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How to Win ISEF Regeneron: The Complete Guide

Winning at the International Science and Engineering Fest (aka ISEF) is arguably the most prestigious and competitive scientific accomplishment that you can aim for at the high school level.


However, ISEF can be difficult to understand, given it’s complex structure.. From multiple qualifying fairs to neverending forms to deciding what category to compete in, there are thousands of ways to approach ISEF. In this guide, we will help you understand this mammoth competition and give you some winning tips.


What is Regeneron ISEF?

ISEF is an international multi-stage science fair that attracts students from 80 countries across the globe. Even though ISEF technically refers to the event held in May involving only the finalists, colloquially people use the term when talking about participating in the entire sequence of fairs.


Source: Society for Science Website


While ISEF (final event) takes place in May every year, the process of getting there begins 4-5 months earlier. Students have to qualify for the final event by winning at the different fairs in their geographical area. This sequence usually begins at the high school level (High School Science and Engineering Fair - HSEF) followed by the regional ISEF-affiliated fairs (RSEFs) and ultimately the ISEF. Based on your geographical area, there may be additional fairs (like state fairs or national fairs).


ISEF is around a week long and while the location may vary from year to year, it is always held in the United States. The scientific exhibition constitutes the core of the week, but there are several other activities (networking sessions, panel talks) planned for the participants that make ISEF a fun-filled week of scientific exploration.


History


ISEF is run by the Society of Science, a 100+ year-old non-profit based in Washington DC. Founded in 1921 as Science Service by journalist Edward W. Scripps and zoologist William Ritter, the Society aims to communicate and advance the public understanding of science. Most people know them as the organization that runs the magazine, Science News and organizes the Science Talent Search (the oldest science and math competition in the US).


Society of Science has been managing the ISEF for over six decades now! Back when it started in 1950, ISEF was known as the National Science Fair. As the fair continued to grow and evolve over time, international competitors started joining and in 1965, in acknowledgment of its global scope, the competition became known as the International Science Fair, and the International Science and Engineering Fair in 1971. In recent years, the fair has welcomed participants from more than 80 countries, regions, and territories.


Some people still refer to the competition as the Intel ISEF. That’s because Intel was ISEF’s first title sponsor and was with ISEF for 30 years until Regeneron took over in 2016. ISEF is seen as a great arena for the recruitment of scientific talent and thus it is not surprising that it attracts significant sponsorships. In 2020, ISEF’s major sponsors included well-known names like Johnson & Johnson, National Geographic, etc.


What is the eligibility criteria to compete in ISEF?

  • Any student in grades 9 through 12 or equivalent who has not reached age 20 on or before May 1 preceding ISEF is eligible.

  • You can present work that includes no more than 12 months of continuous research. You also cannot submit research performed more than 18 months before the Regeneron ISEF in which you will be competing.

  • English is the official language of the Regeneron ISEF. Student project boards and abstracts must be in English.

  • You can not include a study performed more than 18 months before the Regeneron ISEF in which you will be competing.

  • Team projects are limited to three members.

  • You can compete in only one ISEF-affiliated fair, except when proceeding to a state or national fair affiliated with the ISEF.

How competitive is ISEF?

ISEF is extremely competitive. According to the CEO of the Society for Science & the Public, Maya Ajmera the ISEF is "The most powerful and diverse STEM talent pipeline in the world." Millions of students across the globe compete at various science fairs and the best of them compete at ISEF. Ultimately it is around 1700 finalists who reach the ISEF.


According to Tyler Moulton, Lumiere’s Publication Specialist, ISEF has been a magnet for the young scientific community for decades now. At Lumiere, we would approximate that making it to ISEF has at maximum a 2-5% acceptance rate at qualifying fairs, although this percentage varies from state to state and region to region. In some areas like Fairfax, VA, or the Bay Area, CA, there are at least 1-2 rounds of fairs before the RSEF that whittle down the competition.


Prize and College Admissions

More than 600 individual and team awards are presented every year at the ISEF. 21 Category awards are given in first, second, third, and fourth place with a cash prize of $3,000, $1,500, $1,000, and $500 respectively in each of the categories.


Out of all the first-place winners in each category, there are 12 ISEF Top Awards that will be given to specific individuals. The top winner of the Regeneron ISEF receives an award of $75,000, with the next top two winners each receiving $50,000.


Additional awards worth approximately $4 million are provided through the Regeneron ISEF Special Awards program and include tuition scholarships, summer internships, scientific field trips, and laboratory equipment. They are provided by about 70 corporate, professional, educational, and government sponsors annually.


Performing well at ISEF can give your college application a massive boost. In fact, we believe that winning at ISEF practically guarantees you a great college admissions result (assuming decent performance in other areas of your profile). It is not surprising to see many past winners get into the top schools in the US. We just linked to a few past winners who went on to Stanford, MIT, and Harvard respectively.


The regional fairs also have prizes for students who perform well. In most of these fairs, the top prize involves a qualification to the ISEF. However, there are also other prizes based on where your regional fair is located. For instance, the Central New York Science and Engineering Fair awards dozens of merit awards, prizes, and scholarships.


Step-by-Step Guide on How to Compete


Since ISEF is a behemoth to understand, in this section, we will break down the process into small segments based on the timeline that most students will end up following.


November-December: Reading (and Signing) the Fine Print

ISEF is notorious for its rules regarding participation and research. We will cover some important universal aspects, but you NEED to go through these rules on your own here. Going through the rules is not just important from a procedural point of view but also from a substantive one because it increases your understanding of the competition and its demands specific to you, your project, your school, and so on.


While some basic paperwork applies to everyone, most rules will vary based on the nature of your research. For example, every student has to complete a Research Plan/Project Summary and Approval Form (1B) and review the project with the Adult Sponsor (Checklist for Adult Sponsor). On the other hand, having a Qualified Scientist is a specific requirement for studies involving Biosafety Lab-2 (BSL-2) potentially hazardous biological agents and some other substances.


The rules might also vary based on the level of competition we are talking about. The rules of your ISEF-affiliated regional fair might be different from ISEF due to differences in federal and state laws (Affiliated fairs may have additional restrictions or requirements). You must check the rules of your affiliated fairs in detail.


The best way to look at the rules that might apply to you is to go through the Rules Wizard. They have a set of questions that you can answer and they give you a summary of your required paperwork. Some of these questions include:



Based on your answers you will get a summary of your required paperwork in this format:


Once you have this list, you may access these forms from this page, and fill them out.


January-March: Competing at Your Qualifying Fair (or Fairs)

You cannot participate directly at ISEF (final event). To qualify, you have to go through a network of ISEF’s affiliated fairs. An affiliated fair is basically a research-based, high school competition that is a member of the Society for Science’s affiliated fair network. These competitions exist in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 75 countries, regions, and territories and are conducted at local, regional, state, and national levels. ISEF has around 400 such fairs around the globe!


As mentioned in the eligibility criteria, you can only compete in one ISEF-affiliated fair except when proceeding to a state/national fair affiliated with the ISEF from an affiliated regional fair (Example: Virginia’s VSSEF).


The level at which you may participate at an affiliated fair varies based on where you live. Students generally start at a local school science fair and then progress on to the upper levels of competition in the region, in which an ISEF-affiliated fair may be the last tier. Most science fairs in the U.S. and U.S. territories are held from January through March while fairs outside the U.S. may take place at other times of the year.


Every ISEF-affiliated fair is allotted a certain number of projects that they can recommend for ISEF. This is calculated based on four factors: 1) the number of high school students at the fair; 2) the number of high schools represented at the fair; 3) the high school enrollment population of the territory served, and 4) an estimate of students participating in fairs that feed into the affiliated fair. To give you an example, the Beaverton Hillsboro Science Exposition (Washington County) can recommend 4 projects to qualify for the ISEF.


To find a fair near you, go to this website and enter your geographic location. It will show you the different fairs in your state or country. If you are based in the US, the easiest way for you to know more about the fair you need to start at might be to talk to your high school science coordinator. If you are an international applicant, you will have to compete at your country's ISEF-affiliated national science fair. For instance, Indian students interested in taking part in ISEF will have to win at the IRIS National Fair to qualify. You can read our guide on IRIS here.


Example Qualifying Fair Sequence

To understand qualifying fairs in a slightly better way, let us take the example of one of our Lumiere students who is currently preparing to take part in ISEF and is just starting out in Fairfax county, Virginia. Let’s call her Samantha and estimate the fair trajectory that she might end up taking to ISEF.


  1. HSEF, February 4, 2023: Samantha will start at their HSEF (High School Science and Engineering Fair) in Fairfax county which is a part of the Fairfax County Public Schools Division. To know more about participating at this level, the best option for Samantha is to go to her school’s science fair coordinator to get more details.

  2. RSEF (Fairfax RSEF), March 17-19, 2023: Students usually earn meritorious entry to the Regional competition through a science fair held at their local public or private schools. Let us assume that Samantha has won at the HSEF stage. Students usually have to win overall at the science fair to make it to the next stage. Samantha will then be invited to the Fairfax County Regional Science and Engineering Fair (USVA03). This level is fairly competitive. 8,229 students from 25 high schools participated in the 2021-22 Fairfax County RSEF. (If you go to a private school in Fairfax, your school might have to register separately to participate in the RSEF).

  3. Virginia SSEF, April 14-15, 2023 at Old Dominion University: If we assume that Samantha has even won at the RSEF stage, she will then be invited to the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair. Students have to compete at local-level fairs to qualify for regional affiliate fairs, with the highest-ranking projects moving on to compete at VSSEF. Since Fairfax RSEF is an affiliated fair that feeds students to VSSEF, Samantha will now be exhibiting her project here. There are only 3 grand award winners at VSSEF who then move on to the ISEF.

  4. ISEF, May 13-19, 2023: Finally, if Samantha also clears the VSSEF stage, Samantha will be one of the approximately 1700 students who will attend the ISEF (final event) in Dallas!

April-May: The Final Road to ISEF... and Winning

Making it to the final event is itself a big deal and something that most finalists should be proud of. However, those seeking the ultimate prize have to put in more effort to make sure that they stand out. There are some important things that you should keep in mind for the final event that we are listing here.


Choosing your category: ISEF has 21 categories in science and engineering that your project must fit into. You should review the entire listing of the categories and sub-categories before choosing one that most accurately describes your project. You are not required to compete in the same category as in your regional or state competition especially since most regional and state competitions do not even use subcategories. Make sure that you choose your category wisely since your judges will be assigned based on their expertise in your chosen subcategory. If you feel that the project could be in multiple subcategories (or categories), it is best to select the primary subcategory of your project rather than “Other.” You can look at a listing of project titles under various categories to make your decision. Choosing a category is also important as some categories are more popular and thus likely more competitive than others.


Presentation: ISEF requires both virtual and physical presentations of your research. There are detailed instructions on everything ranging from what your project video should summarize to the paperwork required. You have to go through these instructions properly to ensure that you are able to clear the inspection of the Display and Safety Committee.


Judging Criteria: Judging criteria at your regional fair might be different from the one at ISEF even though ISEF provides guidelines to the RSEFs to streamline the criteria. Each year about 1,000 science, engineering, and industry professionals serve as judges for the ISEF. All judges have a Ph.D. or equivalent degree and/or six years of relevant experience. Science and engineering projects have different criteria, each with five sections. We are going to highlight some important aspects of the criteria to help you target some important areas.

  • For science projects, the project is judged on the research question, design & methodology, execution, creativity, and presentation.

  • Engineering projects are judged on the research problem, design, construction and testing, creativity, and presentation.


Based on our interactions with winners, analysis of past projects, and the information given by the Society for Science, creativity and presentation are two areas that winners must focus on. Apart from the fact that these areas are given significant weight in the judging criteria, they are important facets that many finalists often do not pay attention to.


Deep-Dive ISEF Winner - Shaunak Sinha and Esha Khare


Let us understand the criteria better by looking at the winning profile of Shaunak Sinha (Lumiere alumnus) who won the fourth prize in the ISEF (final event) category of ‘Energy: Sustainable Materials and Design’ and Eesha Khare who won the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award in 2013.


Shaunak worked on optimizing point absorbers (devices that convert wave energy into electrical energy) for the most amount of energy. He took a novel approach to figure out a general engineering problem which is to create a point absorber that can produce an optimal amount of electrical energy and be easily modeled in an online state. Shaunak’s approach here was unique because he synthesized his skills in machine learning and environmental sciences to create an engineering solution that used neural networks to accurately predict and optimize the amount of electrical energy produced by a point absorber. Given this novel interdisciplinary approach, Shaunak’s project can be said to be high on creativity.


We also spoke to Eesha, who gives some interesting insights into what can improve the presentation. Closer to the fair, Eesha prepared for the ISEF by brushing up her knowledge of the field. She presented and did mock Q and As with other people. This allowed her to polish her critical thinking skills in a stressful environment where you have to think on your feet.


Winning tips from Lumiere:

  1. Have a mentor: Most winners at the ISEF have had good mentorship guiding their research. In order to win at ISEF, your project must be innovative and creative, and having a mentor who is exposed to the latest developments in the field will be a useful asset. Another benefit of a mentor is that researching for months continuously is an intensive and time-consuming experience. Having the right guidance can make sure that your time is being spent in the most productive way. We recommend finding a mentor who is well-versed in your chosen field. For instance, if you are interested in researching active pharmaceutical ingredients, having a biochemistry doctoral student might be the best fit for you. Also, as per Eesha, most successful projects have been done in university labs - if you want a successful project, you need to have access to a lab. In her senior year, she emailed many people with her resume, but it was very difficult to get responses. We encourage you to start reaching out to local labs earlier.

  2. Be observant: One of the most common searches related to ISEF on online forums is about students asking for topics they would want to do research on. We advise students to not think about a potential topic in a mechanical way. According to Krithik Ramesh (2019 ISEF winner), “Most ideas don’t come from a lab. They are sitting outside in a very nonchalant and casual way.” If you look around you and try to think deeply about the problems that you (or other people) face, you might find novel and creative inspiration in unlikely places. A great example is that of Krithik. He worked on developing a navigation system for spinal reconstruction surgery and says that the inspiration behind his award-winning idea lay in Grey’s Anatomy and Just dance!

  3. Find your niche: ISEF demands patience, perseverance, and genuine curiosity. It is hard to bring out good quality research if you lose interest midway in the face of some research-related roadblocks. One way to avoid this is by choosing an area that you are genuinely passionate about. Make sure your choice of area of research is driven by pure interest (and not an assessment of what category is easier).

  4. Seek inspiration from winners! We recommend all interested students check out the abstract database of ISEF to look at the kinds of research that students have done in the past. You can sort by geographical location and subject category to get refined results.

  5. Get your logistical ducks in a row... EARLY: ISEF participation is not possible in May if you didn't fill out the right forms in November, so not being logistically prepared can cost you. It's also true that the best projects often start way before November.

  6. Start your project.... even earlier: We spoke to a previous winner, Eesha, who did most of her lab work over the summer. She highlighted that you often need full summer of research ahead of ISEF to create a competitive project. While this is debatable, it shows that students who are competitive for ISEF have to put a lot of time into their projects to make them competitive.

  7. Multiple fairs mean multiple rounds of feedback - use it: qualifying for the RSEF or ISEF itself means getting extensive feedback at previous rounds of qualifying fairs from qualified scientists. Use that feedback to your advantage in improving your project and presentation round to round.

  8. Take your presentation seriously: Apart from the fact that presentation has a huge weight in the judging criteria, it is often one that many students tend to focus on least because of how focused everyone is on getting the research right. Being a scientist is not just about conducting research but also about communicating your research to an external audience.

Mock interviews and rapid-fire rounds with your mentor can be useful in preparing yourself for performing well under a high-pressure environment. Even simply asking your friends to question you on your research can prove a helpful strategy.


Interview and Case Study - ISEF Winner Shaunak Sinha


We interviewed Emily Sheetz, the mentor of Shaunak Sinha (mentioned above) to zoom into the journey of a specific student. Emily is a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is working with Odest Chadwicke Jenkins in the Laboratory for Progress.

  1. How long did Shaunak’s project take? Most of the project work occurred between October 2021 and July 2022 (8 months). We met more sporadically between July and early October to finish up paper revisions and prepare a journal submission based on his ISEF project.

  2. What were the main challenges faced during the entire process? I think the biggest challenge involved managing the many deadlines and deliverables for ISEF and other science fairs Shaunak participated in. Each science fair requires different deliverables (paperwork, posters, videos, project notes/papers) and showcases student work in different ways (interviews, presentations). Throughout the process, it was important for us to keep track of deadlines and plan ahead as much as possible. Shaunak and I tried to reserve the meeting before the deadline to focus on putting together and revising the deliverable. Deadlines often involved more flexibility and more frequent and/or longer meeting times to make sure we were prepared for what was coming next.

  3. What was the process of coming up with the research question for Shaunak? How important were creativity and usefulness in deciding the area of research? Creativity and usefulness were immensely important when coming up with the research question. Shaunak came into the project with two main interests: machine learning and environmental science. I encouraged Shaunak to look at what other people are doing in each field as inspiration for what he could contribute. Shaunak creatively decided to combine his interests in both fields into a single project. Furthermore, his research had a strong societal impact as his project was related to renewable energy and climate change. Creativity and usefulness were significant factors in deciding the research question and motivating Shaunak to succeed throughout the research process.

  4. Was there a strategy for the visual presentation and design of the poster? We went through several stages while designing the poster. We started with a general storyboard, where we mapped out large sections of the poster (introduction, methods, results, conclusion). Once we had more text, figures, and tables, we played around in Google slides to try out different layouts within our storyboarded sections. Using a collaborative tool like Google slides allowed us to work together and quickly rearrange components of the poster to see what layout made sense. We were most concerned with the flow of information and how Shaunak might need to explain his presentation to ISEF judges.

  5. How did Shaunak prepare for the interview? Shaunak and I spent one of our weekly meetings preparing. We spent the hour doing a mock interview, with myself and the program manager Prakriti as interviewers. I prepared a list of any question I thought the judges might ask, including justifying decisions made, explaining results in the context of the problem, positioning the project in the context of related work, comparing our results to those from other projects, explaining technical aspects of algorithms chosen, and the societal impact of the project. Prakriti and I also asked clarifying questions to ensure Shaunak could explain concepts in a way that non-experts could understand. By the end of our mock interview, Shaunak had thought through and practiced responses to many challenging questions. While this sort of practice was a little intense, it helps students practice thinking on their feet, synthesizing information, and answering questions for different audiences.

  6. What, in your opinion, was the reason(s) behind Shaunak's success at ISEF? I think Shaunak was successful at ISEF because he was highly motivated to learn and explore. Shaunak picked a project he was deeply interested in and that he was passionate about. The topic helped drive him to ask questions, learn new things, apply his skills, and connect his research to a broader societal impact.

  7. How important do you think mentorship is for doing well at ISEF? Mentorship is incredibly important for doing well at ISEF, and for any project. Shaunak sought out mentorship not only from me, but from his program manager Prakriti, his science teachers at school, and even family members. Mentorship, especially from a variety of people with different areas of expertise, allows students to get different perspectives on their work. A different perspective can significantly improve a project and some of the best ideas may be inspired by someone unfamiliar with the technical aspects of a project.

  8. Any other tips you would like to share with us? My final tip for students interested in ISEF is to take ownership of their projects. Many of my students want a lot of input when choosing a topic, and while it is important to have support from your mentor, the most important thing is that the student is interested in their own project. Pick a topic that you are passionate about and deeply interested in. The best projects are ones that are driven by students' curiosity, desire to learn new things and passion.


Note: Parts of the interview have been paraphrased for brevity.


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Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’re looking for a mentor to participate in a science fair like ISEF or want to build your own independent research paper, then consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. Last year over 2100 students applied for about 500 spots in the program. You can find the application form here.


You can see our admission results here for our students.


Manas is a publication strategy associate at Lumiere Education. He studied public policy and interactive media at NYU and has experience in education consulting.



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