Hackathons, what are they, and why should you try it?

The Ultimate Learning Experience

Posted by Steven Feng on August 4th, 2020

Hackathons are possibly some of the best activities you can find in a university. However, they’re not understood by many undergraduates and high school students. There are many misconceptions about hackathons, and I hope to clarify a few of them and what you can get out of hackathons in this blog.

What are Hackathons?

Despite the name having the word “hack” in “hackathon” and the attendees being called “hackers,” we don’t actually “hack” into devices in the traditional sense. Instead, we “hack” by prototyping software and hardware solutions to address pressing modern-day challenges, such as climate-change, disease, and forest fires by building devices and software solutions. This is done through a variety of techniques such methods such as using IoT (Internet of Things), AR/VR, big data, machine learning, and more. If you enjoy building things, regardless of whether it is software, hardware, or mechanical, you should try out a hackathon.

Check out this promo video from Hack the North at the University of Waterloo

What can you do in a hackathon?

Hackathons are usually a 2.5 days event held over a weekend. There is a wide range of activities you can do based on the hackathon you attend, but here are some common activities:

Building stuff

This is perhaps the most important event for the entire hackathon. You get to build a product, from start to finish with 3 other talented individuals in 24-36 hours. This is where you get to apply your knowledge into making a functional, presentable, and useful product that can have potential real-life implications. You will also get access to a wide variety of expensive hardware such as drones and mixed-reality headsets to boost your project.


This happens at the end of the hacking period, where you get to present your solution to a panel of judges in a start-up style pitch, to show them why your product is the best product. If you used any APIs (Application Programming Interface) from any sponsors, you pitch why you have the best use of their API, and if you do well enough, you might end up with a few prizes!


Even if you are not a “hacker,” there are still things for you to do. Namely, talking with event sponsors, handing out resumes, and boosting your chance of landing an Internship! In major hackathons, there are often 50+ sponsor booths with a wide range of companies from silicon valley start-ups to tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. You can talk to engineers, professionals, and recruiters from different backgrounds, and gain a better understanding of the industry. They will often hand out merch in the form of T-shirts, Water bottles, small gadgets, and stickers. Remember to bring a laundry bag to carry it all!


Organizers also try to keep the entire hackathon entertaining through a wide variety of events, so you can always have some fun when you get tired of hacking. These events can include archery tag, drone flight, Mix Reality demo, painting, and more! They are also a great way for you to meet new people and make new friends across the world. Check out this video for some of the events at Hack the North 2018 (Also the first hackathon I’ve attended!)


If you want to learn something new, this is the activity for you. Hackathons bring in industry experts and recruiters to showcase their hardware and software. For example, NVIDIA was giving out Jetson micro-controllers to showcase its machine vision and machine learning capabilities during the Treehacks event in February 2020 at Stanford University.

So no matter if you are interested in building, trying out new tech, socializing, networking, learning, or all of the above, there is always something interesting you can do at a hackathon. What are you waiting for, apply!!

Where, and how do I apply?

Picking your first hackathon is very important because a poorly organized hackathon could completely ruin your experience. I would recommend looking for MLH organized hackathons or pick hackathons from major well-known universities because they tend to have more funding. Don’t be afraid to apply for multiple hackathons to maximize your chance of getting in, and feel free to apply for hackathons far from you because they typically reimburse travel expenses. For MLH hackathons, here is the line up for MLH 2021 Season (September 2020 - August 2021).

Hackathons I have been to or would recommend:
Note: Application and hackathon timeline may have been altered due to COVID 19

  • Hack the North (University of Waterloo)
    • Typically application opens in July, a hackathon in mid-September
    • This year, it has been delayed to January due to COVID 19, so expect application in November
    • Largest student-run hackathon in Canada, with over 1500 hackers from across the world including UofT, Waterloo, UBC, even hackers from MIT and beyond
    • Also one of the best hackathon in Canada, with the most sponsor, most hardware, and over 32K in prize
  • StarterHack (University of Waterloo)
    • Beginner oriented hackathon in January, the application typically starts in October - November
    • 36 hours of building, lots of workshops, lots of fun.
    • Highly recommended for all first-time hackers
  • UofTHack (University of Toronto)
    • Typically application open in November, a hackathon in mid-January
    • Based in UofT, 36 hours hacking
  • MakeUofT (University of Toronto)
    • Typically application open in December, a hackathon in mid-February
    • Hardware hackathon, so that means you get access to 3D printers, laser cutter, machine shop, and electronics (RPI, Arduino, wide variety of motors, etc)
    • 24 hours build period, typically really small (300 hackers)
  • TreeHacks (Stanford University)
    • One of the hardest hackathons to get into, it’s easier if you apply as an in-state hacker. But they won’t cover flight if you are not accepted as international
    • Typically application open in November, the hackathon in mid-February
    • Have some of the smartest people in the world, from MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Uwaterloo, Caltech, UCLA and more
    • Has the best campus, and the best campus tour
    • Remember to take a day off after the hackathon to tour the surrounding bay area!
  • HackTech (California Institute of Technology)
    • This one is based in Pasadena (northeast of Los Angeles), on the beautiful campus of Caltech.
    • Hackathon application in January and hackathon in March
    • Amazing campus, and super cool hackathon. (it was online last year due to COVID 19)

Other hackathons I have heard good things about:

  • NW hack (University of British Columbia)
    • Based in Vancouver, application in November, a hackathon in mid-January
  • MakeMIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
    • Based in Cambridge, application in January, the hackathon in early march
  • PenApps (University of Pennsylvania)
    • The OG hackathon, check out their site for more detail

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