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10 Tips to Help You Win Stanford’s ProCo Competition in 2024

There are several ways of giving your academic profile a boost — doing research papers, attending educational programs, internships, volunteering, and more. One of these is taking part in competitions. Participating in a contest shows your dedication to the field and your drive to improve. Winning a contest is a testament to your skills and talent in a way that school grades aren’t. For students interested in computer science, entering a competition is a great way to apply all your theoretical knowledge and get a better understanding of programming. One such competition is the Stanford ProCo Competition

 

What is the Stanford ProCo?

Organized by the Stanford Association for Computing Machinery, the Stanford ProCo is a programming contest for high school students. The contest is structured in a similar fashion to the ACM ICPC (International Collegiate Programming Contest), which is one of the most prestigious global coding competitions. Through the ProCo, you can put your computer science knowledge to the test and get practical experience working with algorithmic problems. Solving the challenges will not only allow you to engage in hands-on coding but also hone your creativity and critical thinking skills.

 

Stanford’s ProCo 101: Dates, Cost, and Eligibility Criteria

Here are all the important details you need to keep track of:

Dates: The competition takes place during one day in April, from 9 am to 2.30 pm. Registration usually takes place sometime in March. Further details for the 2024 competition have yet to be released.

Location: Stanford University (the registration for the competition and the contest itself will take place in person at Stanford University)

Cost: Free!

Eligibility Criteria:

  • All high school students from the Bay Area. International students can participate but will not be eligible for swag. 

  • Participate solo or in a team of up to 3 students

  • Every student will need a laptop and WiFi

  • No prior knowledge is required but most participants have at least a year of programming experience.

Prizes: The highest-scoring teams will win competition swag. These have previously included items such as Raspberry Pis, iPad Minis, and Nintendo 3DSes.

 

How is the competition structured?

The Stanford ProCo is a day contest where students compete individually or in groups of up to three people. As a participant, you will have to solve algorithmic problems in the style of the college-level ACM-ICPC. The competition will run for three hours during which you will work on 9-15 unweighted problems.


The problems are separated into the Novice and Advanced divisions and your team should compete in the division that matches all members’ level of experience. The Novice division is meant for beginners or students with less than two years of experience in programming while the Advanced division is for returning competitors or those with more than two years’ experience.


After submitting a solution, your team will be notified of whether it is correct within one minute. If it isn’t, you are free to submit more solutions. In the end, teams will be ranked based on the number of problems solved. The second factor considered is the time taken to solve the problems, with additional penalty points for incorrect submissions.

 

Top 10 Tips to Win PicoCTF 2024

If you’re worried about taking part in a competition like the Stanford ProCo, we’ve got some advice that will make things easier. Here are 10 tips that can help you win the competition:


  1. Pick One Coding Language: The competition accepts solutions in C, C++, Java, and Python 3.6. You can use any of these to solve the given problems, which are written in a manner so as to not give any language an unfair advantage. In this case, it is beneficial to pick one coding language and become proficient in it rather than covering just the basics of several languages.

  2. Understand the Scoring System: The winning teams are determined based on the number of problems solved and the time taken to solve them. Penalty points are given for every minute you take to solve a problem. Additional penalty points are awarded for incorrect submissions, however, if you don’t end up solving that problem the penalty points will not be counted. If you understand the scoring system well, you can make strategic decisions that have the best advantage.

  3. Practice Algorithmic Problem Solving and Problem Classification: While practice is something that goes without saying, focus on solving algorithmic problems across various topics such as data structures, dynamic programming, and graph theory. Additionally, practice categorizing different problems based on their underlying structures. This will help you identify patterns and common approaches for solving similar problems during the contest.

  4. Practice with Time Constraints: Since the time taken to solve problems is one of the contest’s determining factors, ensure that you use time constraints while practicing as well. Set timers and try to solve problems faster with each try. This way, you’ll incur fewer penalty points during the actual competition.  

  5. Test Your Solutions: Once you have a solution, make sure you test it for its reliability before submitting it. Use various sample inputs and consider edge cases and boundary conditions to validate that your code functions correctly in all scenarios.

  6. Refine Your Debugging Skills: Hone your debugging skills by practicing efficient debugging techniques such as print debugging, code inspection, and using debugging tools like debuggers and profilers. Being able to quickly identify and rectify errors will save valuable time and penalty points!

  7. Use Free Resources: The rules of the competition allow you to use the internet and programming tools (nothing AI-related though). So use your time to become familiar with the various free resources online that could help you during the competition. You can also refer to external resources for training beforehand, such as the USACO, UVA, and Codeforces websites for practice problems. Additionally, tools like VSCode, Eclipse, GitHub’s Copilot and online code libraries can come in handy while practicing for the competition!

  8. Study Previous Problems: The ProCo website itself offers a look at past contests, where you can go through the previously used problems and their solutions as well. Studying these will not only make good practice for you but also give you additional insight into the different methods and strategies that can be used.

  9. Build a Strong Team: If you’re working with a team, choose members who complement each other's skills and work well together under pressure. Effective teamwork can significantly enhance your performance during a contest!

  10. Participate in Mock Contests: Organize or participate in mock contests with your team or peers to simulate real competition scenarios. This will help you acclimate to the pressure, time constraints, and teamwork dynamics inherent in competitive programming contests.



If you’re interested in pursuing research in fields like cybersecurity, computer science or related fields, you could also consider applying to one of the Lumiere Research Scholar Programs, selective online high school programs for students I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.


Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!


Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.


Image Source: ProCo logo

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