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What is Academic Decathlon?

Avon High School, 2013

I really try not to make it sound like a religious experience when I talk about Academic Decathlon, but it isn't easy. Cliff Ker, Los Angeles Unified School District Regional Coordinator

We'd never thought you'd ask! Academic Decathlon (AcDec, AcaDec, AcaDeca, or AD for short1) is an academic competition for high school students2.

But, you may say, so is Quiz Bowl! Forensics! Science Olympiad! What makes the Academic Decathlon unique?

Instead of focusing on one narrow discipline, Academic Decathlon follows in the footsteps of the track-and-field decathlon by focusing on ten of them, challenging students and coaches alike, bringing out the best in them and impacting every aspect of their lives beyond the classroom. It's about mastering 10 different disciplines, not just specializing in one. It's about working as a team: high-scoring individuals may medal, but only high-scoring teams will advance. It's about learning new skills - public speaking, differential calculus, music theory - that may have previously terrified you.

So, what do you exactly do in Academic Decathlon? Hmm...

  • Explore both the big-picture concepts and nuanced ideas of seven different academic subjects - Art, Math, Music, Language and Literature, Economics, Science, and Social Science - before taking challenging tests on each seven on competition day.
  • Deliver two speeches - one prepared, the other impromptu. One that demands poise and coolness under pressure, the other that requires an ability to make the most mundane and academic of topics seem fresh, exciting, and moving.
  • Answer thought-provoking interview questions about yourself, the world, and what kind of fruit you'd be if you could be a fruit.3
  • Write an essay demonstrating not just command of the prompt, but critical analysis of evidence, strong and persuasive argumentation, and an engaging and captivating writing style.
  • Work with your teammates - beneath the bright lights, on the big stage, in front of a cheering crowd - during the Super Quiz relay.

Six of the subjects (all except for math) are intricately linked together through a common theme that varies from year to year. So one year, you might be listening to Woody Guthrie, learning about President Franklin Roosevelt's "Hundred Days", and critiquing how different historical schools explain the causes and consequences of the Great Depression (2011), while the next year might bring together a close analysis of Fra Angelico's Adoration of the Magi, Edmund Spenser's sonnets, and a study of the human anatomy under the umbrella of the Renaissance.

And you won't be doing all of this alone. You'll be competing alongside4 8 teammates (and best friends). What truly sets Academic Decathlon apart is the makeup of this team of 9. Three members, each an "A" student, compete in the Honors division. Three members, each a "B" student, compete in the Scholastic division. And three students, each a "C" student, compete in the Varsity division. Team success is dependent on each individual, not just one student. It's not about what your grades are, or how well you did on the SAT, or how much time you spend on studying and working on homework. If you're willing to dip your toes into and explore the immense breadth of knowledge that the world has to offer, if you're willing to challenge yourself to share your life stories with strangers or tackle the intricacies of the natural and physical sciences, if you're willing to build lifelong relationships with your coaches and teammates and fellow competitors, Academic Decathlon has a place for you.

The four of us have had our lives transformed by our involvement in Academic Decathlon during high school, and we're confident that yours will never be the same either.

What we offer you is a struggle. There may be 10 medals at the finish line and a trip to Alaska, or nothing at all. But in studying for hours on the weekend while your 'friends' are doing 'better things', in the terrors of delivering your first impromptu speech, in the hours spent struggling with and against the great authors and artists and mathematicians and scientists and economists of history, we offer you something even greater. The opportunity to learn. To not just to read, but to understand. To not just to win, but to lead. 5

We wish you all the best in your studies, and we can't wait to see you at the Round 1 Invitational in November!

- Christine, Gillian, Sebastian, and Eric

1. The use of different speech-friendly abbreviations remains tremendously controversial within the Academic Decathlon community. You've been warned. (It appears that Massachusetts prefers "Acadec" over the "AcDec" commonly found in Texas).

2. Grades 9 through 12

3. Yes, this has actually happened on more than one occasion. You'd be surprised at what you can learn about a person from his or her answer!

4. Quite literally in the Super Quiz!

5. Paraphrased from Dr. Les Martisko (Administrative Service Consultant, United States Academic Decathlon)

The Massachusetts Academic Decathlon (MassDec or MassDecathlon for short) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organized to oversee Academic Decathlon competitions within the state of Massachusetts as well as provide guidance and support to schools participating in Academic Decathlon. It is led by a state director, overseen by a board of directors, and funded through competition registration fees, individual donations, corporate sponsorships, and educational entities.

To learn more about how Academic Decathlon meets both Common Core standards for math and reading as well as national high school content standards in other subjects, visit the United States Academic Decathlon website.

Developed and maintained by Massachusetts Academic Decathlon. Academic Decathlon, United States Academic Decathlon, U.S. Academic Decathlon, USAD, Super Quiz, and the USAD logo are trademarks and service marks of The United States Academic Decathlon Association and are used under license.