Best Pre-College History Competitions

August 21, 2023

In the increasingly competitive college admissions landscape, high school students are always seeking ways to distinguish themselves—and participating in a history competition can be a great way to do so. Engaging in history competitions not only fosters a deep understanding of this fascinating field but also provides numerous advantages that can bolster a student's chances of admission to their desired colleges.

  • Entering a history competition showcases a student's intellectual curiosity by demonstrating their proactive engagement with historical research, critical analysis, and the pursuit of knowledge beyond the confines of the classroom. Admissions officers appreciate applicants who exhibit a genuine thirst for learning and a passion for their chosen field of study.
  • History competitions often require students to conduct in-depth research, analyze primary and secondary sources, and present their findings coherently. By participating in these competitions, students exhibit their ability to engage in rigorous research, sift through vast amounts of information, and construct compelling arguments based on evidence—skills that are highly valued by colleges.
  • Participating in history competitions hones a student's ability to effectively communicate their research and ideas. Whether writing a research paper, creating a presentation, or participating in a debate, students learn to articulate complex historical concepts in a clear and concise manner. These communication skills are not only essential for success in college but are also highly valued by admissions officers.
  • Winning or being recognized in a prestigious history competition adds cachet to a student's college application, as it reflects their exceptional academic abilities and their capacity to excel in a competitive environment. Admissions officers are aware of the significance of these competitions and appreciate the achievements of students who have earned recognition, which can give applicants a competitive edge.

Discover+, AtomicMind’s free online catalog of high-impact extracurricular opportunities, was inspired by our years of experience helping students find and engage in a broad array of meaningful, enriching extracurricular activities, including prestigious history competitions, some of the best of which are described below. Feel free to contact us for guidance and support in choosing and engaging in a history competition that’s the right fit for you.

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History David McCullough Essay Prize

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s David McCullough Essay Prizes offer cash rewards of up to $10,000 to high school students who submit outstanding history research essays. Named after the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, these prizes pa

y tribute to his commitment to exploring America’s past and recounting the narratives of its people. Essays must center on a primary source document from between 1493 and 2000; exceptional essays will also employ additional primary sources, such as letters and photographs, to bolster their arguments. A panel of historians will assess essays for historical accuracy, writing clarity, evidence utilization, and qualities of empathy and creativity.

International History Olympiad

The International History Olympiad, which is hosted by International Academic Competitions (IAC), gathers top young history students from around the globe for buzzer-based contests, exams, and other competitions, including the International History Bee and

Bowl Championships, with optional events like the History of STEM Bee and Art History Bee. Divisions—which include Elementary, Middle School, Junior Varsity, and Varsity—are based on participants’ grade and birthdate.

ISSCY Research Competition

ISSCY is a global research contest for high school students that is sponsored and co-hosted by the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA) and the Gifted and

Talented Silicon Valley Innovators (GATSVI) Challenge. ISSCY encourages the exploration of topics in social science and the humanities, with participants submitting a research proposal and selected entrants proceeding to the final round. Exceptional works may be published in ISSCY's Online Journal. Research in humanities (including history, literature, philosophy, religion, anthropology, and music) and social sciences (including economics, psychology, communication, law, journalism, business, and environmental policy) is accepted.

National History Bowl

Hosted by International Academic Competitions (IAC), the National History Bowl is a team-based history quiz competition that covers various historical subjects, including the history of the arts, sciences, religion, sports, language, and philosophy. Regional and online competitions lead to national and international championships. Divisions include Varsity (eleventh and twelfth grades), Junior Varsity (ninth and tenth grades), and Middle School (eighth grade and below). Teams can be comprised of one to six students.

US History Bee

The US History Bee is an individual, buzzer-based quiz competition that focuses on American history. Administered by International Academic Competitions (IAC), this

contest, which is open to students in elementary school through high school, rewards participants’ classroom learning and passion for history. At the high school level, it has two divisions: Varsity (eleventh and twelfth grades) and Junior Varsity (tenth grade and younger). There are two stages: the National Qualifying Exam and the buzzer-based quiz event at the IAC National Championships. There are also Middle and Elementary School Divisions, which are held at the IAC Middle and Elementary School National Championships in June.

World Historian Student Essay Contest

The World Historian Student Essay Competition is open to students in kindergarten

through twelfth grade worldwide. Entrants submit essays on topics relating personal experiences or family history to world history—for instance, “My ancestor participated in the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II.” Judges assess each essay based on various criteria, including the presence of a clear thesis, the use of specific examples, and evidence of critical thinking. Winning essays earn $500 prizes and potential publication in the World History Bulletin.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum Profiles in Courage Essay Contest

Inspired by John F. Kennedy's 1956 book Profiles in Courage, this contest calls for students to craft an original essay showcasing a creative understanding of the concept of political

courage. Essays should be 700 to 1,000 words long and utilize diverse sources. Prizes include a $10,000 cash award for the winner (with potential travel to the award event), $3,000 for second place, $1,000 for five finalists, $100 for eight semifinalists, and honorable mentions for ten students. In addition, the nominating teacher of the winner receives a $500 grant for promoting student leadership and civic engagement. All participants receive a Certificate of Participation.

John Locke Global Essay Competition

The John Locke Global Essay Competition invites students to explore a diverse range of

questions beyond their school curriculum. Essays are evaluated by Oxford academics, with prizes in a number of categories, including history. (For the 2023 contest, history topics included “Which has a bigger effect on history: the plans of the powerful or their mistakes?” and “Which characteristics distinguish successful movements for social change from unsuccessful ones?”) Winners have their essays published and receive a $2,000 scholarship for John Locke Institute programs. An overall best essay earns an honorary Junior Fellowship with a $10,000 scholarship for attending the John Locke Institute’s summer schools or gap year courses. An award ceremony is held in Oxford, England, offering winners a chance to meet judges and faculty members.