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Applying to College as a Debater: College Application and Consideration Process (Part 1)

Author: Carly Watson

Applying to college can be an incredibly daunting experience especially when you factor in trying to navigate the college process as a debater. In addition to all of the normal considerations about where to apply and attend, debaters are simultaneously figuring out how to join college debate teams and how college debate teams differ. I was a first generation college graduate who was lucky enough to have a lot of resources at my high school about the college application process but virtually no support surrounding the debate piece of the puzzle. I didn’t know if I should reach out proactively to college programs, if there were scholarships available for debate, or how to compare different college debate programs.

These posts will discuss the college application and consideration process as a debater, offer some advice about using debate as a means to secure financial support to attend college, and provide some metrics that students can use to compare different debate programs. These posts are not meant to be completely authoritative – everyone has unique circumstances when applying and selecting a college – and it’s also not meant to say that only debate matters when selecting a college. In fact, I’d advise most students to think first and foremost about the college, program(s) of interest, and general feelings about the school before considering how debate fits in. Debate can be an important part of a student’s college experience but, at the end of the day, you’re a student first and a debater second. This is meant to provide some insight at the unique intersection of considering college debate as a high school applicant.

Application Materials

OK, enough disclaimers – what should the college application and consideration process look like for debaters. First, I’d encourage high school debaters to use debate experience strategically in application materials. Both debate experience and competitive achievements are huge assets when applying to schools and you should be willing to use them. It’s important to provide context for your results and avoid debate jargon (an average admissions counselor has no idea what the Trevian Invitational is or how an affirmative works). Debate can be used as an example to demonstrate many skills admissions counselors are looking for. Which achievements you choose to highlight in your application materials depends on the skill(s) you’re looking to forefront to admissions. Did you increase your involvement and success over time? That demonstrates perseverance. Did you work your way up to being team captain? That demonstrates leadership. Did you do thousands of hours of research on the topic because you were interested? That demonstrates academic aptitude.

Debate can also be an experience that creates opportunities for letters of recommendation. If you have a coach who works with you, it’s likely that they would be able to speak specifically and highly about your debate experience. Letters of recommendation about debate are great ways to provide additional context for any results you include in your application materials. I didn’t have a coach that worked with us on debate content when I was in high school (shout-out to my high school chemistry teacher willing to drive us to tournaments) and I wish I’d known that judges in the broader debate community could also serve as references for me. If you’re from a school without in-building debate support, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who’s judged you over the course of your time in debate and can speak to your accomplishments or role on your debate team. If you’re looking for more detailed examples of using debate in the application and selection process, Perspectives Debate, Inc. did a great guide about this.

College coaches and directors can also write you letters of recommendations for the institutions they’re affiliated with. Both the general application process and occasionally for scholarships, schools will require letters of recommendation. If you’re working with a college coach or director at a specific program, you can ask them if they would be willing to serve as a reference for you. Having an internal advocate for admissions or scholarships can be another way to make your application stand out.

Reaching Out

In addition to using debate in application materials, students thinking about debating in college should reach out directly to debate programs early and proactively. It can feel daunting to reach out to directors of programs or coaches from the school (being honest here…I never did it as a high schooler) but they can be great resources in both the application and selection phase. Some debate programs have relationships with folks in admissions and even those that don’t have links with admissions usually have contacts across their campus. I love when students are considering MSU and I’m able to put them in touch with a specific program or area of study that they are interested in. See below for a sample email you can use to contact debate programs. GirlsDebate also has a post that includes a sample email template.

Like I mentioned, it can feel uncomfortable to be the one to initiate the conversation but it’s a totally expected and welcome email for programs to receive. Some high school debaters may be recruited directly by a program or school but that’s not a universal experience or necessary for participating on a college debate team. I applied to several debate schools but was too intimidated to email them and let them know. I had friends who were being courted by those programs proactively so I figured that meant they wouldn’t want me on their debate team or that emailing them would be annoying. Now, looking at it from the other side, I realize that was (likely) not the case. As a coach, I see being contacted by interested high school debaters as a compliment – definitely not an annoyance – and would welcome the opportunity to talk to more folks about MSU Debate.

One of the most common misconceptions is that only people who are accomplished high school debaters can/should email programs about debating there. FALSE. Many, many, many successful college debaters were not the most accomplished debaters from their year, region, or even high school. I completely understand the fear that you’re not good enough to debate in college or even good enough to email a debate program but, I promise, you are good enough to debate in college. It’s important to find a school that will be supportive of your debate goals and growth as a debater but there is no success metric that is required to reach out to college programs to find out more.

I’ll talk more about it in the post coming about scholarships but it’s also ideal to initiate these conversations early in the college process. Some schools/teams/scholarships have deadlines early in a student’s senior year (e.g. the November 1st early action deadline) so it can be hard to only start conversations with programs at the start of your senior year. If you don’t reach out early, that’s OK and programs will do their best to help you apply and receive financial awards but, in ideal scenarios, you would start conversations with some coaches and programs during your junior year.

Consideration Phase

The last piece of advice I’ll give about applying to college as a debater is the same advice I’d give to anyone applying to college – cast a wide net. This isn’t the part of the post where I tell you to apply to twenty schools – that’s a cumbersome approach to what is already a lot of work not to mention it’s not financially possible for some folks because of application fees – but it is the part of the post where I tell you to consider a lot of schools.

I’d recommend considering both debate and non-debate schools (I already mentioned that your list probably shouldn’t only be based on debate) but also looking at a variety of school types. Community college options can be more affordable and help students transition to college debate before choosing a four-year school. Additionally, private schools that might at first glance appear cost-prohibitive may actually provide students more need-based financial aid that makes the cost of attendance lower than public schools.

There are also debate-specific reasons to put many schools in the “consideration” bucket. For one thing, it’s basically impossible to learn details about a program without initiating a conversation with a coach or director. You can see results on Tabroom but it won’t give you much of a feel for what debating at that school would feel like. I had zero idea what college debate programs were actually like when I was considering attending (again, too scared to email people) so I was lucky to end up at a program where I felt comfortable. In retrospect, I wish I’d sent some feeler emails to a set of programs just to learn more about their team and the way things worked before I started applying. Starting a conversation with a debate program doesn’t force you to apply but it is pretty much the only way to know if it would be a good fit before applying.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk more about the most frequently asked question from high school debaters looking to debate in college – how to debate scholarships work?

Sample Email Template

To: Coach/Program Director

Subject: Prospective Debate Team Member

Dear [email recipient],

My name is [name] and I’m currently a [freshman/sophomore/junior/senior] at [high school] in [city], [state]. I’m potentially interested in attending [school] so I wanted to reach out to introduce myself and learn a little more about the team.

I have been involved in [type of debate] for [years of participation] years. During my time on the team, I have [Explain tournaments you’ve attended, results from tournaments, and/or other debate accomplishments. These don’t have to be “winning the TOC as a freshman” to catch a director’s attention – something like “coached our novices to state finals” would be great to highlight. The idea is just to give the recipient some context for your interest in college debate.].

I’m wondering if you could provide some more information about your debate program. Specifically, I’m curious about [insert several relevant comparison metrics for you].

** I currently have a [weighted GPA] weighted GPA, [unweighted GPA] unweighted GPA, received a [test score] on the [ACT/SAT], and am ranked [class rank] in my class. I am interested in studying [degree program/area of interest] at your institution.

Thank you for taking the time to give me some additional information about your program –


**The starred lines are things that I would consider optional. Providing some information about your high school statistics can be helpful to coaches/directors when they’re suggesting other sources of financial assistance but I’d understand if folks didn’t feel comfortable leading with that information. Explaining a specific program you’re interested in (if you already know) can also help them recommend other sources of information on campus.

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