Back when I was in secondary school in the 90s, the Math Olympiad was the prestigious competition that all the smart kids in Hong Kong partook. Maybe it was in my nature to zag when everybody zigs, I decided to do the 「other obscure olympiad」 instead, the Olympiad in Informatics.
The International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI), is an annual competitive coding competition. Every year each country will be represented by 4 secondary school students (Hong Kong has been sending a team since 1992 and retains this privilege even after the 1997 handover). Among the 5 science olympiads (Math, Informatics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology), the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) has always been the most prestigious. But IOI have come a long way since my high school days. Now it is the second most prestigious science olympiads. IOI, which started in 1989, does not have the storied history of IMO, which began in 1959, but the computational thinking skill tested at the IOI is increasingly relevant in our modern era. After all, computer science is a relatively new science. We are just beginning to grasp the power of computational thinking. It is changing the way we approach a lot of problems. It is changing how we see the world. It is changing the world.
IOI is gaining in prestige and will likely continue to do so. Participation in IOI requires commitment and discipline to learn a rigorous syllabus. It shows that you are daring enough to take on an uncommon challenge and have enough determination to work toward it. This is exactly what top universities such as MIT and Princeton look for. In fact, MIT explicitly mentions these olympiads in their admission guidelines. Notice how IOI and IMO were placed toward the top among all the competitions they value. I don’t think MIT is alone in valuing participation in these olympiads. In fact, MIT’s perspectives almost certainly reflect those of the science/engineering faculties of other leading universities. But of course participation in IOI is no substitute for being a well-rounded student as well as all sorts of other qualities elite universities look for. In the end though, participation in IOI or IMO makes a pronounced statement about a student and one would be hard pressed to come up with something else that sets an applicant apart more in the college admission process.
P.S. Someone has written a nice paper comparing IOI vs. IMO. Read the report.