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Academic Competitions: My Learning Adventure and Yours

  • Katie Roberts Home School Enrichment Magazine
  • Published May 15, 2006
Academic Competitions: My Learning Adventure and Yours

Katie, telephone!" my mom called. I ran downstairs to the office, grateful that I had been temporarily pulled away from my geometry (who really cares about the Parallel Postulate, anyway?), and picked up the phone.

"Hello?" I said.

"Hi," said the voice on the other end. "This is Heather from the Society of Professional Journalists. I’m calling to let you know that you’ve won third place in the SPJ high school essay contest!"

"Wow!" I was speechless.

"We’ll be sending you your $300 scholarship check. It should arrive in a week or two. Do you have any questions?"

I have two goals in writing this article: to share my experiences with academic competitions, and to encourage more homeschoolers to get involved!

I love competition, in all of its forms. Sports, board games—you name it. For years, my main competitive outlet was softball. I started playing at the age of six, and played until I was 13. I loved every minute of it. However, I was not exactly a standout player. I played a variety of positions—mostly pitcher, second base, and center field—and excelled at none of them. I was a mediocre hitter. My last season, I got exactly one hit: a single in the last game of the season that barely made it out of the infield. That was what finally forced me to call it quits—I was simply not a good enough player to keep up with my league-mates.

After I stopped playing softball, I looked for other ways to compete. It was obvious that I was not going to excel in sports. But what else was there?

At age ten, I entered—and won—the local homeschoolers’ spelling bee. I still remember several things from that competition: how I thought it was so funny that "fly," such an easy word, was on the fourth grade list. Boy, I remember thinking, my little sister could spell that word! I remember how long it took me to learn to spell "onomatopoeia" and "pseudonym." I also remember my first taste of defeat in the academic arena: losing in the regional bee—against the champions from all of the area schools—when I failed to capitalize "French." Ouch.

That defeat did not quench my thirst for competition. A year later, I entered the National Geographic Bee. Although I took third place among Southwest Missouri homeschoolers, that wasn’t good enough to go on to the next level. And it wasn’t long before I was thirsting for competition again.

In late 2003, I heard about the Archaeology Challenge contest, which is open to students in the state of Missouri. Now, that may seem like an odd competition, but I am quite interested in archaeology. The competition has three categories: paper, exhibit, and presentation. I decided to enter a paper. I worked very hard on it for several weeks. Mom and I went over it until I never wanted to see red ink again. Finally, we sent it off. (Note: besides journal entries and book reports, that paper was the only creative writing I had ever done. I was 12.)

On the day of the regional competition, Dad drove me to the contest site. To our dismay, we found that I was the only entrant in the entire Southwest Missouri region, and we later learned that I had submitted the only paper entry in the whole state! I was disappointed about the lack of competition at the Archaeology Challenge, but I don’t give up easily. I decided to check into another competition: National History Day.

National History Day is similar to the Archaeology Challenge in many ways. There are two divisions—middle school and high school. There are several different categories: exhibit, documentary, paper and performance. I again chose to enter a paper. I decided to write about the Navajo Code Talkers, who provided much of the communications for the Allies in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Although a dozen other entrants also chose the "Code Talkers" topic, I won first place in the high school papers division! I was elated.

Mom and I drove to the University of Missouri-Columbia for the state competition on April 16th. At 9:00 AM, I was interviewed about my paper for about ten minutes, and then we occupied ourselves on campus until the awards ceremony several hours later.

The winners were announced at 3:00 in the afternoon. Unfortunately, my paper had not been in the top three—in fact, we later learned that it was #6. I was devastated. The only thing that eased my disappointment was remembering that I was simultaneously entered in yet another contest: the Society of Professional Journalists’ High School Essay Contest, which I had entered to get practice writing essays. My "practice" essay did much better than I could ever have imagined.

I had seen a newspaper article about the SPJ essay contest, and it had seemed like a perfect fit. Competition and writing—what could be better? There was only one problem: I had never written an essay in my life!

I’m not one to let small problems like that stand in my way, so I plunged ahead. I went online and found instructions on how to write an essay. Within 30 minutes, I was ready to begin. I spent an afternoon gathering information about the topic ("Why Free News Media Are Important") and finished writing the essay a few days later. Mom and I thoroughly proofread my draft. We also emailed it to my grandmother (an English major), who offered her input on it. We sent it off two days before the submission deadline.

Just a week after the disappointing History Day state finals, I received an email from the director of the regional contest with "SPJ Essay Contest: Final Rankings" in the subject line. I was astounded to open the email and see my name after "First Place!" I was very surprised and very excited! (Interestingly, a 10th grade homeschooler had taken second place, and two 12th grade public school students had tied for third.)

The top three entries in each region went to the national contest, but I was not very optimistic about my chances there. After all, I was a 9th grader, and the contest was open to grades 9-12. Plus, I had been told that the competition had been very close at the regional level. Finally, this was the only essay I had ever written!

As it turned out, my pessimism was unfounded. I received the aforementioned phone call in early June, and I was even more surprised and more excited than when I won the regional contest. A nice side benefit was that two local newspapers printed my essay.

If you have a competitive son or daughter (and who’s not competitive to some degree?), I encourage you to look into academic competitions for him/her. There are many benefits associated with these kinds of competitions. In addition to the knowledge that your child will gain by preparing for a competition, he or she will learn skills that will be an asset later in life.

The process of preparing for a contest has "life skills" written all over it. Your child learns to stick to deadlines, research information, be a team player, memorize information, work on the computer, and use the Internet, just to name a few. Other contests require specialized preparation, which give your child the opportunity to learn even more skills.

Another benefit that almost all contests offer is public speaking. For example, during the Archaeology Challenge, I was interviewed about my paper by a panel of archaeologists. Science and history fairs also require your children to talk with the judges. Some competitions are actual speech contests, which obviously yield a myriad of benefits for your child’s speech skills.

Competitions also help students develop good sportsmanship. When your child loses, he learns to pick himself up and try again. He also learns how to be gracious to the winner And when he wins, he learns how to be gracious to the loser and how to deal with success. He’ll probably get a lot of practice with that, because there’s something about home education that produces winners. Just within the past two years homeschoolers have won the Idea of America Essay Contest, the National Geographic Bee, an international robotics competition, and the International Yodeling Competition, among others.

There are two things to consider in choosing a contest for your child: skills and interests. Skills are things that your child does well. Does he always get good scores on his math? Are his siblings envious of his prowess with a computer? Can he take apart an engine and put it back together—and it still works? Does he amaze you with the things he writes?

Interests may be even more important than skills, because your child might do better at something he’s interested in but not very good at, than vice versa. Interests are often more specialized than skills. Perhaps your child absolutely loves designing web sites. Or maybe your son plays with Legos all afternoon or your daughter spends evenings writing poetry. If you’re not sure what your child is interested in, ask! Once you figure out what your child excels at and what he loves, you can figure out what kind of contest he should enter.

There are many, many contests to choose from in almost every subject area imaginable. But how do you go about finding the one that’s perfect for your child? The Internet is a great place to start. Try searching the web for "academic competitions" or "homeschool academic contests" for starters.

People are a great resource too! Homeschooling friends, homeschool support groups, and co-ops are all good sources to find out about contests.

There are a few main things to remember as you and your child prepare for a competition.

Number one: Make sure you know and follow all deadlines. Many contests require entry forms, entry fees, or other information to be mailed by a certain date. Honor those deadlines and keep them in mind—they’re not flexible.

Number two: Location, location, location! Know where the contest will be held, and plan accordingly. Some contests, such as web design contests and essay contests, don’t have a physical location—you create your website or mail in your essay. But many others require that you drive to the contest location. It may be just a few miles away, or it could require an overnight hotel stay. Also, if your child is presenting some sort of exhibit, be sure that it can be transported easily!

Another important aspect of competitions is the parent’s awareness of his child’s work. One time, I decided to create a website to enter in a history fair several months away, but I forgot to work on the website until the week before the contest! My parents weren’t checking on me, and I finished it the day of the contest. Even if your child is motivated and able to keep going by himself, check with him periodically to see how he’s doing and perhaps offer some parental guidance.

Hopefully, this information has not overwhelmed you, but rather, encouraged you to pursue academic contests for your child. You may be hesitant, but the best piece of advice I can give is, Just do it! Get on the Internet, talk to friends and other people. I’m sure that there is a contest out there that is perfect for your child. Let the competition begin!

Katie Roberts, a 15 year-old homeschooled student, loathes math and science, but loves history, English, and marine archaeology. She enjoys reading, writing, designing websites, rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals, and spending time with her decidedly unconventional family in Walnut Shade, Missouri. Although she now has experience with papers and essays, this is (you guessed it!) her first magazine article.

This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr ’06 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more information, and to request a free sample copy, visit