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10 Tips to Win the International History Olympiad

If you are in high school and passionate about history, then the International History Olympiad should be on your radar! It’s a great way for you to learn more and showcase your talent, while seeing how you stack up against peers worldover.


It’s also very prestigious if you win something and will go a long way in building your profile for college applications and beyond! 


What is the International History Olympiad?

The International History Olympiad (IHO) is a biennial celebration of history, bringing together the world's best primary and secondary school history students. Since its inception in Williamsburg, VA, in 2015, the IHO has grown in prestige and scope, with subsequent editions in cities like Honolulu, Berlin, and Rome. Organized by International Academic Competitions, it's a unique blend of competitions, field trips, and social activities that stretches over eight intense days. The 2023 iteration was held in Rome, while the venue for the 2025 one will be London.


The Olympiad aims to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of history among students. Rather than rote memorization of dates and facts, the Olympiad is structured to provide an immersive experience that challenges participants to think critically, work collaboratively, and engage with history in innovative ways. There are symposium papers to write, historical simulations to attend, large-scale written exams, historiography challenges, as well as a bevy of buzzer competitions.


Is it prestigious?

The IHO is one of the most prestigious competitions in the world, drawing over 250 students from across 20 countries. To simply reach the IHO event, you need to have qualified by being in the top 50% at the national level in either the National History Bee, the National History Bowl, the US History Bee, or the IHO qualifying exam, meaning the people you’ll be competing with will be the best of the best. Each of these respective competitions sees between 200-300 competitors at the national level, and requires qualification at the regional level to reach, so you’re in for a highly competitive experience on your way to the IHO. The structure of the IHO forces you to demonstrate a level of understanding and engagement that goes beyond standard high school curricula. And it is these skills gained that set you apart in college applications and future endeavors.


Who is eligible for the IHO and how do you qualify?

To participate in the IHO, you must:


  • Be enrolled in primary or secondary school at the time of the competition.

  • Qualify through regional, national, or international history contests. Specifically, there are three options for qualification:

    • National / International History Bee and Bowl tournaments - If you finish in top 50% in the Bee or the Bowl at the Varsity, Junior Varsity, Middle School, Intermediate, or Elementary National Championships in the 2023-2024 or 2024-2025 academic years, it will automatically make you eligible for the 2025 Olympiad.

    • US History Bee - If you finish in the top 50% of any age division in the US History Bee at the US National Championships in either the 2023-24 or 2024-25 academic years, you qualify.

    • IHO Qualifying Exam - The option of choice for international students, to qualify through this you must score 60 or higher for the Varsity Division, 50 or higher for the Junior Varsity Division, 40 or higher for the Middle School or Intermediate Divisions, and 30 or higher for the Elementary Division.

  • Meet the age and grade requirements for their respective divisions:

    • Varsity – Enrolled in grades 11 or 12 during the 2024-25 academic year.

    • Junior Varsity – Enrolled in grades 9 or 10 during the 2024-25 academic year.

    • Middle School – Enrolled in grades 7 or 8 during the 2024-25 academic year.

    • Intermediate – Enrolled in grades 5 or 6 during the 2024-25 academic year.

    • Elementary – Enrolled in grades 3 or 4 during the 2024-25 academic year.


How much does it cost to attend the IHO?

The registration costs for the 2025 iteration have not yet been released, however to give an indication, below are the costs for the 2023 competition:

  • Student Program - $1,995

  • Student Program with On-Campus Accommodations - $2,955

  • Student Program with Off-Campus Accommodations - $3,195

  • Parent / Family Program - $100


What’s the prize?

Each division has an Overall Olympiad World Champion, which in the case of the Junior Varsity and Varsity Divisions is the student with the combined highest position in the Battery Exam, Historiography competition, and the Written Exam. You may also be a contributor to the champion country if your country scores the highest position in the total medals count.


How is the International History Olympiad structured?

Across the eight days of the IHO, you will be participating in a large variety of competitions:

  • Buzzer-Based Quiz Competitions

    • Format: Competitions use "pyramidal-style" questions, starting with the hardest clues and progressing to easier ones. This format rewards deep knowledge and quick recall.

    • Team and Individual Participation: These competitions include team-based and individual formats, testing your ability to work collaboratively and your personal knowledge.

    • Fast-Paced Challenge: Emphasizing speed and accuracy, these buzzer rounds are designed to test your ability to think and react quickly.


  • Multiple Choice Exams

    • Battery Exam: A compulsory exam for all participants, covering a wide range of historical topics. It's designed to test your comprehensive understanding of history.

    • Specialized Exams: Optional exams allow you to focus on specific areas or periods of history. These might include exams on ancient civilizations, modern history, or thematic studies like military or cultural history.


  • Other Medal Events

    • Written Exam: A required event where you'll demonstrate your ability to articulate historical knowledge and analysis in written form. The exam covers various historical periods and regions, requiring a broad understanding of history.

    • Hexathlon: This is a collaborative team event involving a crossword, a clue based quiz, a multiple choice quiz, a map quiz, audio quiz, and picture quiz. With only 15 minutes per quiz, it is an intense test of collaboration, knowledge, and speed.

    • Historiography Exam: This written exam will test your ability to analyze historical documents, other primary sources, and secondary sources to answer research questions.


You should immediately make yourself familiar with the syllabus of all these events here.


Beyond all the intensity of these competitive events, you will also get to participate in:

  • Field Trips: Field trips are designed to provide a hands-on historical experience, connecting the theoretical knowledge from competitions to real-world historical sites and artifacts. These trips often involve guided tours to significant historical locations in the host city or country, offering a unique opportunity to explore history beyond the classroom.

  • Cultural and Social Activities: These events are designed to enrich your Olympiad experience, offering opportunities to engage with other participants and immerse yourself in the host country's culture.

  • Networking Opportunities: These events provide a platform for you to connect with fellow history enthusiasts from around the world, fostering friendships and cultural exchange.


10 Tips to Win

  1. Understand the various formats: Familiarize yourself with the structure of the Olympiad. You will be participating in at least two quiz bowls, one Battery Exam, as well as three written exams. Knowing their structures and their scoring criteria will help you strategize effectively.

  2. Do not limit yourself to textbooks: The syllabus of the olympiad stretches far beyond what a high school textbook can potentially cover. You’ll need to scour a lot of resources to find everything you need to learn. Read historical novels, watch some documentaries, and explore online resources to gain a broader perspective. This brings us to the next point.

  3. Utilize the IHO’s resource material: The IHO has helpfully provided a compendium of resources here. Review and practice as much of it as possible, with a hard focus on the syllabus of the mandatory events.

  4. Practice old paper sets: Similar to the study material, the IHO also provides previous year exam sets that should be among the first things you practice. This will give you a solid understanding of the difficulty of the exams, the kinds of questions asked, the time management required, and what a winning strategy could look like for you. 

  5. Develop critical thinking: The Hexathlon and the Historiography exam will both require the ability to quickly understand and dissect historical information. To have a fighting chance at these events, practice analyzing historical events from multiple viewpoints. Understanding the causes, effects, and interconnectedness of events is crucial.

  6. Stay updated: Keep abreast of current global events and understand their historical contexts. This can be particularly useful for essay and debate rounds.

  7. Do not neglect speed and accuracy: For buzzer rounds, quick reflexes and accurate answers are key. Regular practice under timed conditions can help improve these skills.

  8. Collaborate and learn with your peers: Engage in study groups or online forums. Discussing with peers can provide new insights and make learning more enjoyable.

  9. Work with mentors and teachers: The difficulty and complexity of the IHO will be easier to tackle if you have guidance from a teacher or a mentor, who can help you find resources to study, work on a study plan with you, and monitor and conduct your practice sessions.

  10. Don’t forget to breathe: During the competition, stay focused and confident. Trust your preparation and don't let stress overwhelm you. The IHO may seem like a daunting challenge, but at the end of the day it is also a wonderful learning experience that you should do your best to enjoy!


If you like more history competitions, make sure to also check out this piece!



Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’re keen on pursuing research in history or other subjects that can build your profile further, you could also consider applying to one of the Lumiere Research Scholar Programs, selective online high school programs for students I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.


Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.


Image Source: International History Olympiad logo

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