Skip to main content

Debate Society FAQ

What is the Debate Society at Northwestern?

Well, for starters, the Debate Society is the oldest co-curricular student organization at Northwestern. Established in 1856, one year after induction of the University’s first class of students, the Debate Society is the oldest most successful continuous program of its kind in the United States. From our perspective, debate is regarded as an educational tool for developing students’ analytical and communication skills. Accordingly, every aspect of the program – independent research, individual coaching, small group discussions, and intercollegiate competition – is planned with a view to the contribution it can make to the educational process.

Forums, Topics, and Formats

What Forums Or Formats Of Debating Do Members Of The Debate Society Participate In?

Our students participate in “policy debate,” a two-on-two format that focuses principally on questions of public policy. Students “switch-sides,” meaning that in a typical tournament with eight preliminary debates each team is assigned to debate on the “affirmative” four times and on the “negative” four times. The objective of this format is to teach argument skills, not ideology. Accordingly, students learn to defend some positions they may personally agree with and some with which they differ. Whatever your chosen profession – business, law, the academy – you will need the skills required to articulate a well considered and well developed position. Our objective is to provide you with the skills required to defend a strong case in whatever advocacy situation you may confront.

What Topics Do You Debate?

The topic for this season is Resolved: that the United States Federal Government should substantially reduce its agricultural support, at least eliminating nearly all of the domestic subsidies, for biofuels, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, corn, cotton, dairy, fisheries, rice, soybeans, sugar and/or wheat.

Past topics include broad questions of both domestic and foreign policy. Recent past domestic topics reach to issues like energy policy, environmental regulation, civil rights legislation, and Supreme Court rulings. Recent foreign policy topics include American relations with the Peoples Republic of China, the European Union, and the Middle East.

When Is The Topic Announced?

The general topic area for each season is announced in mid-April. The “topic area” then produces a ballot of several specific potential topic wordings presented to the policy debate community membership in early June. A final selection is made by way of one vote per member institution; the winning resolution is typically announced on the last Friday in July.

Other Debating Formats

I Debated In A Different Format In High School. Do You Offer Competition In Other Formats (Lincoln-Douglas, Parliamentary Debate, Public Forum, Model United Nations, Student Congress,)?

The Debate Society offers only policy debate. This is the historical orientation of the program, the oldest competitive college debate team in the country. With 13 National Debate Tournament Championships to its credit, Debate Society students and alumni are part of the most successful policy debate program in history. We are proud of this rich history, heritage, and tradition, and work tirelessly to maintain a record of unparalleled distinction.

Unlike many high school tournaments, college competitions are typically divided by the various formats for debating. Our sister program, The Northwestern University Speech Team, offers competition in Lincoln Douglas and Parliamentary Debate and a full range of Individual Forensics Events.

Student Congress is not offered competitively at the college level, although the Speech Team does organize intramural Student Congress. Public Forum Debate, a relatively new program at the high school level, has yet to develop a precise parallel in college competition. Most closely affiliated with Public Form are the Lincoln-Douglas and Policy formats. Model U. N. at Northwestern is a student run program only, again not a part of the Debate Society. You can contact Model United Nations at Northwestern University.

Are These Other Formats That Different From Policy Debate? If I Have Participated In Lincoln-Douglas, Parlimentary, Public Forum, Student Congress, Or Model U.N., Can I Easily Transition To Policy Debate?

A few students have successfully transitioned from other forms and formats of debating. Our alumni ranks, for instance, include a National Debate Tournament Top Speaker who was exclusively a Lincoln-Douglas debater while in high school. And, in fact, one of our very top competitors for the current topic is led by a student who debated exclusively in Lincoln-Douglas Debate while in High School. It is certainly possible to move from alternative forums to policy, but the transition can be both difficult and demanding. We are committed to working hard with students who are seriously committed to making the switch, but that changeover will only work if you are truly dedicated to the hard work and practice required to make an effective transition. If you are willing to work hard at learning and adjusting to the differences between policy and other formats. Such a change, however, is not for the faint of hart. The differences between policy debate and alternative formats can be substantial. We recommend that you watch at least a couple of competitive policy debates and discuss the differences, as well as your goals and objectives, with members of our coaching staff before you decide to switch formats. If you are willing to make a serious commitment, so too will the coaching staff.

Program Philosophy

What Would You Say Is The Most Important Philosophy Of The Northwestern University Debate Society?

Our objective is to offer a challenging and rewarding debate experience to highly motivated and hard working undergraduates. We aim to teach top-notch critical and strategic thinking skills, high quality research and argument production, and to teach articulate leaders for the next generation. These pedagogical objectives subsequently produce competitive debate teams. We seek to create a teamwork environment where students learn to work both for their own improvement and success and for the improvement and success of their peers. We work first and foremost from a philosophy that is rooted in the four pillars of success: teamwork, hard work, character, and commitment. These principles are the essential elements that make the debate experience at Northwestern unique. We are firmly committed to the idea that when one of us wins, we all win, and when one of us looses, we all loose. We want each and every member of the Debate Society to work first and foremost to their own betterment. But we also believe it to be essential that students see themselves as part of a team. Our objective is to create an environment where each and every participant feels ownership in their own success and the success of their colleagues and peers. To borrow from an American icon: “Talent wins games. Teamwork wins championships.”

Can I Participate In Other Co-Curricular Activities If I Join The Debate Society.?

Yes. In fact, we encourage students to diversify their co-curricular experience. Past Debate Society students have participated in a variety of co-curricular activities: the Associated Student Government, the College Democrats and College Republicans, the Northwestern Volunteer Network, and Fraternities and Sororities, to name a few. One past national champion was a member of a rock-n-roll band while a member of the Debate Society. With that said, be aware that if your personal objective is to compete effectively at the highest level of college debate – if you want to win college tournaments – then debate will have to be your top co-curricular priority. You can make exceptional grades, win college debate tournaments, and participate in the College Democrats or Republicans. You can’t get the President of the College Democrats, win the National Debate Tournament, and graduate with a 3.8 GPA. There are not enough hours in the day. Still, we believe that diversity in the student experience is an important part of the college experience.

The Coaching Staff

Who Coaches Members Of The Debate Society?

The Debate Society is Directed a full time member faculty member in the Department of Communication Studies. The Director is assisted by two PhD candidates from Communication Studies, and one full time Assistant Debate Coach. The group is also aided from time to time by various alumni and friends of the program. To view complete biographies of the entire coaching staff, click on Coaches from the main page.

What Role Does The Coaching Staff Play In Preparing Students For Competition?

Together, the coaching staff seeks to accomplish four principle objectives in preparing students for competition. First, we help guide, organize, and prepare argument, strategy, and research priorities for the topic. Together, we bring years of high level debate experience to bear to help the group make decisions about these priorities. Second, we assist students with research and argument construction with an eye to turning out high quality files on the national topic. Third, we help students improve their in-round debating skills: persuasion, technical ability, strategic decision-making, and the like. Finally, we travel to tournaments with students and help them connect their prepared strategies to the arguments employed by our competitors. In this capacity, we help students make strategic adjustments based upon development of our competitor’s argument portfolio.

Are Students Assigned To One Particular Coach, Or Do They Have Access To The Entire Coaching Staff.

Both. Students are encouraged to work with the full range of coaching resources made available to them. Each member of the coaching staff has a certain set of expertise. For instance, one may be better at working with political capital arguments, while another may be stronger with arguments grounded in critical theory. Since students must face all kinds of strategic approaches from the opposition, they are encouraged to take advantage of the diversity of the coaching staff. This said, specific coaching assignments are made at two points in the program. All first year students are assigned to a specific coach. This is not designed to deter first year students from working with the entire staff, but aims to help students as they get acclimated to the Debate Society by providing them a regular coach with whom they can consult. In addition, research assignments come with a coach’s name attached. We try to match the substantive expertise of each coach to the particulars of the assignment list.

Do Coaches “Cut Cards” That Debate Society Students Can Use In Competition?

Coaches work as hard in preparation for competition as do students. We are proud of a rich tradition of hard working student members, and members of the coaching staff try as hard as possible to contribute constructively to the entire effort. On the rare occasion that student members cut back their effort, likely so will the coaches.

Criteria for Membership

How Many Students Participate As Active Members Of The Debate Society?

On average, approximately 30 undergraduates are active members of the Debate Society. This makes Northwestern one of the largest programs in the United States, reflecting the strength of the University’s commitment to competitive academic debate.

Do I Have To Have Prior Experience In Order To Join The Team?

Yes. Three or four years of high school experience in policy debate is highly recommended. While the University has made a substantial commitment to the Debate Society, we are not staffed or funded to develop a competitive program for beginners. Over the years, a hand full of self-motivated hard working beginners have worked their way onto the team. It is possible, but it is very challenging to do so.

Do Interested Students Have To Participate In “Try-Outs” Before They Can Join The Debate Society?

There are no “try-outs” per se. There are a variety of criteria for participation, but a “try-out” is not one of them.

Getting Started

What’s The First Step? What Do I Do If I Want to Join The Debate Society?

If you are interested in joining, send a note indicating your interest to

What’s The Timeline For Beginning Participants? When Can I Expect To Hear Details About When And Where We Start?

Those who have expressed interest in joining the team can expect to hear details about the “Rogers House,” our annual pre-season workshop, on or about June 15. The Rogers House letter includes a variety details about when and where students should report for the start of the season. Both parents and students are strongly encouraged to read the Rogers House letter in detail. It is designed to answer a host of questions frequently asked by moms, dads, sons, and daughters. This section provides a short summary, but the letter itself gets into a host of details. The letter is distributed electronically to the e-mail address provided by students as they declare interest in the program.

Pre-Season Preparation and “Rogers House” Workshop

What Is The “Rogers House”?

The “Rogers House,” and institution in Northwestern debate, is our pre-season work session aimed at preparing students for the new topic. It is an intensive living-learning experienced designed to acclimate students to the rigors of college debate and prepare them on the substance of topic questions for the coming season. It is in some ways similar to summer programs that most high school debaters have attended, although in some important strategic and substantive debate ways it differs.

When Does It Begin? Conclude?

In most years, the Rogers House begins with arrival of students on the last Sunday in August, although the dates occasionally vary. For freshman, the Rogers House concludes just as New Student Week begins. For upperclassman, the Rogers House runs right up until the start of classes.

Where Do Students Live During The Rogers House?

Students live together in a single dormitory, once called the “Rogers House.” Our designated dormitory now referred to by the University simply as the “Early Arrival” dormitory, rotates from year to year, but in any event, we stay together in a single dorm location.

When Do Students Move To Their Regular Fall Housing? How Do They Get There?

Good News. “Early Arrival” students get to move from their initial dorm into their permanent fall housing the day before the new student class arrives on campus. This makes moving easier, more efficient, and more pleasant. When “Big Switch Day” comes along, the day we move out of “Early Arrival” housing, the Debate Society will provide a Cargo Van with which to move student’s belongings.

Do Students Have To Bring All Of Their Belongings At The Start Of The Rogers House?

No. Bring what you need for the work session. We will provide an address to which other items can be shipped once New Student Week begins.

How Much Does The Rogers House Cost?

Students must cover the cost of their dormitory housing, typically about $350. They are also responsible for their own meals. Evanston is full of affordable meal alternatives. There is no tuition per se. Instruction is provided by members of the Debate Society Coaching Staff. While school does not otherwise start for 3-4 weeks after the beginning of the Rogers House, we consider this group instruction part of our student-teacher responsibility.

Do I Have To Attend The Rogers House In Order To Participate?

Well, yes. Frankly, while not technically required, it would be very difficult for you to catch-up on the topic were you to miss any substantial portion of the Rogers House, not to mention how difficult it would be to acclimate yourself to the team. Students are welcome to try, but the odds of successful participation without the opening work session are not good.

Criteria for Participation

I Participated In Policy Debate For Four Years In High School, But I Never Competed On The “National Circuit.” Do I Have A Chance To Compete As A Member Of The Northwestern University Debate Society?

Sure. While prior experience in policy debate is a strongly recommended prerequisite for membership on the team, policy debaters of all stripes have found success at Northwestern. In fact, precisely half of the students on our National Debate Tournament Championship teams in the 1990’s and 2000’s are from high schools that do not debate on the high school national circuit.

Are There “Card Quotas” Or Some Other Work-Related Requirements for Debate Society Participants?

There are no “card quotas” per se. All students are expected to contribute to the group research effort, but the program provides flexibility in that objective. Sophomores, juniors and seniors typically contribute more to the research effort than do first year students. And students are encouraged to make only a very limited research commitment at exam time. High quality and reliable research and argument writing are more important than quantity as such.

Is There A Grade Requirement for Participation In The Debate Society?

Absolutely. Members who wish to participate in the traveling squad must maintain a minimum 3.0 Grade Point Average. Most Debate Society students regularly post GPAs well in excess of this minimum requirement. Many graduate with GPAs in the neighborhood of 3.7 or 3.8.

Are There Other Requirements For Membership In The Society?

In addition to your participation in the research effort and maintenance of a good GPA, students are also required to attend weekly team meetings and to perform practice speeches and debates as necessary. Members are also required to assist with tournaments hosted by the Debate Society, attend quarterly Public Debates, and assist with Annual Debate Society Alumni Reunions.

How Many Hours A Week Does It Take To Participate In The Debate Society?

That depends on your competitive objectives and on the time of the quarter. If your aim is to be competitive to win major college tournaments, then debate will require a substantial commitment. If your goals are more modest, then your time commitment will be more modest. In a week where you have midterm exams scheduled, you will spend very little time on debate regardless of your competitive objectives. In a week preceding a big tournament, expect a substantial commitment.

How Are Partners Chosen?

Undergraduates debate two-on-two against students from other schools. Team pairings are created by mutual agreement between student members and the coaching staff. The mutual request of two students to debate with one another is given substantial presumption. In the event that students can not agree upon who is to debate with whom, the coaching staff take input from all participants and create a slate of team pairings. We consider three criteria when choosing teams: complementary strengths and weaknesses, similar experience and commitment levels, and personal compatibility between pairs of students.

Can Graduate Students Debate?

No, not in the policy debate competitions in which the Debate Society participates. There are virtually no organized debating competitions for students beyond the undergraduate level.

Strategy and Research

Do Students Share Topic Research?

Absolutely. The work of each member is property of the whole. This gives us the best chance to take full advantage of the large size of the team. In addition, this policy reflects our commitment to the importance of team work and hard work. These twin pillars constitute one of the most important values that the Debate Society brings to student members.

How Are Research Assignments Determined?

The research assignment list is the collective product of all members of the Society, students and staff alike. At the beginning of season, we spend substantial time as a group brainstorming argument and strategy possibilities on both sides of the topic. From that process, the group comes to agreement on a list of research priorities. During the season, argument priorities are determined both by what positions our opposition has developed, as well as the ongoing brainstorming process.

I Hear That Some Schools Are “Policy Only” While Other Programs “Kritik”Or “Performance” Schools. Do Northwestern Teams Rely Primarily Or Exclusively On One Type Of Strategy?

Over the year we have had very strong teams who rely principally on policy based strategies, as well as exceptional teams that have relied exclusively on “kritik” based strategies. We have also had teams that regularly mix the two strategic alternatives. For example, the Northwestern team of Sean McCaffity and Joseph Terry won back-to-back National Debate Tournament Championships in 1994 and 1995. They relied principally on policy based arguments: case arguments, counter-plans, disadvantages. Within that context, they consistently sought to find the best argument mix available. By contrast, Northwestern students Geoff Garen and Tristan Morales were the first “kritik” team to win the National Debate Tournament in 2003. In 2005, Josh Branson and Tristan Morales won the National Debate Tournament with a genuine mix of strategies. They relied upon nuanced and sophisticated counter-plan arguments, mainstream disadvantages, and both “old schools” and “cutting edge” critical arguments to formulate a fully stocked arsenal of both affirmative and negative arguments. Michael Gottlieb and Ryan Sparacino pioneered the multi-dimentional offense on their way to back-to-back National Debate Tournament titles in 1998 and 1999. In the end, we search for the very best winning strategies available, with the final selection criteria grounded in what works best for a particular team’s skill level, intellectual interest, and that which gives students’ the greatest promise of success.

Tournament Travel

How Many Tournaments Can The Typical First Year Student Expect To Attend?

Typically, first year students attend four tournaments in the Fall Quarter and four tournaments in the Winter Quarter. The Spring Quarter is typically free of college debate tournaments. The number of tournaments increases to approximately five per quarter by the junior year.

Do First Year Students Begin In Novice Or Junior Varsity Competition?

Generally not. The coaching staff is very much committed to a principle of baptism by fire. We believe that the best way to understand the differences between high school and college debate is to get a challenging experience in the first year. Some students may loose a bit more than they are accustomed to, but the experience of varsity competition in the first year will pay off in the long term.

What Costs Are Associated With Tournament Travel? What About Other Costs Related To Participation In The Society?

The University covers most of the costs associated with tournament travel. The Debate Society pays for tournament entry fees, air and ground transportation to each tournament, and lodging for students and staff. The Debate Society also covers the cost of copying the briefs produced by each student for each team on the squad. You are responsible for some meals at tournaments; most tournaments provide some meals as part of the entry fee. You are also responsible your basic office supply needs: flow pads, pens, file folders, etc.

At What Tournaments Do Students Debate? Are They Primarily Local Or Nationwide?

We travel a full national schedule that takes students from Boston to Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, Chicago to Atlanta, and points in between. We typically travel by charter bus to any location within an eight hour drive of Chicago; otherwise, we fly.


Do I Have To Major In Communication Studies In Order To Be A Member Of The Debate Society?

No. The Department of Communication Studies, academic home to the Debate Society, is a world-class program; many experts rate it as the best of its kind in the United States. Many Debate Society students choose Communication Studies as their academic home. However, the program is open to full time undergraduates enrolled and in good standing in any of the Universities degree and certificate programs.

What Do Most Debate Society Students Major In?

Over the years, Debate Society students have hailed from every academic program on campus. The typical Debate Society student can be found in one of a handful of academic majors: Communication Studies, Economics, History, Philosophy, Political Science, and Sociology. However, the program has been home to students from academic programs as diverse as the School of Engineering to the School of Music, and virtually every program in-between.

Is It Possible To Earn A Degree In Debating?

No, not as such. There are, however, courses offered in debate that students can take. First year students are strongly encouraged to enroll in Argumentation and Debate in the Fall Quarter. The Fall section of that course is limited to members of the Debate Society and it is used to help students adjust to the differences between college and high school debate.

What Do Most Debate Society Alumni Do Upon Graduation?

Many attend law school. Almost all go to graduate or professional school of some nature. In recent years, Debate Society students have attended the law schools virtually every top ten law school in the country: Harvard University, Stanford University, Columbia University, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Duke University, the University of Virginia, New York University, and Northwestern University, to name a few.

Beyond law school, recent graduates have attended graduate schools in all sorts of fields and professions. Examples of recent placement of Debate Society students include: a PhD Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a PhD Fellow in Sociology at Yale University, a PhD Fellow in Economics at Stanford, A Master’s candidate in Economics at the London School of Economics, an MBA candidate in the School of Business at the University of Chicago, medical school students at the University of Chicago and the University of Texas, and a student in the world famous Kendall College of Cooking. One student recently earned a prestigious Marshall Fellowship to study at Oxford University in England. Another was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study Democratic transition in Eastern Europe.

Admissions and Financial Aid

Will My Debate Experience Help Me Get Into Northwestern?

Well, that depends. Extra-curricular activities are but one of many components to a successful application for admission. Debate success can complement your application, but it will not substitute for a glaring weakness in your profile. In the end, your previous grades, test scores, extra-curricular activities, writing skills and statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and other factors combine to produce a full picture of your candidacy. Strong past debate participation certainly helps any application, but alone a good debate record is likely insufficient. There are a number of former debaters in the administration at Northwestern, and NU is the only school in the country to inquire about your debate interest on the application for admission, so it is an extra-curricular activity to which we assign substantial importance.

What Can I Do To Improve My Chance Of Admission?

If you are reading this late in your junior or early in your senior year in high school, the most important things you can do are (a) earn the best grades you are capable of, and (b) do the best job possible in drafting your application essays. At this juncture, much of your profile is already established. These are two areas where you still retain substantial control. Do your best to demonstrate that you are in fact a serious student and that you have a good reason for choosing Northwestern as opposed to other top schools vis-a-via your essays. The difference between a 70% win-loss record in debate and a 72% percent record is marginal at best. And upward trend in your grade performance and well written essays that that articulate your “fit” with Northwestern will, in the final analysis, have a much bigger impact on the admissions decision.

Who Should I Ask To Write A Recommendation? What If I Can Get Someone Powerful Like My Congressman Or The Governor Of My State?

You should ask persons who are best able to address your capacity to excel in a challenging academic environment. If you have worked extensively with Congressman Doolittle, then ask. But if you only know a famous person through casual connections, then their word is unlikely to sway the decision about your admission. It is important that the recommender know you well and has some sense of what it takes to succeed at a place like Northwestern.

Should I Arrange For An Alumni Interview?

Interviews are certainly available as outlined at They are not required, and many applicants do not take them. They can help or hurt your chances for admission, but, in the end, are a relatively minor part of the admissions process given that Northwestern does not have comparable data on every candidate on this criteria.

Are There Scholarships For Debating At Northwestern?

No, not scholarships per se. Financial Aid at Northwestern is need based. That said, the Hardy Scholarship Fund provides a couple of important opportunities for members of the Debate Society. Most importantly, it offers the opportunity to “buy-out” of a student’s Work Study award, replacing Work Study money dollar-for-dollar with Hardy Award money. Work Study replacement is not automatic; rather, Debate Society students must demonstrate that they are sufficiently committed to the debate team so as to justify an award from the fund.

Second, the Hardy Scholarship Fund also provides for appropriate budget “add-ons” for students with unique needs. For instance, in the contemporary debate environment, it is virtually impossible for students to compete effectively without a notebook computer, printer and scanner. In some cases, Hardy Scholarship Awards can be made o facilitate a student’s purchase of these equipment. While most debate related expenses are covered by way of the travel budget, costs that are otherwise uncovered may be supported via the Hardy Scholarship Fund.

There are a variety of other ways in which the Hardy Scholars fund may be able to help depending upon your particular circumstance. Send specific inquiries to