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Winning the United States Academic Decathlon (USAD)

For anyone who ever wanted to be the Jack of All Trades, Master of All, the United States Academic Decathlon is perfect for you – challenging you in every aspect there is in education, from public speaking, to school subjects, to writing, to thinking on the spot. This competition is extremely popular and prestigious amongst high school students for its wide variety of topics and fast-paced environment.

What is the United States Academic Decathlon (USAD)?

The United States Academic Decathlon (USAD) is a nationwide academic competition that challenges high school students to showcase their knowledge and skills in ten different academic categories. Established in 1968 and brought to life by a WW2 pilot and veteran, USAD has since become one of the most prestigious scholarly competitions in the United States. The competition is designed to, evidently, has succeeded in fostering academic excellence and promoting teamwork among high school students. The founders of USAD seek to promote multidisciplinary learning as an important pillar of our students’ education.

USAD consists of ten unique events, including art, economics, literature, mathematics, music, science, social science, essay writing, speech, and interview. The competition culminates in a Super Quiz, which is a high-energy, fast-paced team event that tests students' knowledge in all ten categories.

Over the years, the USAD has expanded its reach and now includes participants from all 50 states. The USAD has a rich history of academic excellence and has produced many successful alumni, including scholars, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders, and will continue to do so for years to come, as one of the United States’ most popular and prestigious competitions.

Is the USAD Prestigious?

The United States Academic Decathlon has been internationally recognized for its rigor, prestige, and excellence for over four decades. The USAD is an opportunity for high school students to showcase their knowledge, critical thinking, and teamwork skills, and can be a wonderful opportunity for students to develop those skills in a fun and competitive environment.

The USAD is not just any academic competition; it is a highly respected event that attracts top-performing high school students from across the country. Winning the USAD can be a significant accomplishment for students and can help them stand out on college applications and in their future careers. The competition requires students to demonstrate their knowledge and mastery of ten academic categories, including art, economics, literature, mathematics, music, science, social science, essay writing, speech, and interview. Students who participate in the USAD gain valuable skills that can benefit them throughout their lives, including critical thinking, communication, and leadership. Showing versatility and mastery across all of these topics is a unique skill that many cannot say they possess, thus USAD participation and victory could be a significant boost to your future application, or future jobs.

Participating in the USAD can also help students develop a strong work ethic and a competitive spirit. The competition requires months of preparation, studying, and practice, which can help students build discipline and perseverance. Decathletes also have the opportunity to meet students from across the country and form lasting friendships amongst like-minded individuals. The USAD can help students develop critical thinking, communication, and leadership skills while also building a strong work ethic and a competitive spirit, skills which will undoubtedly help you thrive in your future.

Who is Eligible to Participate in USAD?

Any high school student is eligible to participate in USAD. It is just up to your school district to create a team, and contact the state level USAD Directors to make sure your school is eligible to participate and to ensure all of the details are in line, as well as pay an initial fee.

USAD requires that each team meets certain requirements, in order for the competition to align with Dr. Peterson’s, USAD’s founder, goals. USAD teams consist of nine members, from ninth to twelfth grade, with three students representing each academic proficiency level: Honors, Scholastic, and Varsity.

  • Honors students are those with a GPA of 3.80 or higher

  • Scholastic students have a GPA between 3.20 and 3.79

  • Varsity students have a GPA of 3.20 or below

This will be verified during registration, where each student’s transcript is required to participate in the event.

Each team that participates in USAD and eventually goes onto Nationals will need to be verified by the state directors, thus make sure that your team meets the eligibility requirements stated for that year, which could change, or if you have extenuating circumstances.

Timeline and Structure of USAD

USAD is a rigorous academic competition that spans several months and consists of multiple stages. The timeline and structure of the USAD can and will vary by state, but the general framework is as follows:

  1. Study Materials: In the summer, USAD releases the study materials for the upcoming competition. The study materials include topics and questions in each of the ten categories, as well as the Super Quiz topic.

  2. Team Formation: In the fall, teams of nine students are formed and registered with their local USAD coordinator.

  3. Regional Competitions: Regional competitions take place all the way from October to January, where teams compete against other high schools in their region.

  4. State Competitions: The teams now compete against schools from all over the state, which takes place in February or March.

  5. National Competition: The winning team from each state advances to the national competition, which takes place in April or May, held in various locales throughout the country.

Remember that each state’s USAD is completely separate until the National Competition, thus check in with your advisor or your state director to make sure that your timeline is correct and you are able to qualify for future rounds. Check out this link for access to all participating states and their point of contact, as well as each state’s website.

Tips and Resources for Each Round of USAD

Here are some tips and guides for each round of the USAD:

Before we begin, make sure to review this curriculum guide that is updated every single year that has a breakdown of each topic, and the percentage breakdown of what sorts of topics each round will cover.

  1. Art: Familiarize yourself with different art movements, techniques, and artists. Pay attention to the details of the artwork and the symbolism that the artist may have incorporated. Practice identifying and analyzing different pieces of art. Flashcards can be extremely effective for the arts round, just to ensure you are able to quickly recall small pieces of information from a quick glance at a painting.

  2. Economics: Cover the basics of micro and macroeconomics, such as fiscal policy and supply and demand, and all of the associated equations, graphs, and proportions. Follow current events and understand how economic policies affect the economy. Familiarize with the history of the United States’ economy, as topics from different US economic policies throughout its three century span are common.

  3. Literature: Read the assigned novels and poetry carefully, paying attention to the themes, motifs, and literary devices used. Practice writing essays analyzing the works and identifying the literary devices used. Use digital reading guides, or help from local English teachers to ensure that you are able to grasp the meanings and themes of the readings and to be able to recite and recall at any point in time.

  4. Mathematics: Understand the basics of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Practice solving complex problems quickly and accurately through extensive use of practice problems, from Khan Academy or your textbook from your math class. Understand the applications of math in real-life scenarios, as in how equations can be applied to real scenarios, not just numbers on a page. This round can often be the most competitive, as many USAD participants tend to excel at math more than other topics.

  5. Music: Listen to all different genres of music and pay attention to its rhythm, melody, and harmony. Enjoy learning about the history of music throughout different cultures and centuries, alongside the different composers and how they impacted music forever. There is a rich history to music with many niche details that could accompany any piece. Similar to art, this topic could be well studied through the creative use of audio flashcards, where you are able to identify qualities of that genre or composer through a quick listen of the topic.

  6. Science: Study topics within biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science. Pay attention to current research and understand how scientific concepts apply to real-life scenarios. Memorize the basic kinematics, dynamics, and energy equations for physics, alongside how different variables are proportional to one another. The rest can be studied through flashcards and memorizing key terms that are crucial to understanding that particular field. Practice analyzing data, graphs and charts, conducting and understanding experimental design, and comprehending those results. Alongside math, science can also be extremely competitive.

  7. Social Science: Understand the history and political systems of different countries and civilizations. Stay up-to-date on current events and understand how they relate to different topics in history, psychology, or sociology. Learn some basic sociology and psychology theories and principles. Extensively study US History and how relevant themes from history can be applied to modern times.

  8. Essay Writing: Practice writing essays in response to prompts, using proper grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, especially under time pressure. Develop a clear and logical argument and support it with evidence from the assigned materials. Keep the essays concise, but dense with evidence. Remember that a strong thesis statement can make or break your essay, so ensure that you are beginning your essay with a strong argument.

  9. Speech: Practice public speaking and delivering a persuasive speech. Develop a clear thesis statement and use appropriate body language and vocal delivery to engage your audience. Stand tall and confident, and practice with video recordings and in the mirror, and clearly mark where you made presentational errors when you watch yourself back.

  10. Interview: Develop strong communication skills and practice answering questions about the assigned materials. Research the judges and understand their backgrounds and interests to make a positive impression. Similar to speech, record yourself answering simple questions from a family member. Make sure that your posture and demeanor are correct. It is also important to remember that you are allowed to take some time between questions; you do not need to answer them right away. In fact, taking a breath to think about the question and give a thoughtful answer can be more important and effective than just speaking off the cuff. Additionally, pausing instead of using a filler word (“like,” “umm”) shows experience and maturity in your presentation.

Overall, the key to success in the USAD is preparation and hard work. The competition can be long and grueling, but with time and practice, you can feel extremely prepared and ready to tackle the year-long journey.

Develop a study plan and practice consistently, using study guides and online resources to supplement the assigned materials. USAD provides paid material that your team and school can buy, but there are other digital materials online that are not directly correlated with USAD but can still prove to be useful. This includes Khan Academy, various YouTube channels, and any other materials that you happen upon. The most important materials for USAD are the learnings from class, social skills you learn from daily conversations, writing skills from your English class (and perhaps learning from online guides to SAT/ACT essays), and trust in your own knowledge.

Work closely with your team and coaches to develop strong teamwork and communication skills. You are working as a team of 9 people! That is a large team, so make sure you all can get along, can uplift one another, cover for one’s weaknesses with your strengths, and vice versa.

Stay focused, remain calm under pressure, and remember to enjoy the competition. USAD is created to make multidisciplinary learning integral to everyone’s lives in an enjoyable way, so remember to embrace this mentality.


If you’re looking for the chance to deepen your knowledge even more than your expansive USAD training or want another opportunity to build your own independent project and research paper, then consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. Last year over 2100 students applied for about 500 spots in the program. You can find the application form here.

Aaron Zheng is a sophomore at Harvard University, studying Bioengineering. He is passionate about biotechnology, business development, and aiding students get to college, regardless of background. In his spare time, he looks to read, journal, and explore the world.

Image source: USAD logo



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