A Beginner's Guide to Hackathons & Case Competitions

Joanna He
August 5, 2021

Whether it be on Facebook or through conversations with friends, chances are that you have heard of a case competition and/or a hackathon. Although participating in case competitions or hackathons seem intimidating at first, there are many types of case competitions and hackathons that cater to your interests and experience level. In addition, participating in activities like these serve as a valuable opportunity to meet like-minded people and develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. In this blog, we will look at how hackathons and case competitions work, how to get involved and provide insightful tips on how to ace your next case competition or hackathon. 


Hackathons are a great way to improve on technical skills such as UX/UI design and coding as well as soft skills such as problem solving and critical thinking, all while producing a project for your portfolio. Typically in hackathons, participants form teams of 3-5 people to work together to come up with a working solution that addresses a real world problem in a short period of time (e.g. approximately 48 hours). Teams will then present to a panel of judges, provide a demonstration of their solution and answer questions about their solution following their pitch. 

Here are some examples of past hackathons:

We asked two members from DigiSoc who have plenty of experience with hackathons - Jarvis Wang (Projects Director) and Jessica Zheng (Education Subcommittee). 

How did your involvement in hackathons begin?

Jarvis - My first hackathon was the CSE annual hackathon last year. We were a group of friends in the same subcom, we didn't intend to win at all. We used this opportunity as a team bonding event. It was quite an enjoyable experience working 24 hours non-stop. 

Jessica - I only recently started participating in hackathons. I’ve done a few case comps but after realising I loved product design, I wanted to explore hackathons because of the opportunity to showcase my UX/UI design skills, broaden my view of how to approach problems and learn how to collaborate in cross-functional teams involving business analysts, engineers and designers. 

What are some skills that students can work on to improve their chances at winning a hackathon?

Jarvis - You need a comprehensive skill set in order to ace a hackathon. It is hard to select one since it might be different depending on the background of each individual. For example, I am a UI/UX designer, which has the ability to communicate my idea visually and improve my solution by conducting user research. However, I have issues with presenting my idea verbally and constructing the pitch in a logical way. Thus, it is important to understand your strength/weakness and seek the correct talents on your team.

Jessica - If you’re a designer, rapid prototyping and wireframing skills help to visualise your idea within a short timeframe. Having empathy is crucial to creating meaningful solutions because it enables you to truly understand and address people’s needs and problems. Gaining experience in user testing such as through conducting interviews helps you to set aside any assumptions you may have so that you create solutions desired by users rather than slapping on a band-aid solution that you think suits users but doesn’t actually address their problems. For example, when first released, the airbag was designed with a fatal flaw. A disproportionate amount of women and children were hurt because the male-led design team used a dummy that replicated the average man’s body during crash tests, hence failing to consider the needs of a shorter and less built demographic. Whilst you may not be solving a problem for as large of a demographic, this reflects how important it is to put yourself in others’ shoes and test your ideas with different users and contexts.

Working well in cross-functional teams requires strong communication and collaboration skills. This ensures everybody is on the same page and aware of limitations, or else situations will occur where, for example, a designer might be designing a feature that a developer isn’t yet capable of building. 

Case competitions 

On the other hand, case competitions focus on only improving soft skills such as problem solving (similar to hackathons) and critical thinking. Case competitions are run in a similar manner to hackathons except that teams are given more time (approximately 1 week) to come up with a theoretical solution that addresses a real world issue. A theoretical solution is usually a detailed plan of what actions a business might take to address the problem statement. 

Here are some examples of past case competitions: 

We asked two members from DigiSoc who have lots of experience with case competitions - Grace Wong (Program Associate) and Jasen Yu (Projects Director). 

What advice would you give for someone who is looking to get involved in a case competition?

Grace - Creativity is key. Whether it be incorporating the latest technology into your solution or centering your strategy around SDGs, think outside the box to really impress your judges. On another note, get involved in consulting societies like UNSW Consulting Club (UCC) or consulting projects at 180 Degrees Consulting (180DC)! You’ll find like-minded people who would be keen to tackle cases and learn on the go.

Jasen - Find yourself a team with a diverse skill set. It is often easy for students to fall into the trap of doing a case competition with their friends or people they ‘vibe’ with. However, if you want to get the most out of it, it is important to work with people who possess skills that you do not. Generally in a case competition, you would want team members with marketing, finance,  technology and design experience. This not only provides you with the opportunity to learn from each other but also ensures that your presentation is covering all the bases. 

What are some of the challenging aspects of a case competition?

Grace - Definitely the Q&A since it’s probably the hardest to prepare for. But there’s always workarounds! Play devil’s advocate and question everything from feasibility to impact or get your friends to nitpick your presentation. It’s always helpful to get a fresh perspective on your idea before you present it in front of judges. 

Jasen - Definitely time management. Case competitions require you to submit a presentation within a defined time frame (ranging between 1 hour to a week). The biggest challenge is being able to effectively break down the problem statement, come up with a creative and feasible solution and create a presentation around it within that time frame. As someone who has always done things last minute, I definitely struggled with this aspect. Case competitions have taught me the importance of working ahead of time and creating a timeline to track our team’s progress. 

Key takeaways 

One important thing to do after every case competition or hackathon is to reflect on your team’s performance to ensure that you and your teammates can establish things to improve on for next time. As such, we asked our interviewees to reflect on what they have learnt from their case competition and hackathon experiences. 

What is one thing you have learnt through participating in case competitions/hackathons? 

Grace - Storytelling makes or breaks your presentation. You could have the best idea in the world, but if you don't have a good story, you won't be heard. Try telling a story throughout analysis, strategy and impact. You’d be surprised at how much more engaging your presentation is with a great narrative.

Jasen - The more you do something, the better you will be at it. Thinking back to the first case competition I did in my first year and comparing it to the ones I’ve done recently, this statement resonates deeply with me. This may sound cliche but the more competitions you participate in, the more experience you will have with case-solving, slide-making and presenting. Don’t worry if you do not do well the first time round. Just reflect on what you have learnt and apply it into the next competition. Even for me, I am always learning something new after each competition!