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Documentary | Exhibit | Paper | Performance | Website


Constantly changing technology offers students limitless possibilities in developing media-based presentations for the documentary category. Students may create documentaries using slides, film, videos, and/or computers. Whatever presentation format is chosen, students must be able to operate all equipment, both during production and at each level of competition.

Important: The most important aspect of any entry is its historical quality. Students should not get so caught up in the production of a documentary that they lose sight of the importance of the historical quality. Judges are not looking for glitzy productions; rather, they are looking for solid research and a thorough analysis of the chosen topic

Film and Video Presentations

The availability of home video cameras has increased the popularity of this entry category, although movie cameras are still used by some students. If students are able to use editing equipment in their school or elsewhere, this can be an exciting and educational project. Many communities have cable access stations that have video equipment available for public use. Following are some suggestions for film and video entries.Students should:

  • Operate all camera and editing equipment.
  • Draw up a storyboard of the scenes they will be shooting.
  • Present a variety of panning shots, interviews, live action, and still subjects.
  • Keep track of the scenes in a notebook or on index cards to make editing easier.
  • Include music as an effective addition to the sound track.
Computer-Based Presentations

The computer has become a very important tool for creating documentaries. Students are using computer technology to create special effects, animation, graphics, and other visuals for use in slide or video presentations. Students who choose to use the computer to create their entries should have access to computers with multimedia capabilities and should be familiar with at least one type of presentation software. QuickTime and Adobe Premiere are two examples of software packages that are used to create projects. Students should also have access to editing equipment that they can operate themselves.

While most students are using computers as tools to help them to create various aspects of their presentations, some students are using computers as their vehicle for presentation. Although doing so is acceptable, there are a number of limitations to using the computer as the presentation device: Computer equipment is not supplied at the various levels of competition—students will have to provide their own equipment; computer presentations cannot be interactive (judges cannot push buttons, etc.); computer monitors are often too small for the judges and the audience to see; and computer presentations often inadvertently focus on the technology behind the presentation rather than providing an in-depth analysis of a historical topic.

Slide Presentations

Although the use of video and computer-based presentations in the documentary category is growing, slide presentations are still popular and effective. Slides can be either purchased or produced by students. The key to an effective entry is a good combination of visual images and recorded narrative. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Make a storyboard of the types of images that explain the theme.
  • Photograph pictures from books to build a slide collection and avoid too much repetition.
  • Music is an important addition to the recorded narrative.
  • Make sure the narrative fits with the image on the screen.
Please note!

For those participating in the documentary category, please save your documentary in an MP4 file for the contest. You will receive instructions on how to upload your MP4 from your teacher or the contest section of this website.



Exhibits are designed to display visual and written information on topics in an attractive and understandable manner. They are similar to exhibits found in a museum. People walking by should be attracted to an exhibit’s main idea and, therefore, stop to learn more about the topic. To be successful, an exhibit must create an effective balance between visual interest and historical explanation. The most common form of exhibit entry is a three-panel display. This style is the least complicated to design and build but is still a very effective way to present information. Here are some tips for this style:

  • Be sure the title is the main focus of the center panel.
  • Use the center panel to present the main ideas.
  • The side panels are best used either to compare issues about the topic or to explain related detail.
  • Artifacts or other materials may also be placed on the table between the side panels.

The labels used for the title and main ideas are very important because they direct the viewer’s eye around the exhibit. One way to make labels stand out is to have the writing on a light-colored piece of paper with a darker background behind it. This can be done with construction paper, tag board, or mat board. Dark black lettering makes labels easier to read.

Photographs and written materials will also stand out more if they are placed on backgrounds.

Exhibit Design

Although students will be able to explain their exhibits during the initial judging, a successful exhibit must be able to explain itself. This makes it important to design an exhibit so that the photographs, written materials, and illustrations are easy to understand.

It is always tempting to put as much onto the panel boards as possible, but this usually makes for a cluttered and confusing display. Students should try to select only the most important items for their exhibit boards. Clarity and organization are the most important goals for an exhibit.

Three-Dimensional Exhibits

A three-dimensional exhibit is more complicated to construct but can be especially effective in explaining themes in which change over time is important. As in the three-panel display, one side should contain the title and main idea. As viewers move around the exhibit the development of the topic can be explored. It is not necessary for the exhibit itself to be able to spin. It may be set on a table (or on the floor) so that people can walk around it.

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Historical Paper

After a topic has been selected, a research paper involves three basic steps:

  1. Collect information.
  2. Organize the information.
  3. Present it to the reader in a clear and interesting fashion.

The paper should consist of an introduction stating the thesis of the work, a main section addressing the theme, and a conclusion flowing logically from the thesis statement and body. There are many books available that deal with the writing and documenting of research papers; one that is highly recommended is Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (University of Chicago Press).

Students should read the student contest rule book carefully and follow its guidelines. Particular attention should be paid to the length of a paper: it must be between 1500 and 2500 words, or approximately six to ten pages.  Note: Typically, there are twenty-five lines on a page and ten words per line, so if the paper runs over ten pages, it should be shortened.

A strong history paper does more than tell a story; it makes an argument.  Ray Karras’s “Writing Essays That Make Historical Arguments” offers helpful distinctions between narrative (storytelling) writing and interpretive writing.  All papers need a strong narrative, but authors also need to offer interpretation to guide their readers: what does the evidence suggest?  why does this story matter?  what change resulted from these events?


Every paper must have an annotated bibliography that is divided into primary and secondary sources. The entries should be in alphabetical order and correct bibliographic form (see Turabian’s Manual). Students should cite only those sources which they actually used in researching the paper. They should not add a lot of extraneous materials unless these are truly relevant to the text and should be careful about using a large number of pictures or maps. If there are too many, the judges may think that the student should have chosen a different category.

Papers should include footnotes. Footnotes are explanations provided by writers stating that ideas or quotations presented in the paper are not their own. Footnotes not only give credit to the originators of ideas, but also serve as evidence in support of a student’s ideas. Use footnotes in the following instances:

  • Quoting a primary source. Students should footnote any original material used, such as a selection from a speech or an interview. Example from Turabian:
    ¹ Merle A. Roemer, interview by author, tape recording, Millington, MD, 26 July 1973.
  • Quoting a secondary source. Direct quotations from someone’s book must be footnoted. Example from Turabian:
    ² Henry Seidel Canby, Walt Whitman: An American (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), 110.
  • Paraphrasing a secondary source. Even if a student describes an author’s ideas in his or her own words, the source of the information must still be footnoted. Example from Turabian:
    ³ Basil de Selincourt, “The Form,” in Walt Whitman: A Critical Study (London: M. Secker, 1914), 94-115.

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The performance category can be one of the most exciting ways to participate in History Day, since it is the only category in which students present their research live. Entries in this category must have dramatic appeal, but not at the expense of historical information. Creativity is the key here, and students must make effective use of their 10-minute time allowance. Here are some suggestions for students who are preparing performances:

  • Choose a theme-related topic that has personal interest and that will work particularly well as a performance.
  • Decide whether the chosen topic will be most effective as a group or as an individual performance.
  • Research the topic first. Write important facts or quotes which might be important to the performance; write a thesis statement, supporting statements, and a conclusion; and think about how these might become a part of the performance.
  • Prepare a script. Brainstorm about general ideas and the ways they might be presented. If a group is performing, each member should describe different ways that the characters might interact. When writing the script, make sure it contains references to the historical evidence found in the research. Using actual dialogue, quotations, or excerpts from speeches are good ways of putting historical detail into the performance. Remember that the script should center on the thesis statement, supporting statements, and the conclusion.
  • Be careful not to simply present oral reports on individuals which begin when they were born and end when they died. Instead, become the historical figure and write a script around an important time or place that will explain the major ideas.
  • Prepare the set. Think about different types of sets which might help in depicting the topic. Is there a prop that is central to the story?

Important: Don’t get carried away with props. Content is the most important factor, and any props used should be directly related to the theme. Remember that performers have only five minutes to set up and take down their props.

  • Prepare the costuming. Use the most authentic costumes possible. Good costumes help make a performer convincing, but be sure they are appropriate to the topic. Consult photographs or costume guides if unsure about appropriate dress.
  • Prepare the blocking. To block a performance is to determine where the actors will stand, move, and/or relate to the set. Students should think about these movements when deciding what type of set to design.
  • Practice, practice, practice! Work on the delivery, speaking clearly and pronouncing all words correctly. Practice voice projection so that the judges and the audience can hear every word. Practice with the set and full costumes as often as possible.

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Entry Production

All entries must be original productions constructed using NHDWebCentral ( beginning at the school level.  Complete instructions on how to create an account, getting started, and building a website are available in the new NHDWebCentral Instruction Guide (pdf).

You may use professional photographs, graphics, video, recorded music, etc. within the site. Such items must be integrated into the web site, and proper credit must be given within the site as well as in the annotated biography. The student must operate all software and equipment in the development of the web site.

NOTE: Using objects created by others specifically for use in your entry violates this rule. However, it is acceptable to use graphics, multimedia clips, etc. which already exist.

Size Requirements

Web site entries may contain no more than 1,200 visible, student-composed words. Code used to build the site, and alternate text tags on images do not count toward the word limit. The word limit does not include words found in materials used for illustration such as documents, artifacts or graphs not created by the student, or quotations from primary sources, photos of artifacts with writing, or other illustrative materials such as reoccurring menus, titles and navigation instructions that are used as an integral part of the web site. Brief text crediting the sources of illustrations or quotations included on the web site do not count toward the 1,200-word limit.

The entire site, including all multimedia, may use up to 100MB of file space.


One page of the web site must serve as the “home page.” The home page must include the names of participants, entry title, division, and a main menu that directs viewers to the various sections of the site. All pages must be interconnected with hypertext links. Automatic redirects are not permitted.


Each website may contain multimedia clips (audio, video, or both) that total no more than three (3) minutes.  Recording quotes or primary source materials for dramatic effect is allowed, but you may not record a voice narration for the website.

Required Written Materials

The annotated bibliography and process paper must be included as an integrated part of the web site. They must be in PDF format and should be included in the navigational structure of the website. These two items do  NOT count toward the 1,200-word limit.  

Stable Content

The content and appearance of a page cannot change when the page is refreshed in the browser. Random text or image generators are not allowed.

Viewing Files

Entries may not link to live or external sites, except to direct viewers to free, secure, and legal plug-ins such as Real Player or QuickTime.

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