NJ History Day Tips

Improving Your History Day Entry

       Choosing a Topic:

  • Make sure it will fit the year's theme; it is your responsibility to make the connection between your topic and this year's theme.

  • It should be narrow enough that it can be researched thoroughly in the time available.

  • It should be significant. If students work on a local topic, they should be able to explain to someone from another state (or country) why it is important for them to know something about this topic. Topics in local history often have significance beyond their locality - they generally illustrate something about the human condition or about some problem of wider significance.

    Finding Source Materials:

  • Libraries - school, community, and college librarians are helpful people. If students can't find a published work in their own library, they may get it through inter-library loan.

  • State and regional archives - especially useful for finding unpublished material on state and local topics.

  • Museums - be sure to check out the museums in your area to learn the range of subjects on which they have materials; especially useful for learning about artifacts and lifestyles of a given era.

  • Bibliographic Aids - large libraries have a wide range of bibliographies that may help students find sources for a given topic. Books on a subject often have footnotes and bibliographies that can lead them to other sources. Libraries are becoming computerized and some may be able to give them a printout of sources on their topic and where they are located. Since school library budgets are limited, they might consider asking their librarian to focus on a few useful historical bibliographies.

  • Copywritten Material - PLEASE NOTE: Vast leeway is given with regard to student use of material for school projects. It is our understanding that students would not have to get permission for use of music or pictures in their entries, unless such entries would be used as promotional materials.

    Getting Help:

  • Remember, the student must make the decisions and do the work. Teachers, parents, and others are merely advisors and coaches. A good rule of thumb is this: give only that amount of help necessary to keep the students on track. Be sure that parents do not do the actual work for them.

  • If you are new to History Day, don't hesitate to call or e-mail the State Coordinator or someone else you know who has had experience with History Day.

  • The National History Day Contest Guide is the authority on contest rules. Study it carefully. If certain points seem unclear, call or e-mail the State Coordinator for an interpretation.

    Things to Keep in Mind if You're a Beginner:

  • Primary Sources: You must use primary (as well as secondary) sources in your research, unless those sources are too difficult to access, which will rarely be the case. A primary source is a first-hand account of the topic under study. Newspaper stories written in the time period under study are considered primary sources, along with such things as diaries, journals, government documents, etc. You should consult the most useful and important secondary sources on their topic. A secondary source is one written by someone who was not a participant in or observer of the topic being studied.

  • Footnotes: Be sure to consult a standard style manual for correct footnote and bibliography form. The Contest Guide requires either Turabian or MLA formats. The style must be consistent throughout the paper.

  • Annotated Bibliography: An annotation is just a short statement saying what the value of the source was to your understanding of the subject. Usually, two or three sentences will suffice. If you are using a series of articles from a newspaper, don't cite each article separately, unless the articles are bylined (have the author's name attached). Cite the newspaper, with dates of each article. For example, New York Times, August 6, 1881. Do not pad the bibliography with works you have not consulted or with excessively long annotations containing nonessential content details. Include all works you have legitimately consulted and just a few sentences of annotations.

    Historical Quality:

    Historical quality accounts for 60% of your score. Things judges will look for to evaluate historical quality include the following:

  • Has the research been adequate? Have you made use of available and relevant libraries, archives and museums to find materials? Have you made use of the major primary and secondary sources available? Depth of research is important.

  • Have you put the topic in its historical context? The historical context consists of those things beyond the topic which have some relationship to and may have influenced the topic. For example, if you are studying the Whitman mission, you should try to get some understanding of such things as the American mission movement in general, Cayuse Indian culture, government Indian policy, the westward movement, and events and circumstances leading to a decision to send missionaries to the Pacific Northwest. Then you will be able to develop a more mature perspective on what took place at the Whitman mission. You should try to show in your presentation that you are aware of the historical context. To put your topic in historical perspective, you should briefly indicate what events and developments, similar in nature, had preceded it. In the case of the Whitman mission, is this something new, is it something new in the United States, or had Americans long been interested in mission activity?

  • Are you able to perceive and analyze important historical issues? The "why" questions are crucial here. Why did this event take place or why did this individual behave as he/she did? If some change has occurred, why did it occur when it did? What is the significance of this individual, this event, or this development? How have things been different because of them? Asking why questions leads to historical analysis, which is very important in enhancing the historical quality of students' work.

  • Remember that history is the study of human experience in a time perspective. Chronology is important. You must show how your topic has developed over a period of time. Many students who choose some topic of current interest (Iraq, gun control, abortion, etc.) fail to show how this issue has evolved over time. They fail to explore its antecedents. As a result they lose points because they have done a current events topic rather than a historical study.

  • Scoring is weighted in the direction of good research and analysis rather than flashy presentations. Have both solid research and analysis, as well as polished presentations.

  • Additional Information for Everyone:

  • After you have done your research and are thinking about getting started on your presentation, first set down on paper the major historical points you wish to make and then build the presentation around those points. Be sure they connect to make an integrated whole.

  • Be sure to have back-up copies of everything you do. Have at least six copies of your paper. Judges are supposed to give your papers back to you, but sometimes they forget to do so, or they may want to keep them a while for later reference. If you make it to finals and haven't yet received your papers back, you will need that extra set.

  • If you move on from a regional to state competition, remember, you can change and improve the content of your entry. Profit from the comments of judges at one contest level to do better at the next.

  • You cannot change categories from one contest level to the next. For example, if you win in group projects at regional, and your partner drops out, you cannot enter as an individual project at the state contest. In such a case, you would have to get another partner, or explain to the group project judges that your partner could not come to the state contest.

  • Remember that your entry (paper, exhibit, performance or media) must be able to stand alone. Although judges interview students, the interview rarely affects the score. Additionally, in the finals at the state and national contests, no interview is conducted. This does not, however, mean the interview is unimportant. It has several functions:

  • To authenticate and validate the entry, and make sure that it is the students' own work.

  • To determine the degree of control that the student has over the historical material.

  • To give positive reinforcement for things well done and constructive criticism concerning weaknesses.

  • Keep in mind that you cannot expect the interview to be supplemental to the entry in terms of points you wish to make. Historical points you wish to make must be part of the entry presentation.