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Beat the Competition

Many U.S. universities and institutions organize academic competitions which can help international students earn that extra edge to gain admission in top colleges.


Getting into renowned universities in the United States is a tall order. Fortunately, there are numerous competitions in place to help students stand out among the crowd during the rigorous university admission process. These competitions include quiz contests, essay writing contests and even intellectual Olympic games. Doing well, or even just competing, in any of these can give aspiring students a real edge in the admissions process.

Every year, the World Affairs Councils of America brings together over 4,000 high school students in a unique competition called Academic WorldQuest. As a flagship youth education program of the World Affairs Councils, the game was developed by the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, North Carolina, and is now widely played at the adult and high school levels around the United States.

The team competition, structured like a quiz show, tests players’ knowledge of international affairs, geography, history, culture and more. The game “is a contest between four-person teams representing a high school or city. It is moderated by a prominent person in the field of international affairs or journalism,” states the website of the World Affairs Councils of America. The structure of the competition consists of 10 thematic categories or rounds of 10 questions each, for a total of 100 questions, with the winning team being the one with the most correct responses.

To prepare for the competition, participants study the resources detailed in the AWQ Study Guide for each of the 10 categories. Questions for the competition are drawn from these resources, which include a gamut of essential readings, videos, reports and other media materials.

One of the categories this year was “The Peacebuilding Toolkit,” sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace, an independent national institute, founded by the U.S. Congress and dedicated to the proposition that a world without violent conflict is possible, practical and essential for U.S. and global security. The Peacebuilding Toolkit covers “core skills and concepts in the field of conflict resolution, as well as real-life stories of how individuals, communities and countries have used these skills to manage differences without violence and make peace possible,” states the institute website. In this way, the competition is not merely about testing knowledge, but about helping students develop the proper tools to become agents of change in the real world.

Another popular competition is GENIUS Olympiad, an international high school project competition about environmental issues. It is open to all international and U.S. students studying in grades eight through twelve, or the equivalent. To apply, students must submit a project of their own to be considered for admission to subsequent judging. Projects are considered around five broad categories: business, robotics, science, visual and performance arts, and creative writing. Besides supporting excellence in these endeavors, the competition has a broader mission to “promote a global understanding of environmental issues and the achievement of sustainability through basic science, arts, creative writing, engineering, design, and business development,” mentions the GENIUS Olympiad website. Thus, the “GENIUS” of GENIUS Olympiad is also understood to be an abbreviation of its central tenants of Global Environmental Issues and us.

Applicants chosen as finalists for the Olympiad convene to present their work for viewing and judgment. Due to the stiff competition, all participants receive a GENIUS certificate, with a Top Grand Gold Award going to one best project in each category. Other notable projects may receive gold, silver or bronze medals, or an honorable mention.

The real prize, however, is the camaraderie and personal growth that such competitions bestow upon their participants, as well as the all-important résumé item that students can include when applying to colleges. In a highly competitive field—where many students will have exemplary grades and top-level SAT scores, participation in competitions like Academic WorldQuest or GENIUS Olympiad can help students stand out from the crowd.


Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.