For high schoolers keen on testing and demonstrating their knowledge of certain subjects, pre-collegiate challenges are an increasingly popular option to pursue.
They’re particularly useful if you’re looking to use your participation (or victory!) to signal to admissions officials and future HRs that you know your stuff, and this comes in handy when you’re applying to highly competitive universities or employment roles.
With that in mind, in this blog, we take a deep dive into the Harvard Pre-Collegiate Economics Challenge (HPEC).
What is the Harvard Pre-Collegiate Economics Challenge?
The HPEC is an international economics competition organized by the Harvard Undergraduate Economics Association (HUEA). The HUEA is the primary undergraduate economics group at Harvard, run purely by students. They organize both the HPEC as well the Harvard International Economics Essay Contest.
The HPEC tests students on Advanced Placement Microeconomics and Macroeconomics levels, along with economic news, history, and recent research. HUEA has been hosting the HPEC since 2011, with teams from around the world participating to test their skills, interact with professors and peers, and learn about the wider world of economics.
Is the HPEC prestigious?
While the HPEC started in 2011, it has not been hosted every single year since then, however, it has seen at least 8 iterations. It has also seen participation from anywhere between 20 and 40 teams of students from the US, England, Canada, and more, with many past participants going on to study at Ivy League institutions. This plus its association with a reputed university like Harvard lends it a certain degree of prestige, however, at the end of the day it is still a student-run competition with only moderate investment from the Harvard faculty. HUEA does make efforts to involve the faculty and also bring in notable economists and researchers to discussions that participants can attend. We would say that the challenge is only somewhat prestigious, being limited in not being endorsed and operated by the Harvard faculty directly.
Who is eligible for the HPEC?
To participate in HPEC, you must:
Be enrolled in a high school or equivalent institution. You can be located in any country.
Form teams of 1-4 members. While there’s no mandate, HEUA recommends having at least 3 members in your team.
Each school is allowed to register 1-2 teams and indicate interest in sending a 3rd. The number finally allowed will depend on space availability and registration.
Have a team coach. This may be a teacher in your school, or it may even be a parent if your teacher is not able to attend the competition.
For 2023, the registration deadline was March 10, 2023, 11:59 EST. However, HEUA recommends that you apply as early as possible due to the challenge being subject to space constraints. You will need to pay a $125 fee to register.
The challenge itself took place on April 8, 2023. You and your team can choose to compete either virtually from anywhere around the world or in person on Harvard's campus.
How is the HPEC structured?
The competition is divided into two parts:
1. Written Exam
This will be a 90-minute, 60 multiple choice question individual exam to be completed by each participant.
You will not be allowed to communicate with your teammates or your coach and will have no access to calculators, notes, or external aids of any kind.
If you’re participating virtually, you’ll have a 48-hour window to access the website and take the exam. Once begun, you’ll have the same 90 minutes to complete it.
The exam syllabus is 40% macroeconomics, 40% microeconomics, and 20% current events.
2. Quiz Bowl Rounds
These will follow a round-robin structure.
Each round will be 15 minutes long with 15 questions each, except for elimination rounds which will have 18 questions each.
After the moderator reads the question, any team may buzz in to get 10 seconds to answer. If they fail, the other team also gets 10 seconds to answer.
Virtually participating teams and in-person teams will have separate quiz bowl pools - you will only be competing in your respective bracket.
The quiz bowl syllabus is more varied and detailed:
20% Economic History
15% Current Events
5% Modern Research Topics
You should thoroughly go over the manual to understand the structure and scoring.
Prizes on offer
The highest-scoring team and the two highest individual-scoring students will receive trophies. There is no cash prize on offer.
Pros and Cons of Participating
The challenge is highly accessible - the combination of the low registration fees and the virtual-only option ensures that this is one of the most accessible economic challenges available for any high schooler. Regardless of where in the world you live, and almost regardless of your access to funds, you’ll be able to participate in the HPEC.
You can make the best out of robust networking opportunities - whether you participate in-person or virtually, the round-robin nature of the quiz bowl will allow you to interact with peers across the world, to say nothing of working with your teammates and coach. HUEA also organizes panel discussions that you will be able to attend to maximize this further.
It serves as a solid prep for college - the topics that you will be tested on over the course of the HPEC are all Advanced Placement level subjects in economics. This means that all your prep for HPEC will come in handy if you’re already considering pursuing economics in college or maybe even prepping for another economics challenge!
The challenge is not particularly prestigious - at the end of the day, the HPEC is a student-run competition, which makes its association with the prestige of Harvard tenuous at best. If you’re specifically looking to use this challenge to boost your profile, then you may be better off looking elsewhere.
It is not competitive enough - as a consequence of the previous point, not a lot of teams end up participating in the HPEC. Our research tells us that the number of participating teams varies from 20 to 40, which means about 100-150 students participate in any given year. This means that the competitive value of the HPEC goes down compared to many other national-level competitions, much less international ones.
There is no meaningful prize pool - possibly as a consequence of the above two points, the prize pool for the competition is also not significant. While this does not detract from the academic value of participation, it is also not a particularly motivating factor.
Tips to win
After weighing the pros and cons, if you’ve decided to participate in the challenge, then we’ve got some tips to help you win:
Deep dive into economic concepts: Ensure you have a strong grasp of both micro and macroeconomic principles. Familiarize yourself with key concepts such as supply and demand, market structures, fiscal policies, and international trade.
Stay updated with current events: A good chunk of both the written exam and quiz bowl is dedicated to questions concerning current economic events and updates. Regularly read reputable economic journals, newspapers, and magazines to stay informed about global economic trends and events. Investopedia is a good place to check out for this.
Practice, practice, practice: Review previous challenge questions and solutions - the Harvard Economic Challenge website has a very helpful compilation of these at the very bottom. This will give you an idea of the format and the type of questions to expect while also helping you fill out any gaps in your understanding of the core economic concepts.
Participate in group discussions: A lot of the learning you can extract from such challenges is peer learning. Engage in discussions with peers or join an economics club at your school, which you may need to do anyway to build a team! Exchanging ideas and debating on economic topics can provide diverse perspectives and deepen your understanding.
Seek solid mentorship: If possible, find a mentor who is well-versed in economics. They can provide guidance, share their experiences, and offer valuable insights that can help you prepare.
Enhance your analytical skills: Economics isn't just about memorizing concepts; it's about analyzing data and drawing conclusions. Work on improving your analytical and critical thinking skills.
Practice graphical analysis: Many economic concepts are best understood and represented graphically. Ensure you can both interpret and sketch graphs accurately. While this will not directly assist you in the competition, it will greatly enhance your own learning and help you understand key economic concepts and even convey ideas better.
Manage your time well: During the challenge, allocate your time wisely. Prioritize questions you are confident in and then tackle the more challenging ones.
Stay cool during the competition: It's natural to feel nervous, but staying calm will help you think more clearly. If you come across a difficult question, take a deep breath, and approach it methodically. There is no point deduction for leaving a question, only for incorrect answers. The correct approach is to either be sure you’re right or to skip.
Review and double-check your answers: Since the competition penalizes wrong answers only in both the written exam and quiz bowl, the most important thing for you and your team to focus on is accuracy. Put in as much work in reviewing and cross-checking your answers as you do in formulating them.
While the Harvard Pre-Collegiate Economics Challenge is neither a particularly large nor highly prestigious opportunity, it is nonetheless a highly accessible one that offers great learning if you’re passionate about economics. Succeeding in it will still require dedication, preparation, and a deep understanding of economics, and all of the efforts you put into it will assist you greatly in preparing for future competitions or college applications. Some other competitions you should strongly consider if economics is your thing are the National Economics Challenge and the International Economics Olympiad, both large-scale, prestigious, and intense tests of knowledge.
In the meantime, if you have an interest and are ready to put in the effort, make sure to apply for HPEC 2024!
Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you’re looking for the opportunity to do in-depth research on various topics in economics, 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: HUEA logo