Interested in Psychology? Courses and Competitions to Make You Exceptional



Why is the study of psychology so popular?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, psychology frequently ranks among the most popular majors on college campuses. A fascinating field of study, psychology helps students understand the human mind and human behavior. For college-age students who are still developing their self-identity and grappling with challenges of transitioning to adulthood, psychology helps students gain a deeper, richer understanding of themselves and their relationships.


Another important reason for the popularity of psychology has to do with the versatile career and further education opportunities it provides. While careers as a clinical psychologist normally require doctoral training, undergraduate students who combine psychology with another major become highly competitive in the job market. These majors often include business, education, criminal justice, and health science, majors that require a deep understanding of human behavior. Further, students of psychology are also prepared to pursue graduate studies in law, business, and medicine, in addition to counseling and psychology.


What high school courses should you take?

Psychology programs in college usually include coursework on research methods, statistical analysis, and cognitive processes. If you are thinking about pursuing psychology, you should take math classes, statistics, biology, in addition to any psychology class offered at your school. If you are aiming for the competitive colleges and universities, you should take those classes at the advanced levels (honors and AP), for example, Algebra 2 Honors, Geometry Honors, AP Calculus (AB/BC), AP Statistics, AP Biology, and AP Psychology.


If any of these advanced classes are not offered at your high school, consider taking them for credit from an accredited online high school and then take the corresponding AP exams. Your school may or may not accept these credits as part of your high school coursework (you should always discuss with your school counselor before taking these classes outside of your school), but you can always report these coursework and AP exam scores as part of your college application.


What psychology competitions should you participate in?

Participating in renowned psychology competitions is another way to prepare yourself for pursuing psychology in college. You will not only be able to stretch your intellectual muscles, but also bolster your college application profile. With college admissions becoming more competitive, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish yourself from other applicants. Gaining awards or recognition from prestigious contests will definitely give you a competitive edge.


Below is a list of four prestigious research and writing competitions for psychology, all of which are highly recognized by colleges and universities nationwide. Most of these competitions focus on STEM and thus are often overlooked by students who are interested in social sciences such as psychology. In fact, students can enter these competitions through a category usually labelled “social and behavioral sciences.” Local high school fairs often provide the first opportunity to compete, where winners advance to regional, national, or international competitions.


TOPSS Competition for High School Psychology Students

TOPSS, which stands for the APA (American Psychological Association) Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools, is an annual competition where individual students (grades 9-12) submit an essay of no more than 3,000 words on a given topic of psychology. Up to four students will be selected as winners, and each will be awarded a $250 scholarship. For 2021, the prompt addressed the topic of resilience in relation to stress or trauma. For 2020, the topic dealt with the role of psychology in politics. For 2019, students were asked to address the role and relevance of non-human animal research in psychology.


Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF)

The annual Regeneron ISEF, previously called Intel ISEF or the Intel Science Fair, is widely considered as the most prestigious science fair for high school students in the U.S. Students (grades 9-12) identify a science research project in one of the 21 Regeneron ISEF categories, work with a mentor, complete the project using up to 12 months, and write up the results. Students work individually or in teams of no more than three members. As the largest high school STEM competition, thousands of students participate each year, competing for a variety of awards, ranging from $500 to $75,000.


For students interested in psychology, the category will be Behavior and Social Sciences, which further breaks down to six subcategories including Clinical & Developmental Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Neuroscience, Physiological Psychology, Sociology & Social Psychology, and Other. For example, in 2021, a total of 28 students received the awards by conducting research projects on a variety of topics such as the impact of high school scheduling on test scores, diagnosing autism with machine learning, sensory integration in adolescents with a history of multiple concussions, among others.


Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS)

The Regeneron Science Talent Search (Regeneron STS, formally known as Intel STS) is the oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school seniors (underclassmen are not eligible). Each year, approximately 2000 high school seniors compete for a total of $3.1 million in awards by conducting original, individual STEM research projects. About 300 students will be recognized as scholars and a final list of 40 students will be invited to Washington, DC to participate in final judging.


For students interested in psychology, the category will be Behavior and Social Sciences, which include several psychology-related subfields such as Social and Community Relationships, Learning, and Perception.


Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS)

Administered by the National Science Teachers Association, JSHS encourages and challenges high school students (grades 9-12) in conducting original research in science, social science, and humanities. Students compete individually for scholarships and recognition by presenting research results before a panel of judges and an audience of their peers. For students interested in psychology, the category will be Medicine & Health/Behavioral Sciences.