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How Competitions and Awards Can Boost Your Career

The M.AD School of Ideas

Being a student can be overwhelming. There’s a multitude of different societies and/or groups to join, new social circles to navigate, and not to mention a whole lot of, you know, actual learning.

One way that students can learn more about their careers, though (while meeting new people), is through student competitions. Historically, competitive learning has been strongly misunderstood. Detractors of competition-based learning point to the fact that it creates losers, generates feelings of ill-will, and can turn people off from the idea of furthering their education.

However, harnessing the power of an individual’s competitive nature can lead to the exact opposite effect taking place. In fact, entering a competitive atmosphere can lead to students enhancing their careers through the fringe benefits of student competitions, such as the ability to work together, to think creatively, and to network effectively. While the stated purpose of student competitions is to win, these fringe benefits are the more important takeaway (although the prize money and/or scholarship offers that are given to the winners are nothing to sniff at either). This is because building up your collaboration, innovation, and networking skills are critical to building your career, regardless of whether or not you have any trophies on your mantle.   


1. Collaboration

The nature of many student competitions requires a collaborative effort from all team members. A hackathon, for example, requires a team to work together to solve a complex computer-science based problem (although, it should be noted that not all hackathons need to be technology-based). To win such a competition, individuals need to work together to become greater than the sum of their parts. And in doing so, this competition has the built-in benefit of cultivating emotional intelligence skills in the participants.

Emotional intelligence skills have long been overlooked in the professional world. But without the ability to get along with others, it’s difficult to even land a job, let alone excel. However, the ability to be a “team player” cannot be understated – people to want to hire or to promote other people if they don’t get along with them in the first place. This isn’t mere conjecture, either – being able to maintain a positive relationship with your coworkers has been identified as one of the most important values in modern employees. In a working world that is becoming increasingly complex and global, being able to work with different team members to achieve an overarching goal has become highly valued.


2. Innovation

Student competitions don’t merely ask students to solve mundane problems. Competitions require creativity and reward the ability to think outside the box. And many of these competitions directly influence how companies do their jobs. Take the hackathon example from before. In 2019, the Smart India Hackathon – a grueling, 36-hour affair with over 100,000 participants –  required students to solve complex private sector problems faced by healthcare companies in India. The teams were asked to give a recommendation to a pharmaceutical company on whether it should invest in a particular product. However, they were given no data whatsoever. Instead, the team had to innovate to find the data they needed to create a predictive model. The research that the winning team did wound up having a direct impact on how actual companies do their day-to-day work.

Not creative enough for you? Netflix also hosts hackathons to “explore new ideas and experiment with emerging technologies.” These hackathons have created some fun (though limited) products like TerraVision, which is a way to reverse-look-up where movies and shows have been shot based on screengrabs. Competing in student competitions is an excellent way to get a leg-up in the competition when furthering your career – and can be especially beneficial if you wind up working at a company like Netflix, with its regular hackathons.


3. Networking skills 

The ability to network effectively has never really been in doubt in terms of its importance in developing your career. It’s no secret that it’s not always what you know that gets you ahead, it’s who you know. While some may find this notion superficial or feel uncomfortable with so much interpersonal connection, networking can provide benefits that go beyond trying to get ahead in your career. Networking gives individuals the opportunity to learn from others with diverse backgrounds. Doing so can give provide new insight into old problems, coming from a fresh set of eyes with a unique history. While these are great skills to have in the workplace, they are truly important life skills to have, and highlight how important it is to be able to network and to network well.

And as a student, there are few better networking opportunities than student competitions. Due to the collaborative nature of competitions, you will be forced to connect with new people, each of whom can potentially bring some value to your career. It isn’t just other students, either. Some student competitions use advisers, who are typically either professors or other professionals in the industry. While these advisers can be essential to winning your student competition of choice, don’t be afraid to take advantage of this relationship in the future. Many of these established professionals would love the opportunity to discuss their career with you over a cup of coffee. Connecting with your adviser over LinkedIn is a great way to keep in touch as you grow your career.

While many students may be intimidated by the idea of joining a student competition, they can be extremely useful in developing your career. Yes, the skills that are developed in service of completing a complicated task are important. And earning a scholarship or some prize money can be extraordinarily valuable. But improving your collaborative skills, increasing your innovative thinking ability, and sharpening your networking tools are even more important in improving your ability to get hired and, ultimately, how successful you will be at your job. For these reasons, it’s important for any career-oriented student to participate in at least one student competition while they are still in school.

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