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11 Biology Academic Competitions for High Schoolers

What’s Covered:


Traditionally, many students have pursued a college degree in biology to become a doctor or do research in the biological sciences. Recently, however, biology majors have been prime candidates for biotech companies. Regardless of the career path you want to pursue, if you’re thinking about getting a degree in biology in college, it might be helpful to show some demonstrated interest in the subject while you’re still in high school.


Academic competitions centered around biology are a great way for students to show their interest in the field and to demonstrate their experience with biological themes. Both of these things can really make your college applications stand out from the crowd. Additionally, you can gain valuable team-building and teamwork skills through many of these competitions. These skills are very important to have in most biology-related careers, including laboratory research, medicine, and biotechnology.


Biology Academic Competitions for High School Students


1. The Plant the Moon Challenge


Registration Dates: Open until January 20, 2023 (Space Grant application open until December 16, 2022)

Type: International


Judged by NASA scientists, the Plant the Moon Challenge is a global competition that connects biology and astronomy in order to help humanity explore the next frontiers of space—the Moon and Mars.


Teams will receive real lunar soil simulant from the University of Central Florida’s CLASS Exolith Lab around February 2023. Using their own experimental parameters, the teams will grow plants for 10 weeks and create a final report on their findings. All participants with completed projects will be invited to showcase their projects at a virtual symposium, where Best-in-Show awards will be presented to teams with the best experiments.


2. The ASHG National DNA Day Essay Contest


Submission Dates: Submission site open from early January 2023 to early March 2023

Type: International


To commemorate National DNA Day, April 25, the American Society of Human Genetics holds an annual essay contest. The essay topic varies from year to year, but always asks students to examine, question, and reflect on important concepts in genetics. The 2023 essay theme is “One Humanity, Many Genomes.” 


Within 750 words, students in grades 9 through 12 will explain what that phrase means to them while also examining what makes genomes unique and how advances in understanding our genome impact our lives every day. Prizes awarded to students include $1,000, $600, and $400 for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, respectively. These amounts are also awarded to winners’ schools in genetics materials grants. There are 10 honorable mention prizes of $100 each.


3. Regeneron International Science & Engineering Fair


Registration Dates: Vary by state (Most between late 2022 and Feb. 2023)

Type: Affiliated Regional and State Fairs to Qualify, but ISEF is International


The Regeneron ISEF is a pre-college science competition open to students in grades 9 through 12. There are 21 STEM subcategories in which students may compete. Biology subcategories include Animal Sciences, Cellular and Molecular Biology, Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, and Microbiology. Students must first win an affiliated local or state fair to gain entry to the ISEF regionals and nationals.


1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places are awarded in each category with prizes of $5,000, $2,000, $1,000, and $500, respectively. There are also Top Awards given to selected 1st place category winners, which range from $10,000 to $75,000. Additional awards are granted in the form of scholarships, internships, and other prizes to hundreds of student Finalists.


4. The MIT THINK Scholars Program


Registration Dates: Open from November 1, 2022 to January 1, 2023

Type: National


While other competitions tend to involve completing a project, the MIT THINK Scholars Program involves researching and proposing a project. Entries in the competition are written research proposals outlining a novel STEM idea. Many past finalists and winners have submitted biology-centric proposals, making this program a great option for aspiring biology majors.


Semifinalists will be chosen for a round of interviews. After the interview stage, up to six finalists will be selected. Finalists will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to MIT’s campus, scientific mentorship, and funding to implement their proposed projects during the spring of 2023. All finalists will be designated as MIT THINK Scholars upon successful completion of their projects the following May.


5. The BioGENEius Challenge


Registration Dates: Vary by state (Typically between January and late March annually)

Type: Local and Regional Competitions, finalists nationwide present at the BIO International Convention in Boston


The Biotechnology Institute’s flagship BioGENEius Challenge is a competition in which students submit research projects in one of three categories: Global Healthcare, Global Sustainability, and Global Environment.


Finalists representing the top 5% of applicants in state and regional competitions will win a trip to showcase their research at the BIO International Convention to 16,000 attendees and a panel of expert judges. Winners of the International competition will receive trophies and thousands of dollars in cash prizes.


6. Regeneron Science Talent Search


Registration Dates: Opens June 1, 2023 and closes in mid-November 2023

Type: National


The Regeneron STS is the oldest science and math competition for high school seniors in the United States. In this competition, students present original science or math research, conducted independently or in collaboration with teams at universities, hospitals, or private research laboratories. There are many past finalists who have presented projects in biology and biotechnology.


300 semifinalist scholars are awarded $2,000, along with $2,000 for their respective high schools. The top 40 finalists chosen from the 300 semifinalist scholars win a trip to Washington, DC, where they will present their research to thousands of visitors. The top 10 finalists will be awarded prizes ranging from $40,000 to $250,000, the largest scientific prize available to United States high school students.


7. The National Ocean Sciences Bowl


Registration Dates: Vary by state (Registration is usually around the end of the year, as competitions take place around February)

Type: 25 Regional Bowls, finalists of each regional competition compete in National Finals


Students compete in regional bowls, competitions that involve answering timed oral and written questions about ocean-related STEM topics such as biology, chemistry, ecology, and technology. The top team in each regional bowl will compete in the NOSB National Finals Competition.


The top eight teams in the National Finals will receive a variety of prizes ranging from textbooks and gift certificates, with the 1st and 2nd place teams also receiving experiential summer award trips that include unique hands-on field and laboratory experience in the marine sciences.


8. The Davidson Fellows Scholarship


Registration Dates: Now until February 15. 2023 (applications reviewed on a rolling basis)

Type: National


The Davidson Fellows Scholarship is one of the most prestigious undergraduate scholarships in the U.S. There are multiple scholarship categories including science, robotics, mathematics, engineering, literature, music, philosophy, and “out of the box.” The science category includes fields like biology.


In the science category, students submit a formal research report with a visual model describing the subject of their research. The best projects in each category are awarded $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 scholarships.


9. The Genes in Space Challenge


Registration Dates: Typically opens in mid-January

Type: National


Students design a DNA experiment that addresses challenges in space travel and deep space exploration. Topics are at the students’ discretion and can cover any topic within the field of space biology, from bacterial cell growth to the human immune system. A hypothesis is developed and tested and a final project is submitted around mid-April.


30 semifinalists win small prizes, and five finalists receive mentoring from scientists from Harvard and MIT. The five finalists also present proposals to a panel of judges for a chance to win the national grand prize—a Space Biology Camp experience, a trip to the Kennedy Space Center, and a launch of the winning experiment into space, where astronauts aboard the International Space Station will conduct it!


10. Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS) Program


Registration Dates: Vary by region (Most between Nov. 2022 and February 2023)

Type: Multi-level (Regional, State, National)


Sponsored by the US military, the JSHS program is a series of competitions intended to mentor students and prepare them for careers in STEM. Students from grades 9 through 12 conduct original research and present it at regional symposia.


Winners of regional competitions present at the JSHS National Symposium. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in regional competitions are awarded $2,000, $1,500, and $1,000, respectively. Each of the 1st place national finalists is awarded $12,000. 2nd place finalists win $8,000, and 3rd place finalists win $4,000.


11. The iGEM Competition


Registration Dates: Typically open from until April annually

Type: International


In the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, student teams from around the world design, build, and test projects using synthetic biology. Teams are free to choose their project topic, as long as it is within the field of synthetic biology.


Experimental design and implementation generally occur from February to August, at which point teams should document their findings and construct their reports. Teams present their projects at the annual iGEM Grand Jamboree, near the end of the year, where a massive panel of hundreds of judges cast their votes. Winning teams will receive gold, silver, or bronze medals.


How To Find The Best Biology Academic Competitions For You


It’s not always clear which academic competitions are worth entering and which ones you should pass on. To help you in your competition search, here are some quick rules of thumb to follow:


Find competitions in topics that you are interested in. If you’re interested in neuroscience, don’t look at competitions that focus on botany. Many competitions specialize in a certain STEM field, so this could narrow down your options considerably.


Be realistic about what you can and can’t handle. Some competitions require you to submit a simple essay, whereas some require you to build your own invention and prototype. Be honest about how advanced your skillset is and what you have time for as a student. There’s no use in signing up for a competition only to drop later or submit a product that is not your best work.


Talk to your counseling office. Many high school counselors or college advisors have a repository of interesting opportunities for their students, including academic competitions. Go to your counseling office and see if your school offers any such resources.


Use your teachers. In particular, your science teachers. Your teachers may be a great resource in helping you find a competition that is right for you. They may also serve as a great mentor and assistant as you create your competition submission. Don’t be afraid to approach these people for help!


How Do Biology Academic Competitions Affect My Admissions Chances?


Your participation in STEM competitions can influence your chances at college admission, but this depends on many factors, including the scope of the event (e.g., state vs. national), the prestige of the event, your individual performance in the event, the event’s connections to or sponsorships by certain colleges, and even how much weight a college places on extracurricular activities in general.


There are four tiers of extracurricular activities that colleges think about when reviewing applicants’ activities. Selective, competitive, and prestigious activities are often found in the top tiers, Tier 1 and Tier 2. Tier 1 includes things such as being a highly recruited basketball player or an award-winning national science fair competitor. Tier 2 is similar, but is usually reserved for activities that are more common than those in Tier 1. Tiers 3 and 4 are reserved for more common extracurricular achievements, such as holding school leadership positions or being a member of a debate team.


Very prestigious national STEM events such as the Regeneron Science Talent Search and iGEM are Tier 1 events whereas regional or local competitions may fall more into Tier 3 or Tier 4, depending on the competition and your performance.


Do you want to get a sense of how the STEM event you competed in might change your admissions chances at your dream college? CollegeVine has created a free chancing calculator to estimate your odds of getting into hundreds of different colleges and universities! It uses a multitude of factors such as your high school grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities, while also providing feedback on how you can improve your odds.


For More Information


Want to find more academic competitions for high schoolers? Check out these other blog posts:


Nick Vidal
Blog Writer

Short Bio
A graduate of NYU, Nick majored in psychology and minored in data science. He lives in New York, where he enjoys writing essays and music.