Whenever I mention my school’s Academic Decathlon team, people’s first response tends to be “What? What did you say?” Admittedly, Academic Decathlon (commonly referred to as AcDec or Acadec) is quite a mouthful. And when people finally do understand what you are saying, they usually make the assumption that it’s a club for nerds. I can’t deny that AcDec is well-suited for nerds, but anyone who enjoys learning should check out their school’s academic competition team for an awesome experience.
The United States Academic Decathlon (USAD) is a national organization that designs the AcDec competitions and curriculum. Each year, high school teams set out to study and learn about seven different subjects centered around a central theme and show off their skills in competition. For example, this year’s theme is World War I, and last year we studied Russia. The subjects include math, science, economics, literature, art, music, and history. (As you may imagine, math doesn’t relate to the time period, but there is still a set of material to learn.) On competition day, decathletes take tests on each of these subjects to show what they’ve learned over the past few months.
“But those are only seven events,” you say. “I thought this was a decathlon.” Good catch. The remaining three events include an essay, interview, and speech. The essay provides a choice of three prompts to write about, each relating to something from the curriculum. In the interview, students sit with two parent judges and simply have a conversation about their hobbies and interests. Finally, in the speech event, decathletes have two tasks: they must recite a 3-4 minute speech from memory and come up with an impromptu speech. In the impromptu, you receive 3 topics to choose from and have 30 seconds to prepare for a minute-long speech about the chosen subject. These events demonstrate that there is more to a decathlete than their knowledge on a given curriculum. They require quick thinking, writing skills, and a personality; they are the defining elements of the AcDec experience.
The long day of competition culminates in the Super Quiz. Though the entirety of the day thus far has been completely individual, Super Quiz introduces a team element. In this event, each level’s members (more on that later) get to sit in front of the crowd while trivia questions are displayed on a screen. In real time, like a game show format, they answer questions. Points are distributed by a moderator, and the rest of the team cheers like crazy when you get something right. Watching the scores tick up is certainly the most exciting part of the day.
Before the competition, teams spend weeks preparing and studying the boatload of material that the USAD has designated. My school holds weekly meetings where students teach one another a particular subject that they have some experience with. We also hold rehearsal sessions for those giving speeches so that they are well-prepared for competition. If possible, we like to go on a trip, too. We sometimes fly out to another city that has a strong history related to the theme or houses art pieces from the curriculum. Sometimes, we simply take a day trip into New York City. Either way, this extra measure adds some fun into the constant studying. Some states like California and Arizona are incredibly competitive when it comes to AcDec, so they may treat the team as a class, meeting every school day to learn together. As a result of this immersion, these teams receive incredibly high scores and frequently win at Nationals.
What makes AcDec different from other academic competition teams is the way it incorporates students of all levels. There are 3 tiers: varsity, scholastic, and honors. Members are placed into each based on their GPA, and the difficulty of the tests varies accordingly. I have met students that I never would have come in contact with through AcDec as a result of this unique system. It provides a platform that extends beyond the most gifted of students; anyone who enjoys learning can thrive on the team.
Academic Decathlon is a great extracurricular activity for anyone who enjoys learning. It goes beyond the content of regular high school classes and provides a more casual setting for students to engage their minds. There’s no way it could be described as easy—lots of studying and memorization is involved—but acing a test or nailing the Super Quiz is fun nonetheless. As long as you are willing to put in the time and commitment, anyone who loves knowledge will get much out of Academic Decathlon.