Every year, swathes of students around the world choose to participate in academic competitions such as spelling bees, Maths Olympiads and writing. Much like any extracurricular activity such as sports or music, taking part in competitions can take time, money and effort – so is it worth it?
Teachers, parents and students themselves seem to think so. Here are the top 10 benefits of academic competitions for students.
1. Competitions build soft skills
Interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, character formation — whatever you call them, ‘soft’ skills have become central to success in the classroom, the workplace, and beyond. According to Dr Marion Steel, course director at the Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University: “Soft skills affect every aspect of your career from the moment you start applying for jobs. They’re often unspoken, but all employers expect that you understand what they require in a work environment.”
But there’s a limit to how much classroom schoolwork can teach soft skills. They’re learned over time and gained through real-world experience. Soft skills include communication, planning, attention to detail, critical thinking, problem solving, resilience and adaptability — which academic competitions can naturally push students to learn.
There are myriad soft skills that students can start to build through school competitions. They include how to:
- Organise and manage their time, to help plan and prepare
- Tap into higher-order and critical thinking to tackle tricky questions
- Be agile and adapt their approach in unexpected circumstances
- Clearly communicate concepts and their rationale
- Keep a cool head and remain resilient to stress, anxiety or time pressure.
Importantly, this learning experience will stick with students well beyond their last days of school.
2. Competitions help students build in-demand STEM skills
Science, technology, maths and engineering are a priority in the Australian curriculum, and for good reason: it’s been said that up to 75% of the fastest growing occupations will require STEM skills. As the CSIRO says, STEM is “much more than an acronym — it’s potentially your passport for the future.”
In STEM-related fields, skills such as experimentation and critical thinking are crucial to solving complex problems. But even for students who have no interest in working in a scientific field, STEM problem-solving techniques and skills benefit their brain, their grades, and their ability to understand and navigate the world.
School competitions that focus on higher-order thinking and problem solving offer a low-stakes way to build and strengthen neural pathways. These competition questions aren’t just about recalling facts and information — they train students to use that information critically to solve problems as they crop up in real-world settings.
3. Students participation (or award!) in competitions look fantastic on their CV or job applications
Extracurricular activities show potential employers that a student is well-rounded and keen to improve themselves. Any awards or participation in a highly regarded competition —such as a school competition famous for being academically challenging — will make their CV stand out, especially if they don’t have any formal work experience.
School competitions help students to develop and demonstrate real-world skills, which can be relevant for almost any job. For example, if they’re applying for a hospitality role that requires flexibility and time management, tackling tricky maths problems under time pressure is a great example. If it’s work ethic and resilience the employer is after, they could highlight how they’ve improved every year in a certain competition, and that they’ll apply the same drive and determination on the job.
They even don’t have to win the competitions to reap these benefits — simply being a participant demonstrates to prospective employers that they have initiative beyond the classroom.
4. Competitions boost students’ selective school and scholarship applications
School competitions can give students an edge in applications for scholarships (including private schools), gifted student programs, and other important activities.
The race for such placements is fierce, and applicants need to prove they’ve got the right knowledge, skillset and personality, with selective schools in states such as Queensland and Western Australia using interviews in these processes.
By participating in academic competitions, students can show that they’re not just high achievers, but driven young people who constantly look for opportunities to stretch and challenge themselves. It’s especially useful if they’ve done competitions that relate to their application, such as a science contest when applying for a robotics summer camp.
5. Competitions help students feel more comfortable in an exam setting
Tests are an unavoidable part of life — so getting practice handling them comfortably and confidently will give students an edge. Student competitions are low-stakes, help them to learn planning and time management techniques and increase their mental stamina. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.
6. Competitions give students an appetite for improvement and success
The very act of taking on challenges is motivating — and when it’s through the safe and fun setting of a school competition it can do wonders for children’s confidence and self-reliance. It means developing a hunger to conquer even greater challenges, creating a positive feedback loop that enables them to reach their fullest potential.
Again, it isn’t purely about winning — the simple satisfaction of setting, working towards and achieving goals is a positive mindset that can set children up for a fulfilling future where challenges are embraced.
7. Competitions help students find out what their strengths are
Rising to the occasion of a competition is a great way for students to identify the strengths and skills that may otherwise fly under the radar in the regular day-to-day of the classroom — and who knows where that might take them? For many, excelling in a unique or challenging competition can be a real turning point in their lives: a gifted writer who goes from first place in a local essay competition to the Nobel Prize in Literature, or a budding scientist whose competition medal is the catalyst for a journey from classroom detentions to developing a world-changing vaccine.
8. By going beyond the curriculum, competitions encourage a lifelong love of learning
In today’s ever-changing, information-overloaded world, it’s impossible to cover every topic within six hours of school every day. Of course, the curriculum is essential. But for students who are truly curious, learning doesn’t stop outside of the classroom — they’ll naturally want to explore their passions through online education environments, peer learning and, yes, academic competitions. This curiosity is what creates a healthy mindset for pursuing (and loving) learning throughout their entire lives.
9. Competitions are a chance for academic prowess to get the spotlight
Top student athletes often go on to represent their school, state or even country. Dancers and musicians can dazzle on the stage or compete for prizes and glory. But what about the students whose star power is in writing, science or maths? Competitions allow these those with academic talent to experience the limelight too.
10. Competitions are fun!
Finally, perhaps the most important benefit of academic competitions is that they’re fun! While some may baulk at the thought of sitting exams and assessments, school competitions are a low-stakes way for students to challenge themselves, broaden their horizons and set themselves up for a successful future in school, work and life — especially when the questions are designed to entertain with out-of-the-box thinking.
Whether your child is a mathematical mastermind, science superstar or writing whiz, you’ll be able to find a competition that suit their talents and interests.