• Erik Fogel

The Academic Edge of Debate

The Harvard Political Review publishes an incredible article on the benefits of debate for elementary school students as well as students of all grade levels. Another reason why every elementary school in NYC should have a debate team.



“A lot of students struggle with the traditional talking out loud in a classroom full of people,” Megha Prasad, a first-year debater at American University and a co-founder of the Girls in Quiz Bowl Committee, remarked to the HPR. “Being able to speak in a smaller setting is helpful.”

Article Excerpt ( Harvard Political Review, January 19th, 2020, "The Academic Edge." Click here. ):


The Value of Academic Competitions

Even at schools with rigorous academic curricula, academic competitions stretch students in ways a classroom environment cannot. “I think it hits different parts of the brain,” commented Sarah Angelo, president of the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence, in an interview with the HPR. On a basic level, competitors are afforded some degree of agency in determining their own course of extracurricular study; no one uninterested in law need join Mock Trial in order to earn a high school diploma, for example. Further, in Quiz Bowl specifically, specialization allows players to focus on whichever topics appeal to them most. “It makes learning fun, right?” added Parameswaran.

Beyond that element of choice, competitions also test for different skills than classroom environments, allowing students whose strengths are not always celebrated to shine. Model United Nations emphasizes strategic thinking. Debate emphasizes public speaking. Quiz Bowl emphasizes expansive, long-term memorization; it is impossible to cram for a tournament encompassing the entire academic canon the way students can cram for a unit exam. And all of them simply change the forum for intellectual engagement, which can prove liberating. “A lot of students struggle with the traditional talking out loud in a classroom full of people,” Megha Prasad, a first-year debater at American University and a co-founder of the Girls in Quiz Bowl Committee, remarked to the HPR. “Being able to speak in a smaller setting is helpful.”


Such activities also develop new skills in students. According to a Forbes article, the communication and research skills necessary for debate, not to mention the tenacity and pressure it develops, are “excellent predictors of success,” and thus good reason to hire former debaters. Mock Trial helped Davis Tyler-Dudley, a head delegate for the Harvard intercollegiate Model U.N. team, learn how to craft convincing arguments. “[That] has influenced how I talk to people, how I deal with people, how I negotiate with people even today in my life,” he explained to the HPR. The knowledge accrued through Quiz Bowl has the potential to broaden players’ perspectives. “I used to be a bit judgmental,” admitted Parameswaran, “but now I can sit down and talk with people … I can understand where they’re coming from.”


These skills are then instrumental in competitors’ approaches to the college admissions process. Tyler-Dudley noted his sales pitch to fellow high-schoolers for academic competitions: “It will make you a better candidate.” He is certainly a data point in that pitch’s favor; Mock Trial clearly helped him get into Harvard. “It made me a much more effective communicator in the interviews … I had become more skilled in the art of presenting yourself a certain way, convincing people of a certain point, and that point for me was ‘I should be admitted to this college,’” he reflected.


On a more statistical level, these competitions are widely acknowledged to be strong additions to an applicant’s extracurricular list in the eyes of admissions officers. Former Yale professor Minh A. Luong wrote in PBS that “college admissions directors are relying less on grade point averages and standardized test scores, and are relying more on success in academically related extracurricular activities” due to the “distorting” effects of grade inflation and standardized test prep. To whatever extent standardized test scores do still inform admissions, though, the argumentative skills associated especially with debate map neatly to the format of the new SAT, and on average, high school debaters perform better than their non-debater counterparts on each ACT section. 


Luong also argues that admitting competitors makes financial sense, as conventional wisdom suggests that their acquired skills will fuel successful careers which enable substantial alumni donations. Due to the currency academic competitions thus hold with admissions offices, students need not waste precious application space outlining them in order to make their accomplishments understood, while success within a school-specific club might hold less water without significant explanation. All these factors conspire to make such competitions helpful in earning critical scholarships as well.


Harvard Political Review, "The Academic Edge." Click here

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