“Remember, there is $10,000 riding on this speech. Don’t—mess—up.”
I stared at the contest administrator wide-eyed. Was that advice supposed to be helpful? Giving a speech with $10,000 riding on it already felt like the most nerve-wracking competitive experience of my life… But it was also amazing!!
Did you know you can give speeches for scholarship money? In the busyness that often defines high school, many skilled communicators neglect incredible opportunities to hone their public speaking skills while earning money for college. Yet a number of public speaking scholarships are out there just waiting to be contested. In this article, I’ll tell you about 5 amazing speech scholarship opportunities and share some valuable tips on how to succeed at them…
The Contests to Know About…
1) American Legion Oratorical Contest
My personal favorite, the American Legion Oratorical Contest offers generous scholarship money and provides students with the opportunity to study the U.S. Constitution in-depth and communicate Constitutional literacy. At local levels, the contest involves given a memorized, ten-minute prepared oration about some aspect of the U.S. Constitution. If competitors advance to higher levels, they are asked to prepare four shorter speeches on specific sections of the Constitution. The contest provides generous scholarships at every level, with particularly large scholarships given at the national level ($18,000, $16,000, and $14,000 given to first, second, and third place respectively). Students should contact their local American Legion post to register; post-level competitions may begin near the end of the fall semester.
Pro Tips: This contest is quite a bit of work, but is very rewarding and lucrative. Talk to students in your state who have competed successfully before to learn what styles and content seem to work well in your area. Also, enjoy the amazing veterans you will meet through this program—it’s an opportunity of a lifetime!
2) Veterans of Foreign Wars “Voice of Democracy”
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) annual speech contest requires participants to make a voice recording of a three to five minute speech on an annual topic focused on democracy. The recording must be submitted to your local VFW post in October, where it will be judged and potentially continue to advance to higher levels. Scholarship money is accrued at each level. At the national level, VFW offers very large scholarships, including $30,000 for the first-place winner. This contest is one of my favorites, particularly because it is not very work intensive and the topics are usually interesting.
Pro Tips: Take the time to make a quality voice recording—don’t just use your laptop microphone. Find a friend with some decent recording equipment. Or if your church records sermons, ask if they would be willing to let you record your speech using the same audio equipment (mine did!). Further, you may find you need to over-enunciate and use more energy than usual to make your vocal recording sound compelling.
3) Optimist International
Optimist International hosts an annual oratorical scholarship competition each year. Participants are tasked with delivering a 4-5 minute speech on an annual topic (always related to optimism). Participants begin the competition at the club level and advance several levels if they continue to win, accruing scholarship money along the way. To register, contact your local Optimist International club. Club-level contest deadlines differ based on the club, but the first competition is typically held by mid-March.
Visit: https://www.optimist.org/member/scholarships4.cfm for more information.
Pro Tips: Stay optimistic. The contest organizers often recruit local Optimist club members to judge the contest, and they typically value a highly positive life attitude. Leave your melancholy feelings at home.
4) Sons of the American Revolution “Historical Oration Contest”
The Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) contest gives the participants the opportunity to deliver a 5-6 minute memorized oration on a topic related to the American Revolution. Competitors start at the chapter level and can advance to the state and national competitions. The national winner is given a $5,000 scholarship, with smaller amounts given to lower placings and participants. While the contest is not as lucrative as some of the others, it may likewise feature less competition. Students should contact their local SAR chapter to get started.
Visit: https://www.sar.org/education/youth-contests-awards/joseph-s-rumbaugh-historical-oration-contest for more information.
Pro Tips: The contest organizers are typically very passionate about the American Revolution. Show that you share that passion.
5) Specific Competitions for YOU
The four competitions discussed above happen all across the nation. But many more opportunities exist only at the state and local levels. Local Rotary clubs, political organizations, and even major corporations often host scholarship contests. Put your research skills to use and investigate what opportunities might exist in your unique corner of America! Further, many individual colleges offer speech and/or debate scholarships for incoming students, especially if you are willing to be part of a speech or debate team in college. The National Speech and Debate Association keeps a list of colleges that offer speech and/or debate scholarships, which you can check out here:
While the list is helpful, it is not comprehensive–you should also check with individual colleges yourself. Ellen Neumann—a high school speech alumnus and Lasting Impact coach—shares her experience, “I received a speech and debate scholarship from a school that I was looking into. I simply had to present one of my speeches. I was recorded. They presented me with their speech scholarship of $16,000–$4,000 each year.” Other colleges offer general scholarships based on an interview process. Put your speech skills to use and nail that interview!
Making the most of your scholarship-seeking opportunities…
As I enter my 7th season of coaching high school speech and debate, I still marvel at how many talented students choose not to take advantage of scholarship opportunities. I like to tell my students that applying for scholarships is a matter of stewardship: God has given you unique skills and resources—go make the most of them! By diligently pursuing oratorical and other scholarships in high school, I was able to relieve my parents of a significant financial burden and myself of future debt. I believe that diligence honors God, and in His grace He often chooses to bless it.
But you have to be smart about it. Stay organized, do your research, and prepare well. Pick the scholarships with the most potential for you given your unique skills and geographical location, and focus on those. (And by the way, your mom shouldn’t have to be doing this for you—be mature and take initiative yourself!) The following tips can help you be the best competitor you can be:
1) Start early
Most high school scholarships opportunities allow you to start in 9th grade. Don’t wait to your senior year to start—start now! The competitions listed above typically allow you to compete multiple years and to combine winnings year after year. Also, by starting early, you can learn the unique quirks of a specific program and improve yourself for future years. I was personally able to do this with the American Legion Oratorical Contest. I competed my sophomore year of high school and learned from some mistakes I made along the way. I was able to apply that knowledge to my speeches the next year and took home the national championship. (Though if you are a senior reading this, don’t be discouraged—starting now is better than never starting!)
2) Analyze winning speeches from prior years.
Almost all major contests post videos of past contest winners on YouTube. Watch as many of these as you can and look for consistent traits. Every contest is looking for something uniquely different—don’t assume that what is judged a “good speech” in one competition will be considered a “good speech” in another contest. Give them what they’re looking for.
3) Talk to people who have succeeded in the competition.
Speech and debate tends to be a pretty small world. Chances are you know someone who competed in each of the contests above. Talk to other people about their experiences, especially if they’ve competed in your specific area. Listen to their advice and learn from their triumphs and mistakes. Most former competitors are happy to help. For example, since winning the American Legion Oratorical Contest in 2012, I’ve received e-mails from students every year who are planning to compete. I’m always impressed when students take the time to reach out with thoughtful questions—it shows me they are taking the competition seriously.
4) Have thick skin and don’t give up.
As great as scholarships competitions can be, disappointment is inevitable. Not everyone will love your speaking. Not every contest will be fair. Not every judge will be reasonable. But don’t let discouragement damper your tenacity. Smile, lose graciously, and come back next year. I myself had a host of disappointing experiences in scholarship competitions, from bizarre judging to rude competitors to entries misplaced by contest organizers. Keep at it, even when it’s hard!
So go do it!
At the end of the day, the very fact that students can win money for giving speeches should excite us all. Make the most of your high school years by using your skills to prepare for your future. After all, there’s a world of opportunity out there!