these Olympiads that is officially run by Troy. There are four students in the school chosen for theLocal Exam (usually in March). In order to be selected as one of these four, you probably need to be among the top grades in AP Chemistry or exceptionally distinguished through some other means. The four students from Troy usually all score well enough in the Local Exam to be eligible to advance to the National Exam, but only two are permitted per school. There are over 10,000 students taking the Local Exam across the nation and about 1000 students taking the National Exams. Of those taking the National Exam, there are top 150 honors, top 50, and top 20. If you are one of the top twenty, you are given the opportunity to go to a study camp for a chance at the International Olympiad and at this point have a strong likelihood of at least getting into MIT or Caltech. If you do happen to be part of the top 4 that go to the International Olympiad, you are guaranteed into the school of your choice and should stop reading this guide.

I don’t personally know anyone who has done the Biology or Physics Olympiads but I know they require a similar process involving a series of tests and study camps for selection for the International Olympiads. The computer science one involves a series of coding competitions that first take place remotely and then in person for the ultimate selection of the team.

Research competitions (Siemens/Intel): Check their respective websites for detailed information. These usually result from one’s research internship. Highly recommended! If you place, you get a lot of scholarship money (first gets 100 thousand, second gets 75 thousand, etc.)! Also, I know a person, who after placing third in Intel, was offered a place in Stanford after initially being rejected. Thus, it seems that these competitions are extremely useful for getting into the Big Kahuna schools.

YES (Young epidemiology scholars) competition: Check http://www.collegeboard.com/yes/
for more information. I heard it’s good, but I don’t know too many people who actually do it.
Plus, if you win, you get fifty-thousand dollars. That’s a year of college tuition!

Math teams/competitions (AMC, AIME, USAMO, IMO, ARML etc.): Wow, you took the AMC! Good job. So did 1000000000000 other people. But if you made AIME? No matter what anyone tells you, that’s still not good enough. So did twenty-two thousand other people in 2006. TWENTY-TWO THOUSAND. The Big Kahunas only accept TWO THOUSAND each  (that’s TEN THOUSAND total for those of you who are mathematically challenged). Knowing that there are many cross-admits, you realize that approximately 17 TO 18 THOUSAND AIME qualifiers were cut that year. Although the AIME qualifier usually number hovers around twelve to fifteen thousand, it still is not a good chance.

Therefore, if you have to rely on your math skills to sink you a college admission, you better make USAMO at the least. USAMO (or USAJMO). There are about 250 USAMO and 250 USAJMO qualifiers every year, showing that whoever made it is obviously top-tier in mathematics. Now, if your beastly and are able to make the MOP, you are among the fifty or so best mathematicians in the United States. Black MOP is the highest (followed by blue and red) and should be considered an equivalent (maybe even higher since SO many more people attempt to take the AMC) to the Science Olympiads (such as USNCO or USABO). And if you make IMO you become a mini-celebrity and bring Troy eternal fame. Welcome to HYPS. The other competitions range in notability. However, those who succeed in the AMC/AIME/USAMO/MOP competition ladder will be the ones winning the other competitions. If you want to improve your competition math (which differs from in-school mathematics as it forces you to think “outside of the box” or on a more complex level), go to the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS) forum. You should also compete in the Putnam exam while you’re in college if you’re this good.

Other miscellaneous competitions, including those at the local level (literally hundreds, if not thousands, in your area of expertise): Whether you’re an amazing musician, a painter, a chess master, or a dancer, there are competitions out there for you to participate in. Make sure you scour the web for these (and ask around!) so that you can take full advantage of opportunities to spice up your resume. Remember, being a resume-whore is NOT a bad thing; people who say that are usually just jealous.

If you’re not smart enough to win any of the above, give a try for more brawn than brain and learn how to excel in athletics and the arts.