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Top 9 Physics Competitions for High School Students

6 minute read

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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.

Our List of Physics Competitions

1. 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 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 competitions worldwide. In order 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 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 for what problems are usually presented and strengthen your own knowledge of physics concepts.

2. 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 U.S. in 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. Those 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 then 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 which 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!

3. Beamline for Schools (BL4S)

  • Hosting institution: CERN, European Laboratory for Particle Physics

  • Format: Submit experiment proposal

  • Prizes: 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, as well as 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 for understanding more about the field. The coolest part of the competition is that the top two teams will actually get to perform their experiments using a particle accelerator in either Switzerland or Germany!


4. PhysicsBowl

  • 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 exam but scores recorded by 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.

5. 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 not open yet, but registration period 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 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.

Research and Prepare for your Competition or Fair

Polygence pairs you with an expert mentor in your area of passion. Together, you work to create a high quality research project that is uniquely your own. Our highly-specialized mentors can help guide you to feel even more prepared for an upcoming fair or competion. We also offer options to explore multiple topics, or to showcase your final product!

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6. 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 not open yet

  • Individual or team competition? Teams of up to 3

Inspired by Physics Brawl Online, Online Physics Olympiad started during the pandemic and since then thousands of participants have competed since. 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.

7. 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 who are 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 our world around us, which can sometimes be a refreshing alternative to physics exams and problems-solving!


8. 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 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.

9. 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 not open yet, but deadline was in April 2023 for 2023 competitions

  • Individual or team competition? Individual

The Sir Isaac Newton Exam covers basic physics, mainly 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.

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.

Complete a research project in just 6-weeks!

Dive into highly concentrated content on a specific topic with the guidance of expert mentors in artificial intelligence, computer science, finance and creative writing, and build your own unique project in just 6 weeks!

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