Competition FAQ

How do I count words for the 500-word limit in the exhibit category?

Student-composed written materials that are used on an exhibit (excluding the title page, process paper, and annotated bibliography) must contain no more than 500 words.

This limit does not apply to words found in materials used for illustration, such as documents, artifacts, graphs, or timelines, which were not created by the student(s). It also does not apply to quotations from primary sources such as oral history interviews, letters, or diaries. These materials are not student-composed. However, if a student does use his or her own words in a timeline or on a graph, those words do count.

The 500-word limit applies to any student-composed written materials used in media devices (computers, slides, video) and/or any supplemental materials.

The following are examples of how student composed words are counted on exhibits:

  • A date counts as one word, while each word in a name is individually counted. For example, "January 1, 1990" counts as one word, but "John Quincy Adams" counts as three.
  • Words such as "a," "the," and "of" are counted as one word each.

Is the 500-word limit in an exhibit category separate from the 500-word limit for the process paper?

Yes, the title page, process paper, and bibliography are considered as being separate from the exhibit and do not count towards the 500-word limit for the exhibit itself.

How do you count words for the paper category?

The text of the historical paper (title page, notes, annotated bibliography, illustration captions, and appendix materials that are directly referred to in the text do not count) must be no less than 1,500 words and no more than 2, 500 words in length. Each word or number in the text of the paper counts as one word. Unlike exhibits, words in quotations do count against the word limit in papers. Each part of a name counts as one word, so "Mark Van Doren" would count as 3 words. Each part of a date counts as a word, so "June 13, 2002" would count as 3 words. Please note that only words in the text of the paper count. Words in the title of the paper do not count, although words in subtitles dividing parts of the paper do count, as they are part of the text. Words in notes, annotated bibliographies, illustration captions, and appendices do not count against the limit, as they are not part of the text of the paper.

Can you have pictures in a paper, like illustrations, graphs, etc.?

Illustrations also are acceptable, but please be sure they are sourced and placed in appendices. Make sure that illustrations are directly related to the text, and don't overdo them. The people who volunteer as paper judges tend to be text-based, and they're probably not going to be impressed by excessive illustrations; instead, they're likely to suspect that maybe you didn't have much confidence that your writing could stand up on its own.

Can I use a fictional first person in a paper or performance?

Yes. At the beginning of the Category Rules for Papers in the National History Day Contest Guide, there's a description of papers: "A paper is the traditional form of presenting historical research. Various types of creative writing (for example, fictional diaries, poems, etc.) are permitted, but must conform to all general and category rules. Your paper should be grammatically correct and well written." The Rules state, "A performance is a dramatic portrayal of your topic's significance in history and must be original in production." A performance is not simply an oral report or a recitation of facts. You can make up characters to make a broader historical point, but don't make up history. While performances must have dramatic appeal, that appeal should not be at the expense of historical accuracy. Therefore, it is possible to have fictional characters, for example, writing a fictional diary. However, you need to make sure that you cite sources just as you would for a traditional paper or in a performances use primary sources like letters where appropriate. Most importantly, it still has to be good history. You can make up the character, but the circumstances and events of the character's life and which that character witnesses or participates in should be based on historical facts. If you are writing a traditional research paper, not a creative paper, it is best not to use a fictional character. The judges would find that odd and would be likely to think less of your paper for it.

How many sources should I have for my annotated bibliography?

There is no specific set number of sources required, as that varies by the topic and by the resources to which you have reasonable access. For some topics, such as the Civil War or many 20th-century US topics, there are many sources available. For other topics, such as those in ancient history or non-US history, there likely are far fewer sources available. The more good sources you have, the better, but don't pad your bibliography. Only list items which you actually use; if you looked at a source but it didn't help you at all, don't list it in your bibliography.You do need to find both primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources help you to put your topic in context; in other words, to see how your topic relates to the big picture and understand its long-term causes and consequences. Primary sources help you develop your own interpretation and make your project lively and personal. As much as possible, your research should be balanced, considering the viewpoints of all relevant groups. That means losers as well as winners, males and females, different nations, different socioeconomic/ethnic/religious groups, etc. What balanced means will vary depending on your topic.

How do I create a process paper for my project?

A description of no more than 500 words explaining how you conducted your research and created and developed your entry. You must conclude your description with an explanation of the relationship of your topic to the contest theme. A title page is required as the first page of written material in every category. Your title page must include only the title of your entry, your name(s) and the contest division and category in which you are entered. Please note: a process paper is not required for paper entries. For website entries, the process paper must be either uploaded as a pdf or placed in a document viewer within the site itself.

  • First section should explain how you chose your topic.
  • Second section should explain how you conducted your research.
  • Third section should explain how you selected your presentation category and created your project.
  • Fourth section should explain how your project relates to the NHD theme.

How do I cite sources for an annotated bibliography?

After your bibliographic citation (again, in Turabian or MLA format) you simply need to add a few sentences explaining "how the source was used and how it helped you understand your topic" (direct quote from the NHD rulebook). An annotation should normally be about 1-3 sentences long. You might be tempted to create page-long annotations to impress the judges. Don't do it! Lengthy annotations are usually unnecessary and inappropriate, and most judges consider them an effort to "pad" the bibliography.

Be sure that you explain that rather than making the mistake of recounting what the source said. In addition to explaining how you used a source or how it helped you, you sometimes need to include some additional information in an annotation. Here are some examples:

  • Classification as a primary or secondary source. You should use the annotation to explain why you categorized a particular source as primary or secondary, IF that is likely to be at all controversial. Historians do sometimes disagree and there's not always one right answer, so justify your choice to the judges.
  • Secondary source which included primary sources. You also may use the annotation to explain that a book or other secondary source included several primary sources used for the paper. Examples: "This book included three letters between person X on the frontier and person Y back in New England, which provided insight into the struggles and experiences of the settlers." "This book provided four photos of settlers on the Great Plains and their homes, which were used on the exhibit."
  • Fuller explanation of credits for documentaries. You are supposed to give credit in the documentary itself for photos or other primary sources, but you can do this in a general way, such as by writing, "Photos from: National Archives, Ohio Historical Society, A Photographic History of the Civil War" rather than listing each photo individually in the documentary credits, which would take up too much of your allotted 10 minutes. You then can use the annotation for the collection or book (or whatever) in the bibliography to provide more detailed information.

If you have any other questions that were not addressed in this FAQ section, please contact the NJ State Coordinator at