National High School Essay Contest

USIP is proud to partner with the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) on the annual National High School Essay Contest for 2016-2017. The contest each year engages high school students in learning and writing about issues of peace and conflict, encouraging appreciation for diplomacy’s role in building partnerships that can advance peacebuilding and protect national security. The 2016-2017 contest challenges students to closely examine the causes and impact of the current global refugee crisis. 

Please note: the information below is the same as presented on the Contest’s main page. Any questions should be directed to AFSA at

2017 National High School Essay Contest Topic

According to the United Nations, 65 million people worldwide have left their homes to seek safety elsewhere due to violence, conflict, persecution, or human rights violations. The majority of these people are refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Imagine you are a member of the U.S. Foreign Service —– a diplomat working to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the United States abroad – and are now assigned to the U.S. embassy in one of these four countries.

  • Turkey
    (Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs)
  • Kenya
    (Bureau of African Affairs)
  • Afghanistan
    (Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs)
  • Iraq
    (Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs)

Your task is to provide recommendations to address the refugee/IDP crisis facing the country in which you are now posted. Using the resources available to you as a member of the Foreign Service, write a memo to your Ambassador outlining how the United States might help address the current unprecedented levels of displacement. You may choose to address issues related to the causes of refugee crisis, or to focus on the humanitarian crisis in your host country.

A qualifying memo will be 1,000-1,250 words and will answer the following questions:

  1. How does the crisis challenge U.S. interests in the country you are posted and more broadly?
  2. Specifically outline the steps you propose the U.S. should take to tackle the roots or the consequences of the crisis, and explain how it would help solve the issue or issues you are examining. How will your efforts help build peace or enhance stability?
  3. How do you propose, from your embassy/post of assignment, to foster U.S. government interagency cooperation and cooperation with the host-country government to address these issues?  Among U.S. government agencies, consider U.S. Agency for International Development, the Foreign Commercial Service and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Memo Template


TO: Ambassador ______________________

FROM: Only use your first name here


RE: Think of this as your title, make sure to include the country you are writing about


Here you want to lay out the problem, define criteria by which you will be deciding the best steps the U.S. could take, and include a short sentence or two on your final recommendation. Embassy leadership is very busy and reads many memos a day —– they should be able to get the general ““gist”” of your ideas by reading this section.


This section should provide any background information about the crisis or conflict relevant to your proposed policy. Here, you should mention why the issue is important to U.S. interests, especially peace and security.

Proposed Steps:

This is where you outline your proposed policy. Be specific in describing how the U.S. might address this issue and how these steps can contribute to peace and security. Include which organizations you propose partnering with and why.


This is where you write your final recommendations for embassy leadership. Think of this as a closing paragraph.

Companion Guide for the 2017 National High School Essay Contest

It is no easy task to jump into the role of a diplomat, especially when confronted by such an urgent crisis. USIP, in consultation with AFSA, developed a guide to provide a basic introduction to the topic and some additional context that can assist you in answering the question, while still challenging you to develop your own unique response. As such, this guide should be used as a starting point to your own research and as you ultimately prepare a compelling memo outlining recommendations the U.S. government should follow to respond to the refugee and IDP crisis.

In the guide you will find: insights into the role of the Foreign Service; country, organization, and key-term briefs to provide a foundational understanding; and a list of other useful resources. Download the Companion Guide for the 2017 National High School Essay Contest (.pdf).

Rule and Guidelines

  1. Your memo must be between 1,000 and 1,250 words.
  2. Complete the AFSA National High School Essay Contest Entry Submission Form. The teacher information is very important, as your teacher will be consulted should your essay be chosen as one of the top 25. If you do not include teacher information, your essay will not be accepted.
  3. Upload a copy of your original work in English on the designated topic, which should include a comprehensive list of sources consulted, to your AFSA National High Essay Contest Entry Submission Form. You must write on one of the topics provided; memos on other topics will not be accepted. Please mention the country in the subject line of your memo.
  4. All submissions must be original work, have a title, include a word count and have cited sources (word count does not apply to the list of sources.) All sources, including articles you have written, must be cited.
  5. Entries must be typed, double-spaced, in 12-point Times New Roman or an equivalent font with a one-inch margin on all sides of the page. Standards of content and style from MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 8th ed., will be expected for (1) documentation of sources in the text of your memo; (2) the format of the list of works cited; and (3) margins and indentation.6. A bibliography following the MLA Handbook must be included. Memos should use a variety of sources—academic journals, news magazines, newspapers, books, government documents, publications from research organizations. At least three of the cited materials should be primary sources (a document, speech, or other sort of evidence written, created or otherwise produced during the time under study). General encyclopedias, including Wikipedia, are not acceptable as sources. Memos citing general encyclopedias in notes or bibliography may be disqualified. Websites should not be the only source of information for your essay and need to be properly cited.
  6. Do not place your last name or your school's name on any of the pages of the essay. Only the registration form should include this information.
  7. Memos MUST be submitted in Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx) format. Memos submitted in any other format will not be considered.
  8. Faxed submissions will not be accepted
  9. Your memo will be disqualified if it does not meet the requirements or is submitted after the submission date of 11:59 p.m. EDT on March 15, 2017.
  10. Students whose parents are not in the Foreign Service are eligible to participate if they are in grades nine through twelve in any of the fifty states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. territories, or if they are U.S. citizens attending high school overseas. Students may be attending a public, private, or parochial school. Entries from home-schooled students are also accepted. Previous first-place winners and immediate relatives of directors or staff of the AFSA, the U.S. Institute of Peace, National Student Leadership Conference and Semester at Sea are not eligible to participate. Previous honorable mention recipients are eligible to enter.
  11. Teacher or Sponsor: Student registration forms must have a teacher or sponsor name. That person may review the submitted essay and act as the key contact between participants and AFSA. It is to the student’s advantage to have a coordinator review the essay to make sure it is complete, contains all the necessary forms, is free from typographical and grammatical errors, and addresses the topic.
  12. Your memo will become the property of the American Foreign Service Association once it is submitted, and will not be returned.
  13. The decisions of the judges are final.

Thank you for your memo submission and good luck!

Privacy Policy: AFSA collects your information for this contest and for AFSA partners. You may be signed up to receive updates or information from AFSA and our partners. You may receive a message from our sponsor regarding their program offerings. You will be notified if you are the winner or an honorable mention in May 2017. The names of winners and honorable mentions will be posted on the AFSA website in July 2017.

Writers Checklist

  • Is your memo written in English?
  • Does the memo answer this year’s essay contest question?
  • Does your memo address all parts of the contest question?
  • Have you given your memo a descriptive title with the name of the country you are writing about in the title?
  • Is your memo no more than 1,250 words long excluding works cited?
  • Have you made sure that your name, school, or city do NOT appear anywhere in the memo?
  • Have you scrupulously followed accepted standards regarding attribution of quotations, arguments, and ideas of others within the body of your paper and bibliography?
  • Have you made sure that Wikipedia is not a source?
  • Does your memo have standardized citations and bibliography?
  • Does your memo have end notes? (Please make sure you did NOT use footnotes.)
  • Are your online sources listed separately from other sources in your bibliography?
  • Are your teacher's name and contact information included as detailed in the contest guidelines?

2016 Winning Essay

USIP first partnered with AFSA for the 2016 contest and was pleased to welcome winner Dylan Borne to Washington in August. His paper describes his role as an economic officer in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. He writes about promoting education for girls in Afghanistan through on-line courses and dispersal of laptops. Read his winning essay (.pdf).