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Top Physics Competitions for High Schoolers

6 minute read

Physics competitions are fantastic opportunities to showcase your passion for the subject and challenge yourself intellectually. Participating in these competitions not only deepens your understanding of physics concepts but also strengthens your problem-solving skills. There is a high level of preparation and studying required for these exams that can feel intimidating at first, but every competition will usually provide great study resources and past exams to help you get ready. In this article, we’ll dive into our list of top physics competitions for high school students. 

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International Physics Olympiad

Hosting institution: IPho, 2024 competition will be in Iran

Format: Theoretical and experimental exam

Prizes: Gold, silver and bronze medals

Application deadline: Not specified, but competition takes place July 21 - July 28

Individual or team competition? Exams are taken individually, but teams of countries compete

First started in Poland in 1967, the International Physics Olympiad started with just 5 participating countries. Now, the competition has expanded to a peak of 92 participating countries and is one of the premier physics olympics worldwide. To qualify for the international level, you must first participate in regional/national level contests in your country and finish as one of 5 finalists. The annual physics competition itself consists of two parts - a theoretical exam which consists of three problems and an experimental exam which consists of one to two problems. You can prepare thoroughly by studying past exam problems and solutions so that you can get a sense of what problems are usually presented and strengthen your knowledge of physics concepts.

F=ma Exam and U.S. Physics Team

Hosting institution: American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT)

Format: F=ma exam: 75-minute exam with 25 multiple-choice questions focusing on mechanics

USA Physics Team exam: 3 hour free response

Prizes: Can represent the U.S. in the International Physics Olympiad, also gold, silver, and bronze medals

Application deadline: January 22, 2024

Individual or team competition? Individual

The F=ma exam is the qualifying exam that allows 400 qualifying students to then take the USA Physics Team exam. Contestants with top scores in the USA Physics Team exam are then invited to be a part of the U.S. Physics team with a chance to represent the U.S. in the International Physics Olympiad. You can see what topics are covered in both exams on the competition website. The funnel for getting into the U.S. Physics team can seem quite narrow, but the AAPT does provide comprehensive resources including past exams and solutions that you can use to help you prepare for the F=ma exam. We’ve also created a comprehensive guide to preparing and taking the F=ma exam!

Beamline for Schools (BL4S)

Hosting institution: CERN, European Laboratory for Particle Physics

Format: Submit experiment proposal

Prizes: The top 2 proposals win a trip to CERN or DESY (German Electron Synchrotron) to perform their experiments. Other teams can win T-shirts

Application deadline: April 10, 2024

Individual or team competition? Team

This unique competition format requires teams of students to propose an experiment they’d like to perform using a particle accelerator. The experiment proposal must follow a specific structure, including a written proposal supported by diagrams and pictures, and how you would like to use the beam (a large number of particles moving in the same direction in a particle accelerator) to help with your experiment. As a result, this competition requires not just knowledge of physics concepts but also a curiosity to understand more about the field. The coolest part of the competition is that the top two teams will get to perform their experiments using a particle accelerator in either Switzerland or Germany!


Hosting institution: American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT)

Format: 40-question, 45-minute timed multiple-choice test

Prizes: International recognition

Application deadline: February 26, 2024

Individual or team competition? Individuals take exams but scores are recorded by the high school team

In this competition, students take an exam with topics taken from high school-level physics, which includes everything from conceptual physics to AP Physics. There is a team atmosphere to this contest, with the top five scores from a school being added together to create a team score. As a result, the more students on your team the better your chances are of winning, so if you’re interested in this competition see if you can get your peers who are excited about physics to consider joining as well! You will also need an instructor to register your school and proctor your exam. For practice, you can take a look at printable exams from past years.

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Physics Brawl Online

Hosting institution: FYKOS

Format: 3-hour long contest solving physics problems

Prizes: Access to various software like Wolfram Mathematica, Chess.com, and Avast

Application deadline: Registration is not open yet, but the registration period is usually between September and November

Individual or team competition? Teams of up to 5

In this fully remote competition run by organizers from the Czech Republic, you can create a team of 5 to solve a set of 7 physics problems. The competition has been around for over a decade and there have been over 1000 participating teams in total. The competition has a more creative scoring format than typical physics contests and the event is supported by unique partners such as Chess.com. If you’re interested to see what past problems look like, you can check out the solutions for the 2023 competition.

Online Physics Olympiad

Hosting institution: Online Physics Olympiad (OPHO)

Format: Solve physics problems

Prizes: Cash prizes for top 3 teams, subscription to Wolfram Alpha Notebook Edition

Application deadline: To be announced, registration is not open yet

Individual or team competition? Teams of up to 3

Inspired by Physics Brawl Online, the Online Physics Olympiad started during the pandemic and since then thousands of participants have competed. Typically there is first an open round that consists of 35 problems. The top 5-10% of the open round pool will then be invited to compete in the invitational round, which consists of a theoretical and an experimental portion. The event is supported by great sponsors like Jane Street and Citadel and is run by a team of accomplished high school and undergraduate students. To prepare for OPHO, check out the competition archives which include all past exams.

High School Physics Photo Contest

Hosting institution: American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT)

Format: Submit a photo and explanation of the photo

Prizes: Money prizes and a certificate for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place

Application deadline: May 15, 2024

Individual or team competition? Individual

This contest provides a unique format for those more interested in the intersection of art and science. Students submit either a natural photo that showcases an everyday situation where physics concepts are at play, or a contrived photo to display a physics phenomenon. Students also write an accompanying explanation of what is happening in the photo. In this competition, there’s an opportunity to better understand how physics happens in the world around us, which can sometimes be a refreshing alternative to physics exams and problem-solving!

Physics Unlimited Premier Competition

Hosting institution: Physics Unlimited

Format: 1.5 hours to solve 4 physics problems

Prizes: Gold, silver, and bronze level certificates

Application deadline: Registration is not open yet

Individual or team competition? Individual

High-school students around the world participate in this internationally-hosted exam, where problems are roughly equivalent to what you’d expect in AP Physics 1,2, and/or C. The 2024 competition will be the 9th edition of the competition. To prepare for the exam, check out the competition packets from previous years on the competition’s website.

Sir Isaac Newton Exam

Hosting institution: University of Waterloo

Format: 2-hour online test

Prizes: Sir Isaac Newton (SIN) Scholarships offered to incoming Waterloo physics & astronomy students. Book prizes are also given to the top 50 participants.

Application deadline: Registration is not open yet, but the deadline was in April 2023 for the 2023 competitions

Individual or team competition? Individual

The Sir Isaac Newton Exam covers basic physics from a Canadian secondary school physics curriculum. However, this should be fairly aligned with U.S. standards so there shouldn’t be much to worry about if you’re a U.S. participant. This test is available to students in any grade and stresses basic classical mechanics. The exam is meant to be challenging, so if you’re working on practice problems and find yourself struggling, just know that according to the website the “raw average score” is around 20-40%! This exam is well-established and facilitated by a prestigious university, so this competition is a great option for students.

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Alternatives to Participating in a Physics Competition

Compared to competitions in other topics, physics competitions tend to favor an exam format and solving problems. If this format isn’t for you but you’re still excited by physics concepts and how they come up in the real world, then consider doing a research project with Polygence! Polygence’s Core Program allows you to work on a research topic of your choice with the guidance of an expert research mentor. Through this project, you can deepen your understanding of physics and learn from someone with expertise in the field.