Judging FAQ (for Students)

How is judging done?

There are many answers to that question!


The hall is opened at 9:00 A.M. for judges to come in and read your boards, look through notebooks, and take an abstract.

Category Awards Judging

A judging team of two to five judges will be assigned to each group of 8 to 12 projects. At least two judges must evaluate each project. These judges are instructed to choose first, second, and/or honorable mention awards from their group of projects. Projects are judged with projects from the same category and with similar fields of study.

  1.  Projects done at home, in schools, or in the field are compared to each other and judged with others done by students in the same grade. Grade 11 and 12 projects may be judged together by Category Judges to improve the quality of judging.
  2. Projects done at Regulated Research Institutions (RRI) such as universities or major research laboratories (Grade 9 to 12 only) are judged by a separate group of category judges and are only compared with other RRI projects. RRI projects are judged by category only.


Judges use the Category Judging Criteria posted on our website to select approximately 30% of the projects in their group to win category awards (so 70% of projects do not win category awards).

Category judges wear blue ribbons. Category judges are given green stickers and asked to paste them on the project compliance sheet, so that we can check that at least two judges have evaluated each project.

Special Awards

Special Awards are handled by the organization sponsoring each award. The criteria for the award are determined by the sponsoring organization, and they usually supply the judging team.

Some of these judging teams look at every project on the floor while others are interested only in projects having to do with one specific subject (for example: they may only want to look at projects related to water). If the topic of your project doesn’t match the criteria for their organization, the judges will not stop to discuss your project with you. The judges often use the titles of the projects to determine whether a project will be reviewed.

Special Award judges wear white ribbons.

Isabelle Stone and Castro Family Awards Judging

One project from each middle school grade is selected for the Isabelle Stone Awards (best in Biological Sciences). One project from each middle school grade is selected for the Castro Family Award (best in Physical Sciences).

A group of five seasoned judges looks at all of the projects in each of these six sections, chooses the winner, and ranks the other outstanding middle-school projects.

Grand Prize judging

Grand Prize judging includes all projects in grades 9 through 12. Projects are divided into 3 groups. The two main groups are Physical Science projects and Biological Science projects. The third group is an Outreach group that Society for Science and the Public (administrators of Intel ISEF) allows us to have in addition to our two main groups; it includes projects from schools that traditionally graduate fewer STEM bound students.

The Grand Prize Judging Team is separate from the Category Judging teams.  Judges for the Grand Prizes have either a doctorate in their field or equivalent experience, the same requirements in place for ISEF judges. Some of these judges also judge at Intel ISEF.

In addition to identifying the Grand Prize winners and the Grand Prize alternates, the Grand Prize judging teams rank the other outstanding high-school projects.

California State Science Fair (CSSF) Judging

The six projects that win the Castro Family and Isabelle Stone awards win sponsored trips to the CSSF. All the Grand Prize projects, including alternates, are qualified to participate at CSSF.

The California State Science Fair Judging team then uses the additional ranking information from the Grand Prize judging teams, from the Isabelle Stone and Castro Family Judging teams, and their own assessment of other outstanding projects to identify other candidates for the CSSF. In determining whom to select, they factor in the judging categories that the CSSF uses (which are very different from both the Synopsys Championship categories and the Intel ISEF categories).

Winning a first place category award does not guarantee selection for CSSF as either a candidate or alternate.

Are the students receiving 1st place Category awards from the Synopsys Championship automatically qualified for CSSF or Intel Science Fair ?

No, there is not necessarily a relationship between winning a 1st place category award, and winning a place at CSSF or ISEF.  Separate judging teams determine awarding of these 3 award types.  Category Awards are determined by Category Award Judges and there are over 100 winners at our competition.  ISEF trip awards are given by a separate group of Grand Prize Judges whose responsibility is to choose the top 10 high school projects in the whole fair.  CSSF trip awards are given by a separate State Fair Judging Team who choose the top projects as described in the above paragraph.  The determination of how many projects can be sent to State Fair is determined by the California State Science Fair administration based on our previous 5-year record of winning at that fair.

Why aren’t results posted immediately?

Although most of the results are entered into our database within an hour or so of judging being over, we don’t post them to the website right away for a number of reasons:

  1. The main reason is we want the results to be a surprise at the awards ceremony. Occasionally deadlines for subsequent fairs prevent us from doing that, so we contact the affected students before the awards ceremony, but as much as possible, we do want it to be a surprise.
  2. Some special awards teams do some secondary judging or finalize the awards they are going to give after judging day, so we don’t even have the results that day.
  3. Occasionally, we (or a judging team) discover that a student’s project was not really as presented and an award that was planned to be given has to be retracted—this may require consultation with the respective judging team and review of their notes to determine the next most meritorious project.
  4. All of the people involved in the Synopsys Championship judging are volunteers. They spent many hours preparing for and administering the fair, and all are exhausted at the end of judging. We have found that a complete double-check of the awards data entry the following weekend is very important.
  5. Occasionally something goes wrong. In case of a problem, we need enough time to properly correct whatever errors might occur.