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AFSA's National High School Essay Contest - 8 Reasons Why You Should Participate

If you’re in high school, you’re probably already planning your college applications – especially if you’re a junior or a senior. A significant addition to applications and your profile can be extra-curricular competitions! When your college application includes your participation and potential achievements in a prestigious contest, it shows admissions officers your intellectual curiosity, analytical abilities, and commitment to tackling real-world problems. Admissions officers look for students who are not just academically accomplished but also curious and capable of independent, critical thinking. 

Participating in essay contests gives students the opportunity to enhance their academic portfolios, refine their writing skills, and learn more about politics and society. One such prestigious competition is the National High School Essay Contest, conducted by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA).

What is the AFSA National High School Essay Contest?

Every year since 1999, this essay contest engages high school students from across the country to learn and write about issues of peace and conflict. The competition encourages students to appreciate diplomacy’s role in building partnerships that can advance peacebuilding and protect national security. 

For the contest, students must write an essay responding to a crisis topic or prompt from the perspective of foreign service members who are trying to resolve the crisis.

The contest is AFSA’s main outreach initiative to high school students. The winner and first runner-up receive cash prizes apart from other tuition awards.  

How is it structured?

The applications for AFSA’s National High School Essay Contest are currently open. Applications will close on April 1, 2024.


  • Students in grades 9-12 can participate, whether their parents are in the Foreign Service or not.

  • Students in the US and US citizens/permanent residents attending high school overseas can participate.

  • Students in public, private and parochial schools can participate. Entries from home-schooled students will be accepted as well.

  • Students who received honorable mentions in the contest previously are eligible to participate again.

  • Students who have won first place in this contest previously are not eligible to participate.

  • Students who are immediate relatives of directors or staff of the AFSA, Semester at Sea and National Student Leadership Conference (NSLC) are not eligible to participate.


The winner of the contest will receive a $2,500 prize, in addition to a paid trip to Washington, DC, from anywhere in the country (with his or her parents). The winner also receives an all-expense paid educational voyage, courtesy of Semester at Sea. The runner-up will receive $1,250 prize, and full tuition to attend a summer session of International Diplomacy program at the prestigious National Student Leadership Conference (NSLC).

The winner's school also receives a donation of 10 copies of AFSA's Inside a U.S. Embassy: Diplomacy at Work.

Submission rules, content and judging

Your essay should be at least 1,000 words but should not exceed 1,500 words (the word count does not apply to the list of sources).

Submissions will be judged on the quality of analysis, quality of research, and form, style and mechanics. Successful entries will answer all aspects of the prompt and demonstrate an understanding of the Foreign Service. All qualifying essays will be judged blind through several rounds of judging. 

You’ll need to submit your essay as a Microsoft Word file (.doc or .docx), written in English. 

For more submission rules, such as how to list your sources or how to format your essay, please visit this page.

Your essay will be disqualified if it does not meet the requirements or is submitted after the submission date (April 1, 2024).

Additionally, student registration forms must have a teacher or sponsor name. That person may review the submitted essay and act as the key contact between participants and AFSA. You might benefit from having a coordinator review your essay.

The 2023 Prompt:

This year, AFSA celebrates the 100th anniversary of the United States Foreign Service. Over the last century, our diplomats and development professionals have been involved in groundbreaking events in history – decisions on war and peace, supporting human rights and freedom, creating joint prosperity, reacting to natural disasters and pandemics and much more. As AFSA looks back on this century-long history, we invite you to join us in also looking ahead to the future. This year students are asked to explore how diplomats can continue to evolve their craft to meet the needs of an ever-changing world that brings fresh challenges and opportunities to the global community and America’s place in it.

Over the past 100 years the Foreign Service has faced a multitude of challenges such as world war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, humanitarian disasters, global pandemics, and economic crises. In a 1,000-1,500-word essay please identify what you believe will be the biggest challenge to face the Foreign Service in the future. The essay will describe this challenge and clearly define how American diplomats can help mitigate it.

Tips to write a winning entry: Here’s a few suggestions, from AFSA themselves, for you to look through before submitting your essay.

  1. Does your essay clearly demonstrate that you understand the role of the Foreign Service in carrying out American diplomacy?

  2. Have you used past or current diplomatic efforts to support what you believe is the best response to the prompt? (Winning essays almost always do!)

  3. Have you read through some of the past winners’ essays? You must, to get a fair idea of what makes a solid piece.

  4. Does the essay clearly answer this year’s essay contest question?

  5. Have you given your essay a descriptive title?

  6. Is your essay at least 1,000 words and no more than 1,500 words long excluding works cited?

  7. Have you made sure that your name, school, or city do NOT appear anywhere in the essay?

  8. Have you scrupulously followed accepted standards regarding attribution of quotations, arguments, and ideas of others within the body of your paper and bibliography?

  9. Have you made sure that Wikipedia is not a source?

  10. Does your essay have standardized citations and bibliography?

  11. Does your essay have the required endnotes, and not footnotes?

  12. Are your online sources listed separately from other sources in your bibliography?

  13. Is your teacher's name and contact information included as detailed in the contest guidelines?

Go through these additional resources that can help you with your submission for the contest. You can also read through this excerpt from the book, US. Embassy: Diplomacy at Work, which details exactly what the Foreign Service is. This would be useful information to have when answering this year’s prompt!

8 Reasons to Participate:

Participating in AFSA’s National High School Essay Contest can be a rewarding experience for high school students. Here are 8 compelling reasons why you should consider taking part in this essay competition:

  1. It is prestigious: Winning, placing as the first runner-up, or even receiving an honorable mention in this contest is considered a high honor, especially because it showcases your excellent writing and research skills.

  2. The contest is selective: Of hundreds of submissions received, only one winner and one runner-up is selected every year. Participating (and receiving an honor) in such a selective competition displays academic achievement.

  3. You can win a hefty cash prize, among other awards: The winner receives a $2,500 prize, along with a paid trip to Washington, DC (including his or her parents) and an all-expense paid educational voyage, courtesy of Semester at Sea. The runner-up receives a $1,250 prize, and full tuition to attend a summer session of the International Diplomacy program at the National Student Leadership Conference (NSLC). The monetary rewards can support future educational endeavors. 

  4. It’s a great skill-building opportunity: Whether you win or not, the process of researching and writing a 1000-word essay is no small feat. It will challenge your analytical skills, giving you a chance to hone your academic abilities and critical thinking skills, preparing you for your future academics. Additionally, learning to write about a fairly broad topic in such few words is great practice for the type of writing required within university-level academics. 

  5. It looks great on college applications: Again, whether you win or not, the fact that you attempted a submission in this contest is something to be proud of in itself. Adding that to your resume or college application looks great and can impress admissions officers! Not to mention, if you place first or second, that shows a certain level of skill and talent that admissions officers are definitely looking for. 

  6. It is accessible and open to everyone: Unlike many competitions that charge application fees, the essay contest is free to enter, making it accessible to all interested students. This eliminates financial barriers and encourages broader participation. The competition is open to students from grades 9 to 12, spanning a range of educational backgrounds, including public, private, and home-study programs. This inclusivity ensures that students from various educational settings can participate and share their perspectives.

  7. It will give you a solid insight into your country’s Foreign Services: Participating in this competition will allow you to delve into studying diplomatic efforts, noteworthy events in history, the challenges Foreign Services members tackle, human rights, war and peace and so much more. It will encourage you to think beyond local context and appreciate the larger picture.

  8. It gives great exposure: The winner will attend a paid trip to Washington D.C., where they will meet a member of the White House (last year’s winner met Secretary of State Anthony Blinken), and a paid educational voyage courtesy of Semester at Sea.

One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you are passionate about research, you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online program 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.

Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students.

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: AFSA's national high school essay contest logo


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