February 26, 2020  |  Tina Burton, DM  |  Updated October 17, 2022

When students sign up for college and pick their preferred degree plan, they don’t often think about the extracurricular activities associated with the program and how those might enhance their learning.

In particular, adult learners attending an online school for its convenience and flexibility may not expect to participate in activities outside of the classroom. However, when the activities provide directly relevant opportunities to enhance the very skills being studied in the academic program, the value of such extracurricular events can become quite clear.

Students enrolled in information technology or cybersecurity-related programs have various opportunities to participate in activities that can greatly enhance their hands-on skills and experience. These activities often take the form of cybersecurity challenges or competitions. While gamification of learning content is not new, specifically cyber-related games and competitions are becoming increasingly popular for colleges and universities, as well as industry training organizations.

Here are some of the more well-known cybersecurity-related games and competitions available to students.

Popular Cybersecurity Competitions

National Cyber League

A great example of this type of skill-enhancing competition is the National Cyber League (NCL). The organization hosts capture-the-flag style, virtual competitions for technology students at all levels. The events are scheduled biannually so students can sign up each season and continue to grow their skill set as they progress in the program. The entrance fee of $35 per season is generally affordable for students, and some universities, like Purdue Global, pay some of those entry fees. Faculty coaches can register for free.

The so-called “season” includes a pre-season period with access to the “gym” for practice, individual games where students are individually ranked, and a team game at the end of the season where groups of seven students compete together. A college or university can choose to enter multiple teams to represent them. The team game adds the benefit of honing leadership skills and the ability to work effectively on a virtual team, often including individuals who have just recently met.

Players are presented with a series of challenges that enable them to develop and practice their skill sets related to a variety of topics they are learning in their academic programs. Many of the activities directly align with the Certified Ethical Hacking courses taken in Purdue Global’s Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity online program, and the digital forensics courses taken in Purdue Global’s Bachelor of Science in Information Technology program.

A few of the tasks and skills that are part of NCL competitions include:

  • Identification of hackers using forensic data
  • Breaking into vulnerable websites
  • Recover tasks as a result of a ransomware attack
  • Open-source intelligence
  • Scanning, enumeration, and exploitation
  • Password cracking, traffic analysis, and log analysis
  • Wireless security, cryptography, and web application security

Another added benefit of participating in NCL events is that the skill sets used in the competitions align with the CompTIA Security+ certification as well as the EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacking certification, both of which are valuable additions to a resume. After the competitions take place, NCL provides scouting reports for individual and team performance that can be used during a student’s interview/hiring process, and also to represent the school’s activity and performance.

National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition

Another valuable opportunity for IT and cybersecurity students is the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (NCCDC), presented by Raytheon. It is the largest cybersecurity competition in the U.S., with approximately 150 colleges and universities competing.

Unlike NCL, the NCCDC is considered an “inherit and defend” style competition. This campus-based competition involves a cyberattack being imposed on a typical company’s network. While the players are required to fend off the attacks, they must also continue to maintain the business operations of the organization during the attacks.

Players have to ensure business operations such as email, websites, databases, etc., remain up and running during the cyberattack they are experiencing. This helps to demonstrate the importance of business continuity plans, disaster recovery plans, and standard operating procedures being in place in case of a crisis.

A few of the suggested topics that NCCDC competitors and coaches need to be aware of are:

  • Computer forensics
  • Database administration
  • Directory services (e.g., Active Directory)
  • Domain Name System (DNS)
  • Email servers (Exchange and Sendmail)
  • File servers
  • File Transfer Protocol (FTP) services
  • Hacking tools (Note: Teams should create their own toolbox to aid in the detection of suspicious activity [e.g., websites to use, tools to download, etc.])
  • Networking devices (to include switches, firewalls, routers)
  • Secure Shell (SSH)
  • SQL
  • Windows and UNIX/Linux system administration and hardening

The NCCDC is held annually and begins with state qualifying rounds. Competing teams generally prepare all year long for the event and bring the best of the best to the competition. Teams compete in an all-day event hosted at one of the local colleges or universities, and spectators are welcome to attend and observe the activity. The winning teams advance to the regional and then the national level.

Entrance fee costs vary by region and are generally paid by the schools entering the competition. Students generally pay their own costs for travel, but the hosting school provides meals during the entire day of the competition so the cost to participate can be minimal for students.

Other Key Cybersecurity Competitions

While NCL and NCCDC are two of the most popular cybersecurity challenges, college students can participate in several other cybersecurity-focused activities.

  • CSAW Capture the Flag: One of the oldest competitions of its kind for students seeking to enter the security field, as well as for advanced students and industry professionals who want to practice their skills, is the CSAW Capture the Flag competition.
  • Cyberforce Competition: Sponsored by the Department of Energy, the Cyberforce Competition is intended to exercise interactive, scenario-based events, where participants engage in cybersecurity activities including methods, practices, strategy, policy, and ethics.
  • DEF CON Contests: Convening annually at the DEF CON Hacking Conference in Las Vegas, the DEF CON contests present a wide range of competitions in areas such as hacking, lock picking, scavenger hunts, and a capture the flag contest.
  • Pwn2Own: Pwn2Own is a hacking contest presented annually at the CanSecWest Conference. The contest challenges cybersecurity professionals to find flaws and exploit vulnerabilities in consumer software and devices. It’s sponsored by the Zero Day Initiative.

Competition Improves IT Skills

The ability for students to participate in competitions such as NCCDC, NCL, and others is an important complementary opportunity to a traditional college program. In addition to the technical skills that are enhanced by these activities, the competitors also hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

A potential employer can see these cybersecurity activities as proof that the candidate has been in high-pressure situations related to securing the company network that might not be evident from academic coursework. Oftentimes, competitions employ the latest technologies that might not yet be covered in coursework. Competition exercises apply legal, ethical, forensic, and diverse technological principles to complex problems, all while teaching competitors how to work as a team.

Selecting a specific academic program to enroll in is a complex decision for anyone. For those considering the field of cybersecurity or information technology, a program that includes involvement in competitions might help tip the scale. The value added by these extracurricular activities can be a differentiating factor for employers.

Learn More About Cybersecurity Degrees

Purdue Global offers a number of online information technology degrees and certificates, including a Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity. Find out more about these degrees and certificates by requesting information today.

About the Author

Tina Burton, DM

Tina Burton is associate dean for the School of Business and Information Technology at Purdue Global. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of Purdue Global.


Purdue Global does not guarantee employment or career advancement. Actual outcomes vary by geographic area, previous work experience and opportunities for employment. Additional certification or licensing may be required to work in certain fields.