National High School Essay Contest: All You Need to Know

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Three students working in together.

National High School Essay Contest: All You Need to Know

The ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza have put international relations back in the spotlight. The National High School Essay Contest, hosted by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), offers high school students a chance to engage with these pressing issues and use their voices to promote peace in a complex world.

In this guide, we’ll give you an overview of the National High School Essay Contest. We’ll cover who can enter, what you need to write about, and how to submit your entry. Plus, we’ll share some tips on crafting an essay that could make a real impact on the future of diplomacy and peacekeeping.

What Is the National High School Essay Contest?

The National High School Essay Contest is a yearly writing competition that encourages high school students from across the United States to think about how to build peace and resolve conflicts. Now in its 26th year, it’s run by AFSA, along with Semester at Sea and the National Student Leadership Conference.

View of a student writing in a table.

This contest gives young students a great chance to show off their writing skills and add their ideas to important conversations about peace and conflict resolution. It challenges them to think creatively and come up with new ways to tackle big global problems, helping them become responsible leaders in the future.

What Are the National High School Essay Contest’s Prizes?

In the National High School Essay Contest, you can win these prizes: cash, all-expense-paid trips, and scholarships.

If you bag the grand prize, you will get $2,500, a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet the Secretary of State with your parents, and a free educational trip with Semester at Sea. Your school will also receive 10 copies of AFSA’s book Inside a U.S. Embassy: Diplomacy at Work.

Even if you’re an honorable mention, you will still get $1,250 and a free pass to the National Student Leadership Conference’s International Diplomacy summer program. These prizes give you an amazing chance to learn firsthand about foreign affairs and diplomacy, and they can really inspire you to become a global leader in the future.

What Are the National High School Essay Contest’s Guidelines?

To join the National High School Essay Contest, you need to follow some rules. Here’s what you need to know:


  • Students in grades 9 through 12 from any state, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, or those attending high school overseas can participate, even if their parents aren’t in the Foreign Service.
  • Students from public, private, or parochial schools, as well as home-schooled students, can enter.
  • Previous first-place winners and close relatives of AFSA, Semester at Sea, and National Student Leadership Conference directors or staff can’t participate. However, previous honorable mention recipients are eligible.

Essay topic

The essay topic changes every year. For the 2024 cycle, AFSA asked participants to respond to this prompt:

“This year, AFSA celebrates the 100th anniversary of the United States Foreign Service. Over the last century, our diplomats and development professionals have been involved in groundbreaking events in history—decisions on war and peace, supporting human rights and freedom, creating joint prosperity, reacting to natural disasters and pandemics and much more. As AFSA looks back on this century-long history, we invite you to join us in also looking ahead to the future. This year students are asked to explore how diplomats can continue to evolve their craft to meet the needs of an ever-changing world that brings fresh challenges and opportunities to the global community and America’s place in it.

“Over the past 100 years the Foreign Service has faced a multitude of challenges such as world war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, humanitarian disasters, global pandemics, and economic crises. In a 1,000-1,500-word essay please identify what you believe will be the biggest challenge to face the Foreign Service in the future. The essay will describe this challenge and clearly define how American diplomats can help mitigate it.

Successful essays will use past or current diplomatic efforts to support what you believe to be the best course of action to tackle this obstacle.”

a top view of a person holding a coffee-filled mug and a laptop on their lap

Submission format

  • Your essay should be between 1,000 and 1,500 words.
  • Follow the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers for formatting your essay, citing sources, and creating a bibliography.
  • Use a mix of sources like academic journals, news magazines, books, and government documents. You must include at least three primary sources. Skip general encyclopedias, like Wikipedia.
  • Submit your entry as a Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx) file with a title and a list of all your sources.
  • Your essay should be typed, double-spaced, in 12-point Times New Roman or a similar font, with one-inch margins on all sides. Don’t include your last name or your school’s name in the essay (only the registration form should have this info).
  • Make sure your student registration form includes the name of a teacher or sponsor.


  • The deadline is usually in April. For 2024, it was April 1st. If you’re thinking about joining next year, it’s a good idea to start learning about diplomacy and peacemaking.
  • Winners will be notified in June. Keep an eye on your email for updates from AFSA.

National High School Essay Contest: Writing Tips

Before you start writing your essay, AFSA recommends checking out the resources they have on their website. You can explore their publications, events, and videos, as well as learn about the foreign service on their Resources for Students page.

For specific resources related to the National High School Essay Contest, you can find the study guide and basics of peacebuilding and diplomacy on this dedicated page.

Now, once you’ve checked those out and you’re ready to tackle your entry, here are a few tips to boost your chances of winning the National High School Essay Contest:

1. Get the gist of the prompt.

Read the prompt a few times to really get what it’s asking. The 2024 prompt wants you to figure out the biggest challenge the Foreign Service will face in the future. Make sure you understand the challenges mentioned, like terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and how they relate to the changing role of diplomats.

If there are any words or ideas you don’t know, look them up to get a better grasp. For example, the prompt talks about “creating joint prosperity,” so you might want to look into economic diplomacy to see how it fits into foreign policy.

2. Do your research.

Dig deep into your research using trustworthy sources to gather info and evidence for your arguments. Look into past diplomatic efforts to tackle similar challenges and what came out of them. You could reference a report from the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, to back up your points about nuclear proliferation.

Take good notes and organize your research to make it easy to refer back to while you write. Make sure your sources are reliable and up-to-date.

3. Craft a strong thesis.

Your thesis should clearly state your main argument or position on the Foreign Service’s biggest future challenge. For this prompt, a strong thesis could be: “The Foreign Service’s biggest future challenge is the growing threat of global pandemics, and American diplomats can help by pushing for global cooperation, investing in public health systems, and promoting scientific diplomacy.”

This thesis sets out the main points of your essay and presents a clear argument that you can support with evidence.

a young muslim woman wearing a hijab and typing unto her laptop

4. Get your thoughts in order.

To organize your ideas, make an outline that lays out your main arguments and supporting points. Your outline could have sections on the specific challenges, like terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and how diplomats can tackle them. Each section should have a clear main point and evidence to back it up, so your ideas flow logically.

Keep your National High School Essay Contest entry on track and avoid going off on unrelated tangents. Stick to the main points you introduced in your introduction, and make sure each paragraph adds to your overall argument. This focus will make your essay more coherent and convincing.

5. Hook your reader.

Start your essay with an interesting intro that grabs the reader’s attention and sets up your argument. You could kick off with a surprising stat about the impact of global pandemics on diplomacy, then give a quick overview of how diplomats can deal with this challenge. Grabbing the reader’s interest from the start can make them want to keep reading.

6. Keep it clear and simple.

Write clearly and concisely, using plain language that’s easy to understand. Instead of fancy terms like “diplomatic strategies for mitigating global challenges,” you could say “ways diplomats can tackle global problems.”

Avoid unnecessary words or phrases that might confuse readers, and make sure each sentence adds to your argument. This clarity will make your essay more compelling and easier to follow.

7. Back it up with proof.

Make your arguments stronger by backing them up with evidence and examples. For instance, if you say that diplomatic efforts have worked against terrorism, you could mention specific times when talks helped break up terrorist groups.

Use reliable sources to support your points. These include reports from international groups or quotes from government leaders. When you provide solid evidence and examples, your arguments become more convincing.

8. Deal with opposing views.

Show you really know your stuff by acknowledging and arguing against opposing views. For example, if you say economic diplomacy is crucial for fixing global economic problems, you might admit that some people think military action is needed sometimes.

But then, you could explain why economic diplomacy is actually better and more long-lasting. Addressing these opposing views can make your argument stronger and show you’ve thought about different sides of the issue.

9. Polish it up.

Before you turn in your essay, give it a good once-over to fix any grammar mistakes, typos, or parts that don’t make sense. Read it out loud to check if it flows smoothly. Use spelling and grammar tools to catch anything you might have missed. Editing and proofreading are super important to make sure your essay is top-notch.

10. Get some feedback.

To make your essay better, ask someone else to read it and give you feedback. They can offer a different point of view and help you see where you can make improvements. Ask a teacher, parent, or friend to read it and give you helpful advice. Take their feedback seriously and make changes based on it.

a female student being coached by her female teacher

11. Stick to the rules.

Make sure you follow all the formatting rules we talked about earlier, like font size, spacing, and margins. Not following these rules could get you disqualified, so it’s important to pay attention to these details.

12. Hand it in on time.

Make sure you submit your essay before the deadline to avoid getting disqualified. Consider setting a reminder to make sure you don’t forget. Submitting on time shows that you’re organized and serious about the contest.

National High School Essay Contest: Sample Winning Works

Winning essays of the National High School Essay Contest are posted on AFSA’s website. It’s a good idea to read them to get a sense of what the contest is all about and what kind of essays win prizes. Let’s take a look at a few and see what we can learn from them:

1. “Mending Bridges: US–Vietnam Reconciliation from 1995 to Today” by Justin Ahn (2023 Winner)

Summary: Justin Ahn’s essay explores the evolution of US-Vietnam relations from post-war hostility to a comprehensive partnership. Ahn highlights the challenges and successes of this transformation, focusing on diplomatic efforts, economic cooperation, and cultural exchanges.

Qualities that make the essay stand out

Ahn’s essay stands out for a few reasons. First, he really knows his stuff when it comes to the history and complex issues surrounding US-Vietnam relations. You can tell he’s done his homework with detailed descriptions of key events, like when relations normalized in 1995, and efforts to deal with the aftermath of the war, all backed up by solid sources.

Another strong point is how Ahn sets out a clear thesis early on and sticks to his argument throughout. He backs up his thesis by looking at diplomatic efforts, economic partnerships, and public diplomacy campaigns. His use of evidence and examples really strengthens his points, using statistics, historical facts, and specific examples to make his case. For instance, he mentions the number of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War and the efforts to find prisoners of war and missing soldiers.

Ahn also does a great job of addressing counterarguments. He recognizes the challenges and different viewpoints, like Vietnam’s human rights record, but stays balanced. He acknowledges the progress made since 1995 while also highlighting areas that still need work.

Despite the complexity of the topic, Ahn’s writing is clear and to the point. He avoids using too much jargon and explains complex ideas in a way that’s easy to understand, which makes the essay accessible to all readers.

Finally, Ahn wraps up the essay with some thoughtful suggestions for the future of US-Vietnam relations. He recommends ideas for defense cooperation and more investment. These suggestions are practical and well-backed by his analysis of current trends.

2. “Competition and Coaction in Ethiopia: U.S. and Chinese Partnerships for International Stabilization” by Katherine Lam (2022 Winner)

Summary: Katherine Lam’s National High School Essay Contest entry examines the complex dynamics of foreign involvement in Ethiopia’s efforts for peace and stability. It outlines the hurdles Ethiopia faces, such as historical conflicts, ethnic marginalization, and economic challenges. Despite making progress, internal divisions and the onset of the Tigray War in 2019 worsened instability and led to humanitarian crises.

A student writing her essays

Qualities that make the essay stand out

Lam’s essay shines for its meticulous research and analysis of how the US and China are addressing Ethiopia’s challenges. She demonstrates a solid grasp of both the historical backdrop and current events, offering detailed accounts of key happenings and the roles played by various actors. For example, she delves into how the aid programs of these countries aim to stabilize Ethiopia through humanitarian assistance, economic revitalization, and sociopolitical support.

The essay also impresses with its lucid argumentation and use of evidence. Lam presents a clear thesis and maintains a coherent argument throughout. Her incorporation of statistics, historical data, and specific examples, such as the number of internally displaced persons and the impact of the Tigray War on Ethiopia’s economy, bolsters her assertions and analysis.

Lam’s essay tackles counterarguments and acknowledges the complexities of Ethiopia’s predicament, too. She discusses the challenges of operating in a politically unstable environment and emphasizes the necessity of long-term strategies. By recognizing these challenges, Lam presents a well-rounded view and demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the subject.

All in all, Lam’s essay provides a well-researched and insightful exploration of US and Chinese partnerships in Ethiopia. Her thorough research, clear argumentation, and nuanced perspective make her essay a captivating and informative read.


The National High School Essay Contest offers a unique chance to explore global issues, enhance your research and writing skills, and contribute to important conversations on diplomacy, peacebuilding, and international relations. This contest encourages you to think critically, consider different viewpoints, and propose innovative solutions to global challenges. All these prepare you to be informed and engaged citizens in our interconnected world.


Who can join the National High School Essay Contest?

Any high school student in grades 9 through 12, regardless of where they live or what type of school they attend, can participate. The only exceptions are previous first-place winners and relatives of certain program directors or staff. However, if you’ve received an honorable mention in the past, you’re still eligible to enter.

Who runs the National High School Essay Contest?

The contest is organized by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), in partnership with Semester at Sea and the National Student Leadership Conference. Their aim is to get students thinking critically about diplomacy, peacebuilding, and global issues.

When is the deadline for the National High School Essay Contest?

The deadline for the contest is usually in April. For the 2024 cycle, the deadline was April 1st.

What is the topic of the National High School Essay Contest?

The topic can vary, but it usually focuses on diplomacy and peacekeeping. The contest invites students to dive into current issues in international relations.

How long should your National High School Essay Contest entry be?

Your essay should be between 1,000 and 1,500 words. Make sure to follow the MLA style. The essay should be typed, double-spaced, in a 12-point Times New Roman or similar font, with one-inch margins on all sides.


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