If you are looking to study economics at a top university, then you are in for some serious competition. Economics is a popular major and it has a lot of intersections with various disciplines. A great way to prepare your profile for admissions and, very importantly, challenge yourself into building new skill sets, is by participating in competitions.
Competing and winning economics-oriented competitions is one way to stand out. You’ll expose yourself to problem-solving opportunities, network with peers, and have a shot at impressing admissions officers. The National Economics Challenge should be on your radar and, in this blog, we’ve covered NEC in depth!
What is the National Economics Challenge?
The National Economics Challenge (NEC) is a competition sponsored by the Council for Economic Education, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in New York that focuses on the economic and financial education of students from kindergarten through high school. The NEC is the only economics competition of its kind for high school students in the United States - it tests your knowledge of micro and macroeconomic principles, understanding of the world economy, and most crucially the ability to apply problem-solving and critical thinking skills to real-world challenges.
It is a large-scale event in which you will be competing with students from all 50 states to reach the National Finals, which entails an all-expense-paid trip to New York City. The CEE has divided the NEC into two divisions based on economic coursework to ensure you are matched against students of a similar preparation level.
The competition is open to all high school students, with two divisions available.
The David Ricardo Division is for first-time Challenge competitors who have taken no more than one economics course.
The Adam Smith Division is for AP, international baccalaureate, and honors students (as well as any returning competitors).
Competing teams will have to register on the NEC website and must be composed of at least 3 and no more than 4 members, all from the same public school, private school, community organization/club, or afterschool program.
The teams must be accompanied by a coach who is an associate of the team school, organization or program.
Note that this structure allows students from different schools to team up as well.
Competition Timeline and Structure
The NEC consists of two qualifying rounds leading up to the National Finals in whichever division you are participating in. Each round has its own format, as detailed below:
State Level - the state-level challenge will take place during the academic year. Each state creates its own format for the challenge based on guidelines from the NEC, which may be on-site or online, and the winning team is nominated as the state champion to advance to the next round. In 2022 for example, the challenge in New York had 30 questions to be solved in a 35-minute time limit individually by all team members, and the team’s composite score was calculated by summing the top 3 scores of its members.
Online National Semi-Finals - each state organizes a testing environment to host the online national semi-finals. This is essentially a 45-minute multiple-choice exam, with 3 consecutive rounds of 15 questions each with no breaks. The first round covers Microeconomics, the second Macroeconomics, and the third International Economics and Current Events. Each of your team members will be solving and submitting answers individually, and your team score will be calculated as the sum of the top 3 submissions. In 2023, this round was held from 24th-28th April.
National Finals - the big leagues, held about a month after the semi-finals. Top-scoring teams from the national semi-finals are invited to New York to participate live, with all stay and food expenses borne by the CEE. The Finals themselves are split into two distinct rounds:
Critical Thinking Round - You and your team will jointly present an analysis on a current economic problem to a panel of judges. The submissions will be judged on completeness, economic analysis and insight, background knowledge and presentation. The top 4 teams from this round will advance to the next.
Quiz Bowl - the grand finale, this is an oral quiz bowl in which you and your team will have to answer 22 questions covering all topics of economics. Each team will nominate a spokesperson, who will have a maximum of 20 seconds to confer with their team between a question being posed and a response being presented. The scores will be tallied at the end to determine the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place winners
International Quiz Bowl Round - effectively a bonus round, the National Champion team from NEC dukes it out virtually with international students from China in a quiz bowl exactly the same as the previous round.
Prizes on Offer
The NEC offers cash prizes to the winning team members and one teacher-coach at the National Finals as follows:
1st place: $1,000 per member
2nd place: $500 per member
3rd place: $250 per member
4th place: $200 per member
Is It Prestigious?
Nearly 13,000 students take part in the NEC every year. Also, the CEE is sponsored by notable organizations like the US Department of Education, NASDAQ Educational Foundation, HSBC, AT&T, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo. The final itself is televised, and the National Finalists further have the prestige of representing the country in an international round with the Chinese finalists. Securing a finalist spot, not to mention winning, will significantly enhance your profile and potentially open doors for you at some of the world’s biggest colleges and firms.
Should You Participate?
To help you make a decision on whether or not you should participate in the National Economics Challenge, we’ve listed some pros and cons that you should consider.
Enhances your understanding of economics: The intensity of NEC ensures that you will be studying the depths of every aspect of economics in order to be fully prepared. Additionally, you will also familiarize yourself with practical applications of the core concepts of macroeconomics, microeconomics and international economics when preparing for the later rounds. This will provide you a significant leg up for your academic future in any field that has economics as an integral part.
Helps you develop key skills: Due to the structure of the NEC, preparing for it will help you develop teamwork, critical thinking skills, and public speaking. So, while you build your knowledge of economics, you also have a more rounded opportunity to practice communicating those learning/ideas, apply them, and collaborate with team members to synthesize different thought processes. Regardless of your career or academic aspirations, these are valuable skills to add to your profile.
Gives an opportunity to win hefty cash prizes: If you’re one of the talented few to make it to the podium.
Requires heavy commitment: Preparing for the NEC requires a significant time commitment due to its highly competitive nature and due to the State level round taking place in the academic year itself. You will have to balance regular practices and individual coursework along with your standard school workload.
Requires spending money to attend: The CEE does not sponsor travel tickets for qualifying teams, and depending on whether or not the State level round is held on-site, you may have to pay for transportation and accommodation there as well. While coaches generally try to secure sponsorship for their teams, this is not a guarantee and you should definitely factor this into your decision.
5 Tips to Win
Master the fundamentals: every single round at NEC will test your knowledge of economics’ core concepts thoroughly. The CEE provides no fewer than 34 60-minute lessons for all students that you can and should complete if you want to seriously contend for a winning place.
Practice, practice, practice: work with your coach and schedule a consistent practice plan for yourself and your team. Work on problem-solving individually as well as in groups to ensure you are ready for all rounds. The CEE has ready assessments and sample tests available, but you should go beyond that and work with your coach to give other preparatory exams as well.
Work with your team: while many of the rounds are individual, the Quiz Bowl is a team-based round. Make sure to practice thoroughly with your team, experimenting with different spokespersons and building expertise in different topics so that you are able to work as a cohesive unit on the day itself.
Be globally aware: stay up to date on the latest economic events, interest rate movements, financial reforms, and global economic health. Not only is it, well, critical for the critical thinking round, but it will also help you familiarize yourself much more deeply with the concepts you’re studying.
Stay cool and calm while attempting questions: last but not the least, work on breathing exercises and stress management to ensure that your nerves are steady and you don’t succumb to avoidable errors.
If you are interested in a career in economics and are taking advanced economics courses, you should strongly consider participating in the National Economics Challenge if you have the time and funds necessary to commit to it. The preparation alone will be valuable as it covers every facet of economics and helps you build critical thinking skills and learn the practical application of concepts. If you are able to push through to the Finals beating over 10,000 competitors and securing a spot on the podium, it will add a shining star to your profile and provide you with a wealth of opportunities.
Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you are passionate about conducting research in economics, you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school 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.
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.