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Judging Tips for Top Science Competitions

By Amber Hess


To win at one of the top fairs you need to have both a great project and you must communicate effectively during the judging interviews. Being strong in just one area won't cut it.

Different fairs have different emphases on presentation:

  • Depending on the fair, judges may or may not have had time to review your board before they come by for the interview. At my regional fair, having an outstanding board might mean you get asked fewer questions because some of the judges read through it before the judging period.
  • At the state and international level, the board is a supplement to the main presentation... you! Each judging period can last from 7–15 minutes, and most of it is you talking.
  • For competitions like Siemens Westinghouse and Regeneron Science Talent Search you send in a 20-page research paper. In order to reach the finalist level, your paper has to be really well-written. Once you get to the finalist level, there are judging interviews, but the focus of the interviews for these two competitions is entirely different.
  • For competitions like the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, you give a PowerPoint presentation.

The bottom line is that you should investigate how the judges will review your work and adjust your presentation accordingly.

Besides having a well-thought-out and nicely presented project, judges normally emphasize creativity, originality, understanding about the research of others in your field, and thoroughness. For almost every top fair you can obtain the judging criteria ahead of time. Visit the Science Buddies page From a Judge's Perspective: Tips for a Successful Scientific Interview to learn more about the possible judging criteria. Be sure to look up the judging guidelines for each competition (generally found in the packet the fair gives you, or online). Go through each category of criteria and write down as many examples from your project you can think of. If you can hit on almost all of these areas in your presentation (i.e. you cater toward exactly what the judges are looking for), the judges will be able to go through the list and give you high scores for each section. Example: I wanted to emphasize the originality of my project, so I made sure to explain why it was original on my board and in my oral presentation multiple times. Since each judge will review many projects, repetition of key points is important to make sure that the judges remember them.

At high-level fairs, there will also be people who want a quick summary of your project (for example, the news media, the general public, and people in a hurry). Write up and practice a few-sentence summary that gives a quick overview of your project in layman's terms. If, after saying this "tidbit" about your project, people want more detail, go ahead and move up a notch, but remember to keep your explanations simple.

Preparation for Judging

  • If you can communicate your project well, you maximize your chances of winning.
  • Based on your analysis of the judging criteria, determine what you think are the most important three or four points to make about your project. Insure that you include these points repeatedly in the materials you prepare.
  • Write up a short "speech" (about 2–5 minutes long) summarizing your project. You will give this speech (from memory) when you first meet the judges.
    • Explain how you got the idea, the theory behind your project, how you did the experiment (explain any relevant terms along the way), your results, and why your project is important in today's society (how will it help people today?).
    • If you can't fit all of this into your presentation, be prepared to discuss each of the topics separately.
    • Expect to be interrupted when you talk to the judges! You will rarely finish your speech.
    • Do not restate your abstract word for word.
  • Organize a list of questions you think the judges will ask you and prepare/practice answers for them. Here are a few common questions:
    • Why is this research important? (Who cares if a rocket flies well?)
    • What do your graphs represent?
    • What does your data tell you?
    • How is your experiment/project innovative? Did you design everything yourself, or did you copy other people's work?
    • What are other people doing in your field? How is your project similar/different?
    • What problems did you run into while doing your experiment and how did you fix them?
    • What are the three most interesting things you learned when doing this project?
    • How much help did you receive from others?
  • Make up mini-speeches on important topics in your project and practice talking about them until they are almost automatic. Be as detailed as you possibly can: you are trying to impress the judges with your knowledge. This includes:
    • Charts, graphs, and data tables you need to explain.
    • Problems you ran into and how you solved/attempted to solve them. Judges will want to understand your logical thought when you were solving these problems. You will get major bonus points if you were persistent in trying to achieve excellence from your project.
    • Important concepts/equations you studied in your background research (the theory behind your project).
    • Your future study (what would you do to improve your project?).
    • Why your project is unique/innovative.
    • How your project is useful.
  • Study your background information like you would study for a test. In some ways, presenting your project is like taking an exam. The better you know your background information, the better your chances of winning.
    • This is the part I usually have trouble with: I would do the research and understand everything, but then I needed to study it. I would eventually learn and remember all the facts I should know, but I had to sit myself down and study. Force yourself to pretend there is a test the next day on all of the information, and you will be prepared.
  • Practice explaining your project in simple terms so anyone can understand it.
    • Many students do not know how to explain their projects to the general public. If you can explain your project in layman's terms, you are one step ahead of everyone else!
  • Practice is crucial. Keep practicing the things listed so you will have no slip-ups during judging. It's amazing how much more quickly you can make a point if you have practiced it out loud several times. And, the quicker you make each point, the more of them you can make. Go over all of your notes, background information, results, and "speeches," for review. You should know them so well that if someone asks you a question you can answer in a split second without thinking! Practice! Practice! Practice!
  • You should ask a parent, friend, teacher, or mentor, to pretend to be a judge so you become comfortable in a judging situation. Even non-scientists can be helpful, since you can still practice explaining your project to them. Ask for feedback afterwards on your clarity and presentation.
  • Videotaping yourself during practice can also be very helpful. Although it can be painful to watch the video, you will see the mistakes you made and be able to fix them the next time you speak.

The Judging Session

  • Always dress up nicely for the judging period—NO JEANS! Everyone will take you more seriously if you look professional. Coat and tie for men, business suit or professional-looking dress for women are a must at high-level fairs.
  • Make good use of your board. Point to diagrams and graphs when you are discussing them.
  • Always be positive and enthusiastic!
    • Show the judges you are interested in your research and they will be more likely to remember you.
    • Do not be negative unless you are emphasizing a frustrating problem you ran into. Even then you should immediately turn the conversation positive by describing what you learned.
  • Be confident with your answers. Do not mumble and say "Ummmmm...I think maybe this is happening?" Even if you answer a question incorrectly, at least they will not think you are a wimp!
  • If you have no idea what the judge is asking, or do not know the answer to their question, it is okay to say "I do not know."
    • You don't want to waste the precious, limited time of the interview on something that will end up making you look bad. It's better to quickly move on to something where you can shine.
    • Instead, ask them their opinion on the issue, and/or weave in an explanation of the theory behind your project without looking like you are changing the subject.
    • You might also say: "I never thought of that before. I do not know the answer to your question, but I will think about it. It is very interesting." Then write it down in a notebook so they know you are serious about remembering it.
    • If you do not understand what they are asking you, ask the judge to rephrase their question or ask them a few questions to force them to be more specific.
  • If there is any period of silence, do not sit there and wait for the judge to ask another question—keep talking!
    • Go to your important topic list (the mini-speeches you practiced) and discuss as many as possible with the judges.
    • Emphasize the key points based on the judging criteria.
  • Sometimes judges will seem to ask the same question multiple times.
    • Do not become impatient with them.
    • Remember that this is their first time looking at your project.
  • Be serious about all the judges' questions.
    • Sometimes a judge will ask a very strange or simple question, they might be testing to see how much you know.
  • Emphasize how you were creative/unique/innovative with your project.
    • One of the major criteria on a judges' list is creativity and originality.
  • Treat each person who visits you like a judge, even non-scientists.
    • They may be a valuable contact who could give you an internship or something just as good!
  • There will almost always be one or two judges who do not seem to like your work—don't let it panic you. If eight out of ten judges really like you, you still have a good chance of winning. At almost every competition I had at least one judge who didn't seem to like my project.
  • Always ask for feedback from the judges after the fair. Gather your judges' email addresses and ask them how you can improve. (If you know their names and employers, often you can do an Internet search to obtain their email addresses.) In my experience, I heard back from about half of the judges I emailed. If you move onto the next level, you should update your project and/or board after receiving feedback. The improvements you make could determine whether you place in the next fair!
  • For more tips, read the following articles by Science Buddies staff scientist and Intel ISEF 2010 judge Sandra Slutz:

Amber Hess
Amber Hess was a Mentor in the Science Buddies Online Mentoring Program for three years. A passionate science student, she has won awards at many prestigious science competitions. In 2005 she was an Intel Science Talent Search Finalist (one of only 40 students in the entire country), a semi-finalist for the Siemens Westinghouse competition, and she won a First Place Grand Award in Chemistry at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which she also attended in 2003. She has qualified to compete at the California State Science Fair five times, winning 4th, 3rd, and two 1st place awards. Amber graduated from MIT in 2009 with a BS in Chemical Engineering.