Over the past week, I’ve found myself thinking about academic competitions several times. Growing up, the only academic competitions I participated in were my elementary school’s annual spelling bee. In high school, I never joined the debate team or DECA or anything else. When I was in college I competed twice in the Mathematical Competition in Modeling (MCM), once as a completely unprepared sophomore and once as a more reasonably prepared senior. I flirted with doing the Putnam exam, but I doubt I would have accomplished much.
I’m curious how much of a predictor some of these prestigious competitions are for future success in science and mathematics. If you look at the Wikipedia pages for Putnam and the Regeneron (formerly Intel and Westinghouse) Science Talent Search you can see a laundry list of individuals who performed well in the competitions and then went on to tremendous success in research (Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals, Turing Awards, etc.). It’s clearly cherry picking to only look at the successes and I think it would be interesting to see where more typical high achievers in these contests ended up.
Something else the Wikipedia pages note are the schools that see repeated success in these competitions. At the high school level many of these are specialized science high schools and at the undergraduate level many of them are obvious well-known highly selective universities, but there are other less well-known schools that have very strong reputations in particular subjects (e.g. Harvey Mudd). It seems obvious to me that no matter how precocious a high school student is, they are going to need knowledgeable mentors in order to be successful in the Science Talent Search.
People generally accept that talent and work ethic are necessary, but not sufficient, for success. Putting talented young people among like-minded peers and providing them with first-class mentorship sets them up for success.