National History Day

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a group of students smiling while using the laptop

National History Day

As college applicants, students are constantly looking for ways to make their applications stand out from the crowd. Special academic programs, competitions, and extracurricular activities add personality and flair to catch the eye of an admissions officer. The National History Day competition is one such reputable program.

What is National History Day?

National History Day is a year-long academic program for 6th to 12th-grade students that focuses on historical research, as well as interpretation and creative expression through collaborative projects.

Each year a different theme is chosen as the center of students’ research. The theme is chosen for a broad application to global, national, or state history and its relevance to ancient history or more recent past. The 2019 theme was Triumph and Tragedy in History, and the 2020 theme is Breaking Barriers in History.

Four students in a library laughing while looking at a laptop.

The end of the program culminates in a national competition in which half a million students across the country participate in. The competition gives participants a chance to showcase what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown. NHD has affiliates in all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, South Korea, China, South Asia, and Central America. National History Day also offers enriching internships, scholarships, and job openings to those who qualify.

What is the process of National History Day?

When it comes to both students and teachers involved in National History Day, it is good to have a general idea of the roadmap ahead when it comes to first getting involved, preparing for the actual competition, and then ultimately taking part in the big day.

As you now know, History Day is a national program that encourages high schoolers to learn about some aspect of the national and a chosen theme. While students are the directors of the project that they take part in, teachers are quite important to the process as well.

Moreover, there are a number of different lessons that a student can learn throughout the process. This takes place through the introduction, the topic selection, research that the student carries out, analysis that the student does of that research and then finally the presentation.

In order to try to give any high school student interested in possibly taking part, we have broken down every single one of those steps so that interested students can get a good idea of what they will get out of each one.

Let’s break it down!

Topic selection

The very first step of getting ready for the big day is the process of picking a topic. Students need to keep in mind during this time that this topic will be something that everyone involved will wrestle with for quite some time. This is not just a week-long section of a greater course in a class. No, this will be a topic that persists for a long time.

In fact, one of the stronger aspects of National History Day is that students will get the chance to dive deeper into a historical topic. Instead of just learning key dates, names and locations and memorizing them for an upcoming exam or paper, students will get to learn about the topic in a much deeper way. They will learn about what led up to it, its implications and how it existed at the time that it occurred.

From there, students get to figure out what fascinates and excites them most about that specific time or event and use that to develop a research play going forward.


That brings us to the next step in this fantastic process. Once students pick their topic, they should understand that they will have to go forward investigating the topic to complete a quality, thorough and objective investigation of the topic.

After all, students will be asked to gather, analyze and present the relevant information of their topic. While this process is important because it helps students learn about the actual topic that they have chosen at a deep level, it also opens students eyes to the reality of what research is really like.

Often, research in high school curriculum really only takes place at the surface level. Even when it comes to AP courses and Honors classes, there is often simply too much subject matter to cover in a semester to allow for truly deep research. For that reason, it is not rare that the research done for National History Day is a student’s first real taste at college-level research.


Once the research section is over and students feel highly confident when it comes to the basic narrative of the topic, students will begin to form new opinions and understanding of the topic through analysis of their research.

This starts when students develop their argument – or thesis statement – which essentially describes the significance of their topic in history. During this pivotal step, students will also get the chance to look at the greater historical context of their subject and start to really understand how the topic is interconnected with both the past that preceded it and the time that followed it.

Ultimately, it does a really important job of opening eyes to the fact that nothing in history exists in a vacuum. Everything in history is a practice of action and reaction.

Final Presentation

When students are organizing their project, the writing process related to National History day is structured to work through the different important steps of the writing process.

Students starting with the development of their thesis statement, they will then compile the answers to the research questions that they have developed and solidified throughout the project.

From there, students will get to build the story using an outline and write the narrative. This firstly makes the entire process much less daunting for the student but also allows them to build up their understanding even further as they prepare their final project.

How Will Participating Benefit Me?

Besides learning valuable history lessons, by participating in NHD students become writers, filmmakers, web designers, playwrights, and poets. They learn to collaborate with a team on projects and individually become better critical thinkers. An independent study from 2011 found that participation in the National History Day Contest benefits students far beyond the competition.

NHD Teaches Valuable Skills

NHD teaches students valuable skills that will boost their performance in and out of the classroom. Students who take part in the program learn critical thinking and research skills that boost their performance across all subject areas.

NHD students tend to outperform their non-NHD peers on state standardized tests in multiple subjects, including reading, science and math, as well as social studies. They become better writers as a result of learning to develop a perspective, gather evidence to support a position, and speak confidently with a clear voice.

two students walking around the campus while talking

Students who participate in the National History Day program have also shown better performance on standardized tests than their peers.

In fact, over 66 percent of NHD participants passed the TAKS assessment in Texas vs 19 percent of non-participating students taking the same exact test. Many students who were previously failing basic courses ended up excelling in advanced classes by the end of the program.

National History Day Prepares Students for Life & Pushes Boundaries

More than ever, young minds need to be prepared for life outside the classroom in order to succeed in the 21st-century. National History Day does exactly this, engaging students in critical thinking, communication, and collaboration to develop the skills they need for college, a career, and community leadership.

In skill tests between NHD students and non-participants, those who were in the program were marginally better than their peers at analyzing information, persevering through challenges, planning, and collaborating. National History Day is the ultimate culmination of integrated studies and skill development that gives students an opportunity to question, explore, and think critically.

National History Day also pushes boundaries for non-traditional students and opens doors for them to succeed. Many special-needs or previously low-performing students were able to overcome mental limits they had set for themselves and end the program having earned multiple awards and excelling in advanced classes.

Special prizes

One of the best parts of taking part in competitive programs in high school is that students who perform very well at local, regional and national levels often come away with certain types of awards and prizes.

There is a very large list of prizes that students can currently win. Here are some of the biggest prizes that will allow students to come away with major recognition, prizes and more!

African American History Prize

This prize, which is specially sponsored by the National Park Service, is given to a student in order to recognize students who demonstrated excelling in the study of African American History.

Students in both the Junior and Senior divisions can win this award and the winner is the student that best analyzes and documents an aspect of the African American experience. The subject can be on any topic that has historical significance, influence or impact.

American Labor History

The America Labor Studies Center is a non-profit organization with the mission to collect, analyze create and teach labor history and labor studies. The American Labor Studies Center prize is awarded to an outstanding entry in any of the categories and in either division. Of course, the project must involve some aspect of history when it comes to American labor.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers Prize

This prize is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and is awarded to both the Junior and Senior divisions for entries that utilize newspaper resources that are available on Chronicle America’s website.

Corps of Discovery Prize

This prize is offered by the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and is awarded to an entry in any category – in both the Junior and Senior divisions – that uses original sources such as journals, letters, maps, government records, oral histories and more in order to focus on the Corps of Discovery. Topics can include fascinating subjects such as individual expedition members, government officials, tribal leaders, international politics and exploration and more.

Equality in History

Sponsored by Celie and Tabitha Niehaus, the prize is awarded in both the junior and senior divisions to an entry that sheds light on the history of human equality. Special emphasis is placed on entries that cover topics included in unique groups such as the LGBTQ community, women and girls that have had to work to enjoy equal civil liberties in history.

History of Agriculture and Rural Life

Sponsored by the Agriculture History Society, this prize is given to the best project in either division and category that is focused on the history of agriculture and/or rural life in the United States.

Immigration History Award

This topic is sponsored by the Lombardo family and is given in recognition of demonstrated excellence in the study of immigration history. The prize is given to a project in either division that works specifically to document and analyze immigration within the United States. The subject can either be focused on one individual, a larger group, a right, triumph, challenge or any other topic of significance that has to deal with immigration in the United States.

Irish or Irish American History

This is a very unique award and prize offered at National History Day is that offered by the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians. The winning subject must deal with looking at and analyzing the study of Irish/Irish American History. What makes this prize so unique is that the winners receive round-trip tickets to Ireland or $2,000 cash from the AOH and the LAOH offers $1,500 cash.

Native American History Prize

This prize is sponsored by the National Park Service and is given in recognition of demonstrated excelling in the study of the history in the study of Native American History. The prize is awarded to a student project in both the Junior and Senior divisions that is able to document and analyze one aspect of the Native American experience.

World War II

As still one of the most impactful moments in modern history, World War II is still a rich text that students can base their project around.

Sponsored by the National World War II Museum, this prize is awarded to an outstanding entry in both the Junior and Senior divisions that involves study into some aspect of the history of World War II. Students can feature personal stories, historic artifacts and events, and meaningful interactive displays.

As you can see through the description of just a portion of the awards that are offered to students, National History Day makes it possible for involved students to really dive into a highly diverse list of topics, subjects, groups, events and more.

Soldiers walking near a road with a tank.

While the awards and recognition are surely an added benefit of getting involved, students should primarily focus on topics that naturally excite and interest them. If their hard work of researching the topic and providing what they learned in their final topic yields the recognition and prizes that come with awards, then that is simply the cherry on top.

In the end, National History Day will give students back exactly what they put in. Hard work and a clear passion in history will put students in a great position to gain recognition for their work no matter what subject they end up choosing to focus on.

How Will National History Benefit My College Applications?

Competing in National History Day on any level or being a part of the program is a huge accomplishment and would be a great addition to any resume or college application. The program is well renowned globally and would stand out to an admissions officer by demonstrating a student’s commitment and growth.

One example of how a student used National History Day to achieve her goals is Bethany Henry, a former NHD participant and intern. For her project, Bethany researched Native American culture and then developed and presented performances to over 15 organizations and clubs all over the nation.

Student talking to a judge.

She used these experiences and included the skills and what she had learned in her college applications, and was ultimately accepted to and received scholarships to her dream schools to complete her PhD.

This year’s National History Day competition will be held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Student submissions will be judged online by a variety of judges from different locations across the world. More information on registration and requirements can be found at nhd.org/virtual2020.

At AdmissionSight, we’ve always emphasized that the regional and national academic competitions are what separates the girls from the women, or the boys from the men, not merely GPA, SATs, and AP Exams.

In addition to the array of skills each individual has to gain from participation, students also gain access to valuable networking and gain connections with students from across the nation. Such experiences and relationships can open doors to scholarships, internships, mentors, letters of recommendation, and other irreplaceable opportunities that can pave the way to a better future.


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