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During undergrad, students can face several opportunities, ranging from participation in (1) research groups, (2) study/training for competitions, (3) internships, (4) opening start-ups with colleagues (the latter is becoming very common these days), but I wonder, what is really important, for a Ph.D. application/admission...

By competition I mean ones like: INTEL GLOBAL CHALLENGE (VC), ACM ICPC, IMAGINE CUP (examples from the Comp. Sci. field, and Business, but indeed there may be a bunch of these in other fields, that I don't know)

Talking about (1) and (2) aforementioned...

If a student stays a long time during his/her undergrad in a (world-class) research group, he/she is likely to have the opportunity to publish a bunch of papers (some of these might be good, well-referenced, etc; some of these might be not as good), and meet some good researchers around the world, and so on; it really required dedication.

On the other hand, take part into a training class for competitions (that requires dedication, as well) may lead students to gains in terms of working in group, time-boxed activities, etc, as well as to face the opportunity of proposing solutions for real-world problems, and so on.

It is really tough to do both, in order to have great results, since in both cases time and dedication is mandatory. Indeed, there are some "outliers" students that can do both in a very good way, but I'm trying to generalize my assumption, by considering "average" students.

Hence, it's known that good papers have a great influence on the Ph.D. admission (despite of other well-known recommendations, e.g., a great GRE, good recom. letters, and so on), but I'd like to know if (and how) the universities consider students who dedicated their time to join this kind of competitions, obtaining some prizes, as a consequence, etc.

  • It certainly cannot hurt. – Dave Clarke Apr 18 '12 at 15:42
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    I will add iGEM and CASP as legitimate examples of useful competitions that may aid a candidate's profile. – bobthejoe Apr 20 '12 at 6:43
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    @DaveClarke: I disagree. Many of these competitions emphasize quick and dirty hacks over the slow, deliberate, long-term thinking required for real research. I would view participation in ACM ICPC (slightly) negatively in a PhD application. – JeffE Apr 20 '12 at 9:37
  • And that should be "great recom. letters, a good GRE", not the other way around. – JeffE Apr 20 '12 at 9:39
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    @JeffE Your reaction to mere participation in certain contests surprises me. Out of curiosity: would participating in ACM ICPC lower your opinion of a PhD applicant even if he/she demonstrates good research potential? (i.e. good letters, grades, research experience, etc) And how about otherwise strong applicants that have succeeded in such competitions? Obviously competition participation/success shouldn't be the only positive aspect on an applicant's CV, but what if it's merely an addition to good credentials? – Gyu Eun Lee Jul 13 '13 at 18:34
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Competitions can be valuable evidence of achievement, but they have to be not just widely recognized, but also really relevant to the field. (Nobody cares if you're a chess champion, since you aren't going to grad school in chess, and the fact that it involves hard work and talent will not help your case; if anything, it will be viewed as a potential distraction that may cause trouble in the future.) The best case is if some of the faculty once participated in the same competition. Then they will know exactly what's involved and what success means. The next best case is if some of their current students participated. Otherwise, it will mean very little, unless your recommenders somehow make a strong case for its importance.

As a test case, let's think about the Putnam examination, which is the most prestigious math contest for undergraduates in the US and Canada. Doing well on the Putnam exam is very valuable in math grad school applications, but even being one of the winners is not a guarantee of admission. The big advantage of the Putnam is that it gives objective evidence of talent compared with a nationwide pool, but the disadvantage is that solving contest problem is really not the same thing as doing research. If an undergraduate writes a paper a faculty member would really be proud of having written, then it looks better than winning the Putnam exam, but most undergraduate papers do not rise to that level and may not be as impressive as winning the exam. It's hard to quantify this trade-off, but I would definitely not advise anyone to neglect research opportunities in order to prepare better for the Putnam. Ultimately, graduate school is about research, and admissions committees sometimes worry about applicants who look more interested in competitions than research.

The Mathematical Contest in Modeling may be more along the lines of the contests you mention: it's a multi-day, team-based contest. My impression is that it carries less weight in admissions decisions than the Putnam exam does. Being able to help organize and train a winning team has real value, but it won't play much of a role in graduate admissions.

  • "winning the exam may look better than writing a merely good paper" — Really?? – JeffE Apr 20 '12 at 9:38
  • It depends on what "good" means, I guess: a good paper for a professor or a good paper for an undergrad? A lot of undergraduate research from REUs is really not very exciting - it's stuff that was pretty clearly chosen primarily to be doable by an undergrad without much background over a summer. Actually doing the research is a very valuable experience, but the vast majority of undergraduate researchers are not doing especially important work. In this context, tons of grad school applicants have routine papers, but only a handful have won the Putnam exam. I'll edit to clarify. Thanks! – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 20 '12 at 11:26
  • @JeffE: In the case of the Putnam exam, I think that argument could be made. In mathematics, the skills that correspond to doing well on the Putnam are the roughly the same skills that a pure mathematician needs to do the job well. So doing well on the Putnam is probably a good predictor for being a productive mathematical graduate student. – aeismail Apr 20 '12 at 14:13
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    It's only a loose correlation - there are plenty of examples of Putnam fellows who turned out not to be exceptional researchers, or brilliant researchers who did poorly on the Putnam. However, the correlation is real, and it can be a useful tool, especially given that admission is almost always a matter of making educated guesses. (Except for the few people who already have remarkable research achievements as undergraduates, there's no background or accomplishments that can truly guarantee a high-profile research career.) – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 20 '12 at 14:42
  • @AnonymousMathematician, I would say (I am NOT AT ALL EXPERIENCED) that Putnam exams will most likely get you where you want to be for grad-school. Heck, Harvard even gives Putnam fellowships to one of the fellows! – Lebes Feb 28 '15 at 16:04
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If a student is going to dedicate a substantial amount of time to a non-academic, non-research activity, there had better be significant attention paid to this activity in the application itself. I would want at a minimum an explanation of the time commitments and the resultant recognition obtained from these activities. An additional letter of support or clarification (or recommendation) from the advisor for such an activity would also help to assuage my concerns.

However, in general, if there is no direct correlation between the activity and the research field, I am likely to take a somewhat negative view of this, if it has a detrimental impact on the rest of the application. (For instance, if I were sitting on a math admissions committee, and saw someone applying who was applying for topology but spent a lot of time on some economics competition and had a weak GPA as a result, I don't think it would help the student's case much.)

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I have found that yes, some competitions do enhance a PhD application. An example is a seminar series competition run by my university that I participated in, we had to speak about our current research (mine was the MSc at the time). I came second and it went in my favour for the subsequent PhD application.

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