ACSL vs. USACO: Which One Is Better?

“Controlling complexity is the essence of computer programming.” – Brian Kernighan.

ACSL vs USACO: Which competitive programming contest is a better choice for a future coder?

These competitive programming competitions are more of a mental sport. ACSL and USACO are competitive programming contests out of nearly 35 such games.

To excel in these competitions, you must be good at coding and testing.

Let us understand ACSL and USACO better as we compare their similarities and differences.

What is ACSL?

what is acsl

ACSL, or The American Computer Science League, is a nonprofit organization that hosts the oldest computer-based competition.

This initiative started in 1978 and is a part of the organization’s commitment to delivering quality computer science education at the school level.

Every year they conduct an All-Star contest, where winners from every school participate in a final competition for the year.

What is USACO?

what is usaco


Started in 1989, the USA Computing Olympiad (USACO) is a well-known competitive programming test for pre-college students in the United States.

The finale sees the top 4 students from the platinum division participating in the International Olympiad of Informatics (IOI).


ACSL contests is an age-appropriate challenge that happens in school. You can appear for the ACSL contest without prior knowledge of coding. The students who start with ACSL learn about data structures and coding while gradually moving from one level to another.

But for USACO, you need a strong base in coding and an advanced understanding of algorithms to begin even with the bronze level.

Therefore, as a USACO participant, you first learn an advanced course in computer science and then consider appearing for the contest.

Here’s a quick ACSL vs USACO before we move to detailed difference between the two.

Parameters ACSL Contest USACO Contest
Established 1978 1989
Type of Progression Age-based Ladder Style
Registration Process Students register through school team Student register individually
Eligibility Elementary to Senior level Mid-school and High-school students
Divisions Elementary, Junior, Intermediate, Senior Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum
Contest Duration 30 mins to 72 hrs 3-4 hrs
Question Type Short answers + Programming problems Programming questions
Coding No coding in Elementary level. For other levels, beginner to advanced level of coding is required Coding of advanced high school and college level is required
Languages Accepted Java, C++, Python 3 Java, C, C++, Python
Contest Months January, March, April, and May December, January, Feb, March, and April

1. ACSL starts with Elementary Division, USACO with Mid-school Level


The eligibility for ACSL is elementary division, middle school, and high school students. The school must be a registered applicant on the competition list.

Once registered, an unlimited number of students can participate in the ACSL contest.

USACO is mainly for middle and high school students.

2. Both these Contests have Five Levels

The common factor here is that the competition occurs at five levels. But the deciding factors are poles apart.

The five divisions of ACSL contests are elementary, classroom, junior division, intermediate, and senior. The contest topics remain identical across the divisions but vary in difficulty level.

The divisions in the USACO competition are Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and US Open.

It requires a fair amount of knowledge of algorithms and programming languages of advanced level.

3. ALL USACO Levels require Coding, ACSL only after Elementary



In USACO, the level of coding is advanced high school and college. The study resources will help you understand the step-by-step process.

In ACSL, there is no coding at the elementary level. However, the following four groups use a moderate level of coding. The study material comes with many practice problems for all levels.

4. Both have Questions on Programming, but ACSL has Short Answer Questions too

There are only short problems at the elementary level of ACSL. The higher levels include both short problems and programming problems.

In USACO, the problem pattern is the same throughout the levels. Every problem is tested for 10 test cases.


5. USACO Contest Duration is 4 hours, ACSL Lasts for 72 Hours

Teenage Boy In Bedroom Writing Computer Code

There is a significant difference in the contest duration between the two.

At the ACSL elementary level, the questions are short answer types.

The contest duration is 50 minutes. Junior to Senior level of ACSL has 30 min of short answer problems and 72 hours of programming problems.

In USACO, every division has 3 questions. Each question runs against 10 test cases. The time duration is between 3-5 hrs.

6. ACSL is a Team-Based Competition, USACO is an Individual Contest

In ACSL, every school forms a team of students for every division. There can be one or more teams, each with a maximum of 12 candidates.

The exciting part here is a school has a choice to go for a 3- score or a 5-score competition.

The team score calculates to be the sum of the individual score of the top 3 or 5 contestants.

USACO is a solo contest. Individual students compete against each other.

Those who clear the platinum division 5 are chosen as finalists and sent to IO for the US Open championship.

Diverse Yet Similar

While it is still debatable who is better, one thing that remains constant in both competitions is the amount of hard work that goes on.

Students from any grade need to work hard, practice beforehand, give mock tests, and go through the resource material as much as possible.

As quoted by Sir Patrick Mckenzie-“Every great developer you know got there by solving problems they were unqualified to solve until they did it.” 


Do ACSL and USACO allow international students?

Yes, both contests allow participation from international students. However, for the USA Open championship, the finalists are chosen from the pre-college students residing in the USA.

What is the registration fee for both contests?

There is no registration fee for participating in the USACO contest. But ACSL has a registration fee of $150 for each team.

How do ACSL and USACO differ?

ACSL is for students as young as elementary school kids, where they do not require coding knowledge. As they move to higher grades, they learn gradually. For USACO, the students need to know to program even if it’s their first time appearing for the contest.

Do both contests accept all kinds of programming languages?

Yes, both contests use one or many programming languages.

ACSL uses Java 8 and Python 3 majorly. USACO uses C, C++, Java, and Python.

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Now that you know ACSL vs USACO decide which of these contests is better for you.

USACO works for pre-college students looking for admission to universities.

ACSL inculcates the very base of programming in young kids who might pursue programming later in life.

Both these contests invite curious minds to pick up competitive programming. The purpose of which remains to bring out the best coder in you.

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