The college experience is changing in ways we couldn’t have predicted even one year ago. Many schools have gone partially, or totally, virtual. Students, on and off-campus, must contend with quarantine and heightened safety measures. As parents and students navigate this dynamic landscape, many are discovering that even with pandemic-related tuition freezes, decreases, and discounts, college is still very expensive. 

With average annual tuition at nearly $10,000 for public universities and $35,087 for private, according to USNews, financial aid is of top priority. Fortunately, academic competitions offer tens of millions of dollars in scholarships and grants each year. Below is a list of competitions that have big cash prizes that can help you pay for college.

Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Student Contest – prizes of up to $1,500
Brower Youth Awards – 6 awardees receive $3,000
Career Safe Youth Safety Video Contest – CTE students 13 and older, scholarships of $3,500-7,500
Center for Unsung Heroes Discovery Award – prizes totaling $14,000
Courageous Persuaders – high school contest with scholarships of up to $3,000 
C-SPAN StudentCam Documentary Competition – cash prizes totaling $100,000
CyberPatriot – more than $50,000 in scholarships to winning teams
Davidson Fellows – scholarships of 10,000 – 50,000
Diamond Challenge – awards $100,000 in prizes
Exploravision – up to $10,000 prize
Fleet Reserve Association’s Americanism Essay Contest – up to $5,000 award
George S. & Stella M. Knight Essay Contest – prize of up to $5,000
Intel International Science and Engineering Fair – prizes and awards totaling nearly $5 million
John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest  – prize of up to $10,000
Junior Science and Humanities Symposium – regional awards of up to $2,000, national awards of up to $12,000
Mathworks Math Modeling Challenge – team scholarships of $5,000 – 20,000
Modeling the Future Challenge – awards $60,000 in prizes
National Peace Essay Contest $2,500 prize
NCF Envirothon – Top 3 teams received awards totaling $30,000
NFPA Fluid Power Robotics Challenge – $40,000 scholarship (10,000 per year)
Patriot’s Pen Essay Contest – up to $30,000 scholarship for high school, $5,000 for middle school
Poetry Out Loud – up to $20,000 in scholarships
Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) – individual prizes of $2,000 – 250,000 in prizes
Scholastic Art and Writing Awards – scholarships of up to $10,000
Teendrive 365 Video Challenge – up to $15,000 award
The American Rocketry Challenge – $100,000 in prizes for winning teams
We the Students Essay Competition scholarships of up to $7,500
You Be The Chemist Challenge – up to $12,000 prize
Youngarts’ National Arts Competition – up to $10,000 award

Find other big prize competitions in the Institute of Competition Sciences (ICS) database


Most students participate in academic competitions because they love the thrill of a challenge, and find competitions more engaging than the typical classroom. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate the benefits offered by these programs. And when it comes to college admissions or scholarship applications they can be hefty. Participation in student competitions can help you stand out among your peers and showcase a student’s unique skills, motivation, and academic grit!

This ability to stand out is becoming more and more important in your applications. Particularly with scholarships and college admissions. According to Sallie Mae’s “How America Pays for College” report, in 2017 on average 35% of college costs were covered by scholarships or grants – the largest share of costs in over a decade! This is great news for upcoming applicants; however, it also means that more and more students are going to be applying for these opportunities.

So, in honor of National Scholarship Month, we thought that we’d share a few tips to help upcoming college or scholarship applicants highlight their competition experience to increase success rates in these applications.


Focus on the Effort.

Scholarship reviewers love to see a sense of drive and dedication. Rather than just focusing on what award you received, try to really highlight the effort it took throughout the program. Discuss how you built up to being able to compete. Did you practice night after night? Did you ever reach a point where you thought you couldn’t push ahead? Your application should tell a story, and this is a great opportunity to highlight your work ethic via an exciting anecdote.


Discuss Specific Challenges you Overcame. 

There’s nothing we like more than an underdog. If you faced a challenge that appeared insurmountable but eventually overcame it, you should include it in your application. It will show that you don’t back away from a challenge, and that you can set achievable goals over time. It also shows the reader that you’re able to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and act on them. Even if it didn’t seem like a huge deal to you at the time, if you think back on it and can identify the specific hurdle, others will see that you had academic grit, in overcoming the challenge. Remember to also demonstrate how you grew from the challenge. What did you learn from addressing the problem, or learning from the failure.


Highlight the Real-World Lessons You Learned.

Just because you competed as a high schooler doesn’t mean your experience wasn’t important. At the end of the day, college admissions officers don’t care if you were a start math-lete or spelling bee champion. They care about the skills you gained and the lessons you learned from the experience. If you can highlight the real-world lessons you learned—like the value of handwork, the struggles of cooperation, or the importance of leadership—it will make you stand out among the crowd.


Demonstrate Your Initiative.

Scholarship providers want students who are go-getters. When they imagine their dream applicant, they picture someone who decides what they want and fights for it. If at any point in your competition experience you took initiative, describe that moment. Did you realize that a peer needed help so you set aside time to help them? Or did you decide to organize an extra training day when you saw the team slipping behind? Anything can work!


Participating in academic competitions can be great fun and provide powerful academic benefits, but don’t forget about these opportunities to help advance your applications. This is one of the greatest ways your high school competitions can support your future – they help you get in, and get scholarship!

As we turn the corner on the summer, rising high school seniors across the country are already dreading the upcoming college application season. Not only does the simple question of whether or not they’ll get in weigh on students, but now more than ever, students (and their parents) have to worry about just how they’ll pay for the soaring costs of their favorite college. Even with financial aid, students can still end up saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in college debt by the time they graduate!

But, even with the soaring costs, the data is clear that a college education is good to get in the long-run. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “in 2014 the median earnings of young adults with a bachelor's degree ($49,900) were 66 percent higher than the median earnings of young adult high school completers ($30,000).”

So rather than give up on the dream of going to college, let’s think of ways to help aspiring young adults get the support they need to pay for college. And there are ways you can get help. One of the ways to lower your college debt burden that is particularly near and dear to us at ICS is through academic competitions. To help you take advantage of these opportunities, make sure you get your free ICS account. We help you keep track of all the available academic competitions and find the programs most-likely to engage you or your students.


A little known fact is that competitions provide more than $27,000,000 in scholarships and awards to K-12 students each year (according to an ICS industry analysis of over 450 competitions).


In fact, participating in academic competitions can help you pay for college in a number of ways beyond just giving you financial awards! We’ve summarized 5 key ways to use academic competitions to help pay for college here.


  1. Winning Awards with Cash Value

Of course, the first and most obvious way educational competitions help you pay for college is by directly awarding you money. Many competitions offer financial benefits to the winners as direct college scholarships or even free-use cash awards. The ICS database of competitions alone includes more than 450 competitions with prize money as awards, but we don’t even have every competition listed yet.

Top prizes can earn students upwards of $100,000, but even regional or local prizes can be in the thousands of dollars. There aren’t many of the very top awards given out each year, but there are thousands of smaller awards and regional/local prizes for you to grab. Never underestimate yourself in jumping into a competition. Go for the gold, and you just might be surprised at what awards and scholarships you can turn up.

The highest awards don’t come easy. They require a lot of hard work, but the results are worth it, especially when, along the way, you can earn smaller regional awards. And any amount of money will help lower your college tuition burden. If you’re not competing for academic competitions, you’re leaving good money on the table for someone else.


  1. Improve your financial aid applications

So maybe the educational competition didn’t have a cash prize, or you didn’t win overall. Your participation alone though is still a key way to help you earn money. It shows your hard work, skill, and drive, which are essential qualities that universities look for in a prospective student.

Financial aid applications to universities are often given out on merit (how well they think you’ll do in college). Having demonstrated a self-starting attitude by participating in academic competitions in high school can show the financial aid reviewers that you are a student they want to have at their school.

Put your involvement in competitions on your college applications, resume, and financial aid applications to distinguish yourself from other classmates. Universities can offer you financial aid based on your merit and abilities in specific fields. Just like athletic scholarship, but for the exceptional academic athletes. You just need to show it, and there’s no better way than joining strong academic competitions.


  1. Get outside independent scholarships

There are thousands of academic scholarships floating around that aren’t directly tied to a college. It seems almost every month new ones pop up on our radar as well (check out Modeling the Future Challenge for one). You can look outside universities for financial help. There are different foundations, clubs, and businesses that offer scholarships to students for a variety of specialties.

As a participant in education competitions, you are familiar with working under pressure and excelling in your field. Some grants based on different contests—like essay writing—can be entered with the same mindset as you would when competing. Use your education competition experience to showcase yourself and earn money from different scholarships in your particular subjects.


  1. Raise money directly to continue your competitions in college.

Entering educational competitions are a good way to earn money directly, but they can also help you gain support from others as well. You can look to followers to help you raise the money to continue competing in college and to even get help to cover some of your other college expenses. If you show a strong desire to do good, change the world, or build cool stuff, people will support you. Especially if you have a concrete goal like winning a specific competition.

Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to get your network involved in supporting your academic competition teams. There are also online funding platforms like “GoFundMe” that provide a platform for you to raise funds for specific needs. Setting up a team profile here and making a request of your followers can help.

Your friends and family members can help you succeed in raising money or finding connections so that you can continue to participate in competitions while in college. Especially if you demonstrate a specific plan you want to follow to win the collegiate competitions.


  1. Find company sponsorships for your teams

Use your educational competitions and contacts to network with different companies. Employers such as Apple, Google, or Facebook are difficult to reach, but competitions provide a setting that allows you to connect with them and others by showing your skills directly to their employees (who often participate as judges or mentors of these competitions).

Local companies also love to help students from their home towns. If you demonstrate a plan to participate in specific academic competitions and have a way to give the company some recognition for their support of your team you’ll have a great shot at getting companies to sign on as sponsors. Just like with athletic competitions, academic competitions can help these companies market their brands while helping you pay for college.

All it takes is a little drive, a plan of action for what competitions you’ll be doing, and a proposal for how the company will benefit (branding and publicity-wise) from sponsoring you in the competitions. If you have those three things, you can start to market your academic competition teams for sponsorship and you’ll be well on your way to covering those college expenses!


Don’t let the opportunity pass you by – Get in the Arena!

There are academic competitions for every interest. Whether its history, marine science, mathematics, mock trial, or even politics, there’s a competition for you. Don’t let the opportunity to earn your academic creds pass you by. College is expensive but competitions can help. Check them all out on ICS’s Competition Database, and make sure to signup for your free account with ICS to get the updates on all the action and opportunities available for you or your students.