Advice for Maryland History Day Hopefuls from an Alum

April 13, 2016
by Ethan Greist, 2014 National History Day Gold Medal Winner

It’s the big day. The project is done, you have all of your  written materials printed, you have your lines    memorized, your exhibit finished, or your documentary  is  on file. At this point, you’re probably on at least the  4th  draft of your project, and everything has been  reviewed  and polished more times than you can count.  Beware of  physical or technical difficulties! Demetri and  I had a very  bad moment at the State competition when  part of the  audio for our documentary was deleted the  day of the  competition. We barely got the audio fixed in  time to go  on. This provided a very valuable lesson: take  every  precaution against malfunction or misfortune that  you possibly can. If you are making a documentary,  produce it in as many formats and as many  copies/backups as logically possible. Find some way to  back up or store your website if you are doing that. If you made an exhibit, do not let it get damaged! I would even consider making backup parts for your exhibit in case one gets damaged. If you are doing a performance make an extra costume if possible. If you are in a group, plan for how you would present if a member was ill or missing. Make multiple copies of all written materials and give several copies to each person. Chaos happens! Be prepared for it as much as possible. It would be a shame to be disqualified because of some silly misfortune.

Regardless of category, there is something that everyone has to do in the preliminary judging round: an interview. After you are done presenting your project, performance, documentary etc. a panel of three judges will ask you several questions about your project and topic. It seems like the simplest thing, but it never fails to intimidate students. I’ve watched many other students go through this, and I’ve been through it multiple times myself. The first thing that you have to remember is that the judges never “have it in” for you. You don’t have to worry about a judge being mean to you. What the judges will do is prod you to make sure that you know what you are talking about, and can argue your conclusion effectively. Be prepared for them to challenge any point or argument that you make in your project. This is especially important for controversial topics. If your project is about the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, and you conclude that America was justified in its decision to drop the atom bomb, you must be able to back up this assertion. If you can use the historical evidence and research you’ve been compiling to support your arguments well, a judge will not penalize you even if he or she disagrees with your conclusion.

Other questions the judges may ask will require you to explain your research process or apply your knowledge of your topic to broader scenarios. The judges may ask what you would have done if you had more time to research and present, why you interpreted a certain source the way you did, or how the topic you studied relates to modern issues. The reason they ask you all of these questions is because they want to be sure that you are truly knowledgeable and well versed about your topic, and they want to test your analysis and reasoning skills. That means that all you have to do to impress them in your interview is know what you’re talking about! Beyond that, there is one thing you need to avoid doing, and one thing that you always must do in the interview. You need to avoid making any sort of false or weak claim while speaking; if you can’t back up a point, don’t make it. You need to always answer the question. If a judge asks why you chose a certain source, your answer needs to begin with, “I chose that source because…” It’s a very good idea to practice presenting your project to a group of people. If you can find someone to stage a mock interview and ask you about your project, you will get an excellent chance to practice explaining and defending your project.

As a practical consideration, be sure to dress up nicely for the interview. I won’t tell you what to wear, but I will say that I always upstaged the competition by wearing a suit and tie. Finally, don’t get nervous! If you truly have done your research well and know your way around your topic, all the interview can do is make you sound intelligent.

Good luck to all the students competition in the Maryland History Day competition on May 7, 2016 at UMBC – Maryland History Day Staff