Understanding Pageant Scoring Systems

Okay, so you’re at your pageant and you feel totally prepared to impress the judges. You’ve spent hours and hours working out, shopping for your wardrobe, and practicing your pageant interview. But as the placements are called out you’re disappointed and confused. Although you enjoyed competing, you suddenly begin to wonder if the pageant was rigged. Or maybe you think the final placements were political. Understanding pageant scoring systems is an essential first step for evaluating your placement at a pageant. So here’s a breakdown of the most common pageant scoring systems and how they work.

Points System

A points-based scoring system is the easiest system to understand. Contestants are assigned a score to reflect their skill level in each area of competition. The most frequently used score range is 1 to 10. However, a range of 1 to 5 or 1 to 20 is also common. For pageants that include a preliminary competition, the contestants with the highest scores advance to the next level of competition. For some pageants, preliminary scores create a Top 20, Top 15 or Top 10. Typically preliminary scores are erased, and contestants begin the next level of competition with a clean slate. At the end of the pageant, the total scores determine the Top 5 and winner. In a strict point-based system the contestant with the highest score wins.

The primary advantage of the points system is that contestants are scored based on skill level. The disadvantage of the points system is that judges can “tank” a contestant. Tanking happens when a judge assigns a low score that is not an accurate reflection of that contestant’s skill level. Tanking typically occurs when a judge doesn’t want a particular contestant to win but thinks the other judges might assign that contestant a high score. The judge then assigns a very low score to lower, or “tank,” the total score for that contestant.

To discourage tanking some pageants use the “throw out the high/low score” rule. In this case, the highest and lowest scores for each contestant are discarded and not included in the total. Not only does this eliminate low scores, but it also discourages judges from assigning inappropriately high scores.

Mention System

This can be a confusing scoring system because the word “mention” doesn’t sound like it has anything to do contestant scores. Using this system, judges are asked to score a contestant with a “1” when they display a high skill level and a “0” if their skill level is average or below. So at the end of scoring the judge has created a list of contestants they want to “mention” to move forward to the next round of competition. This system is frequently used in pageants with a large number of contestants as judges more quickly assign a 1 or 0 than they can assign individual scores within a range.

The main advantage of the mention system is the speed with which judges can score contestants. The disadvantage is that contestant skill level is not scored within a range, which results in a lot of ties for placement. In the case of a tie, the judges are given a ballot with a list of names of the contestants who are tied. The judge is then asked to circle or checkmark the contestant(s) that they feel is superior to the other contestants on the ballot. For example, there may be 5 contestants tied for the last two spots in a Top 15. In that case, the judges would circle the names of the two contestants they feel should move forward to the Top 15. The ballots are tabulated and the two contestants with the most circles, or checkmarks, advance to the Top 15.

Forced Ranking

In a forced ranking system the judges receive a ballot with the names of all of the contestants, and they’re asked to rank them in order, as they would like to see them place. So, the judge would rank the contestant they want to win as “1” and their first runner-up as “2”. Because it would be difficult to force rank more than 10 contestants, very few pageants use forced ranking throughout the entire competition. Forced ranking is typically combined with either a points-based or mention scoring system and only used for the final ballot. In this case, contestants receive points or mentions throughout the preliminary and final competitions. Then after the Top 5 competition is over, the judges receive a forced ranking ballot to indicate where each contestant should place.

The judges then submit their ballots to be tabulated. But, to make it even more confusing, each ranking is assigned a point value when tabulated. So a winning placement might get 5 points, First Runner-up 3 points, Second Runner-up 2 points, Third Runner-up 1 point, and Fourth Runner-up 0 points. The points are tabulated, and the contestant’s total score determines their final placement. The advantage to forced ranking is that it allows judges to indicate exactly how they feel the contestants should place. The disadvantage is that a contestant can win without actually receiving any winning votes.

Let’s look at this Top 5 tabulation sheet:

In this example, Contestant 2 received two winning votes and contestants 3, 4, and 5 each received one winning vote. Contestant 1 did not receive any winning votes, yet she is the winner of the pageant. If you were in a pageant, didn’t win, and several judges approached you to say they voted for you to win, this may have happened to you.

The challenge with pageants, just like ice dancing at the Olympics, is that it is a subjective competition. Judges are told to look for specific skills, but they assign scores based on their personal interpretation of those skills. Understanding pageant scoring systems is essential for creating a thorough prep plan and can also help you understand your final placement. So take some time, look over the pageant contestant packet and decide if the pageant’s scoring system is right for you.

You’re going to be fabulous!