Contest Structure and Requirements


The Big Ideas contest is intentionally structured to provide students an opportunity to develop their project ideas over the course of an academic year. Big Ideas supports promising teams in the development of their proposals over the course of a two-round nine-month contest cycle, starting in September and concluding in May. In the fall semester, students submit a short project proposal (dubbed the “Pre-proposal”) in November to the social impact track of their choosing. A team of judges selects a group of finalists in each track to continue on to the second half of the Contest (dubbed the “Full Proposal” Round) in the spring semester. This round includes a 6 to 8-week advisory with a Big Ideas mentor, culminating in the submission of a longer Full Proposal in March. Winners are determined following a second round of judging.  For a comprehensive list of contest dates, including for support workshops and end of the year events, refer to the 2019-2020 Timeline document in the Tools section.


All participating teams must include at least one matriculated student from an eligible campus, who serves as the Team Lead of the project. The team must be able to demonstrate that the ideas submitted are student-led initiatives and not an extension of faculty-led research or a non-governmental organization’s programs. For complete eligibility requirements, refer to the Official Contest Rules document in the Tools section.

Pre-proposal Application Process

The Pre-proposal aims to inspire students to focus on innovative project and product design. Pre-proposal requirements are adjusted year-to-year based on student feedback, but its primary components have remained consistent over the past few years. The Pre-proposal is a three-page document that prompts students to identify a problem, conduct a landscape analysis, explain their idea and its intended impact, and begin to think about how their solution will be implemented. Because Big Ideas is a contest designed for students at the very beginning stages of project design, students are only required to explain how their project will look in its first year of implementation.

Pre-proposals are judged primarily on the extent to which they propose a creative solution to a social problem and the project’s intended social impact. In other words, Pre-proposals are intentionally and explicitly not primarily judged on project viability. However, judges are explicitly asked to comment on the feasibility of proposed projects, so that students may use this feedback as they tweak and potentially rethink their project ideas in the final round of the Contest.


  • Ensure that students prioritize the innovation design before moving too far in their implementation plan. Prior to the 2015-2016 contest year, the Pre-proposal was designed as a five-page document including a budget and timeline. In 2015, Big Ideas eliminated these two requirements due to feedback from Pre-proposal judges that in many cases, the ideas were too early-stage to accommodate these elements. The design of the proposed solution needed adjustment before it could adequately consider project expenses and an implementation timeline. Thus, Pre-proposal requirements were adjusted so that the timeline and budget were only a requirement for the Full Proposal round, after teams could modify the design of their projects based on Pre-proposal judge and mentor feedback.

Full Proposal Application Process

In the Full Proposal round, students are expected to have significantly refined their project ideas and proposals, thanks in part to the mentorship, skills development workshops, advising and feedback provided during the Pre-proposal and Full Proposal application stages. The Full Proposal is an 8 page document that includes all the components of the Pre-proposal, but also asks for a viable and detailed implementation plan and timeline, plans for measuring success, and project budget. Based on the quality of the full proposals, Full Proposal judges select multiple winners. Unlike the Pre-proposal round, Full Proposals are judged primarily on the project’s potential social impact and the viability of the project plans. As in the Pre-proposal round, applicants are only asked to explain their project as it will look in the first year of implementation.


  • Be strict on proposal requirements, but flexible on formatting. It is important that participating teams understand that the proposal components are not an outline, but a guiding framework for content. An application is incomplete if it does not address the required components, but students can present this information in multiple forms of presentation. Some teams choose to copy these components directly into their proposals as headers, while others opt for a format that makes more sense for their project. Big Ideas tries to encourage the creative presentations of ideas while also ensuring that there are no significant gaps in proposal content.
  • Require additional sections to strengthen proposal quality. The 2015-2016 contest introduced “Existing Solutions” as a separate proposal requirement. This development was based on feedback from a number of judges who felt proposals generally lacked substantial consideration of other effective solutions tackling the same problem. Adding this application requirement strengthened overall proposal quality by compelling teams to conduct landscape research on potential competitors or collaborators.