The Concord Review is the most prestigious journal for high school students in the social sciences. As William Fitzsimmons, long-time Dean of Admissions at Harvard College, put it “A simple fact that an essay has been published by The Concord Review is something that’s impressive to the committee, just as the committee can be impressed when a scientist or mathematician does well in an international competition.”
The Concord’s Review’s prestige comes from its high level of selectivity (currently less than 5%), focus on quality, and long track record of winners going on to top universities. In 2010, 10% of all students published in the journal had gone to Harvard College. As the Concord Review describes, many authors will attach their Concord Review in their application. Of students who have been published, they have “gone on to Brown(35), University of Chicago(36), Columbia(31), Cornell(21), Dartmouth(24), Harvard(152), Oxford(17), Pennsylvania(30), Princeton(76), Stanford(86), Yale(123).”
So, what is the Concord Review and how can you build a paper that is accepted? In this guide, we’re going to go through what the Concord Review is, what it looks for in papers, and what you need to do to stand a chance.
What is the Concord Review | A brief history
The Concord Review was founded in 1987 by Will Fitzugh when he was a teacher at Concord-Carlisle High School in Massachusetts. The goal of the journal was to introduce more students to long-form history writing. At the time, he reached out to a few thousand high schools in the United States and their respective history teachers and requested submissions to the journal. Papers began to come in and Fitzugh launched the first journal.
Since then, the journal has grown in its scale and number of submissions. Though the Concord Review does not report exact numbers of its submissions, in 2020, 44 student papers were published of an estimated 900 papers submitted. The journal is considered to be the most prestigious competition for students interested in history, equivalent, as Harvard’s Admission Dean Fitzsimmon’s noted, to a student in mathematics winning a national math competition.
How selective is the Concord Review?
The Concord Review is ranked as most selective by our team, due to its acceptance rate of around 5% in most recent years. The quality of the papers that are published is also very high, with the average length of papers in the past year at 9000 words. A qualitative assessment of the quality of the papers, also indicates significant time invested and a high level of writing.
Essay Requirements | What does the Concord Review look for in papers? The Concord Review gives somewhat broad requirements on their website. We’ll talk below about what else you’ll need to do.
Paper must be written in secondary school.
You must be the sole author
The paper must be in English and may not have been previously published
Essays should be in the 4,000-6,000 (or more) word range, with Turabian (Chicago) endnotes and bibliography. The longest paper we have published was 21,000 words (on the Mountain Meadows Massacre).
Essays may be on any historical topic, ancient or modern, domestic or foreign, and must be submitted electronically.
Essays should have the notes and bibliography placed at the end (Chicago Style).
More informally (but implicitly true), the essay must be
Thoroughly researched (e.g.,, aa minimum of 10 distinct sources)
Well-written and clear
Minimum of 6000 words, but on average 9000 is the average length published.
As the website describes “The Concord Review is published quarterly, and issues arrive in September, December, March and June. Essays are eligible for at least the next four issues.” In general, you will hear back about a month before the publication.
In other words, after submitting to the Concord Review, the timeline for hearing back may be up to a year after submission, but is usually faster if you are accepted. To submit your paper, you have to create an author member account, which costs $70 for the electronic fee. This also gives you access to the past year’s essays.
10 Tips to Create An Essay That Gets In | Concord Review
1. Pick a topic that you can go deep in
The Concord Review is not only interested in quality, but also in quantity (i.e., length of paper, amount of research done, etc.). That means that you are going to have to spend dozens of hours reading about a single historical event or area.
If that’s the case, choose something that you actually enjoy and could read about. The Concord Review accepts all types of historical areas – from ancient Chinese dynasties, to Enlightenment Era Europe, to World War II USA. So, choose something that you find truly interesting and go deep.
2. Make your topic specific & your thesis clear
Think about your paper as trying to make a contribution to the historical field. To do that, you’ll need to pick something specific. To give some example of past TCR papers, these have included an analysis of John Law and his effect on the French Monetary system, a look at the Iconoclasm of the Taiping Rebellion (Iconoclasm means the destruction of icons/monuments/idols of another religion.), or a look at the persecution of Buddhists in the Tang Dynasty from the perspective of a single Japanese monk (Ennin).
Note how these topics often focus on a single individual, historical event, or phenomena. John Law was a revolutionary economist who helped shape our modern thinking about the concept of money. He also shaped French monetary policy in the 18th century. A paper on the French economy in the 18th century probably would be too large, but a paper on John Law and his influence can be a great fit.
Here is an example thesis statement from the 2020 winner, “Buddhism in Tang China” by Jiwon Lee.
Thus, the paper aims to develop the argument that the personal records of the foreign monk Ennin contain invaluable information on how the persecution impacted the general Buddhist clergy; without him, these descriptions might have never been known to contemporary historians.”
3. Write a lot – length matters (And so does depth!)
Throughout the Concord Review website there are references to the length of student papers. The past year’s essays have all hovered closer to 9000 words (one was over 20,000 words!). The Concord Review was founded by Will Fitzhugh, in part, to encourage students to write long-form historical work. So, this journal looks positively on longer length papers.
The key is not simply to “write a lot,” but rather to build up a deep insight into a topic and field that you can write about at length. This requires reading broadly about the topic and developing your own unique thesis.
4. Reference other historians & extend on their work
When you are writing, it’s important to show that you understand what other historians have approached this topic and what they have said. By noting what other historians have written, you’ll be able to show what the current state of knowledge is in the field. You can then add on your own distinct perspective.
One great example of how to do this is in Jingxuan Lin’s 2020 Concord Review essay “Iconoclasm in the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom”.
Fortunately, over the past two decades, historical works such as the monographs by Thomas Reilly, Carl Kilcourse and Xia Chuntao have begun to shed light on the religious culture of the Taiping. However, many critical components of Taiping religion still lack sufficient attention. In particular, while almost every account of the Taiping Kingdom touches on its aggressive iconoclasm, Xia Chuntao remains the only scholar to have specifically and systematically analyzed Taiping iconoclasm and traced its development through the history of the movement.9 However, Xia’s work was primarily descriptive rather than analytic, and many of its assertions, which will be explored in this paper, appear to be insufficiently supported by the available evidence
Note how Lin shows a command of the other historians, then describes how their work will respond to this gap in the current literature. To do this, you need to read widely on the topic. In most winning essays, there are a minimum of ten distinct historical works cited and usually more than 15.
5. Have a thesis
It’s important that you have a point of view. Usually, the structure of Concord Review papers follows an abstract, introduction, main section, and then conclusion. In many papers, the thesis statement comes at the end of the introduction. Here’s an example from the same paper that came at the end of the introduction section.
Therefore, this paper will explore Taiping iconoclasm through the following question: With what significance did the Taiping Kingdom’s iconoclasm enhance or hinder its ability to garner and consolidate political support? To answer this question, this paper will trace the development of Taiping iconoclastic policy and evaluate the reactions of various affected social groups.
Note how this thesis statement sets out an agenda for the paper “What was the importance of iconoclasm in the Taiping Kingdom’s.” The thesis then outlines how it is going to address that question “By looking at the development of Taiping’s iconoclast policies and how other social groups reacted.”
6. Read Examples of Past Winning Essays
The best way to see what is expected of Concord Review winning essays is to see what past winning essays have done. The website has some example essays which you can see by signing up for the newsletter. Unfortunately, these essays are primarily from the early 2000s and so don’t really reflect the level or rigor of the most recent few years. A better bet is to first sign up to be an Author Member to see the past essays and to submit one of your own. The cost for this is $70, but gives you access to past essays from the last year.
7. Use a wide variety of historical sources for the essays
When writing your paper, first begin by reading historical perspectives on this issue. One good way to start is to find a book on the topic of your interest. Then while you are reading the book, note what research papers or other books they are citing. Put those other books on a list and identify the ones that come up the most often. That’s your next set of resources.
In total, most winning essays in the past year have had about 15 distinct historical sources in their bibliography. This probably does not mean that all 15 of those sources were fully read, it probably does imply that the author has read deeply at least 3 or 4 of these sources on the topic and has used those to find an additional 10 sources to cite throughout the paper.
8. Follow the abstract, introduction, main content, conclusion format
Most of the papers in the Concord Review follow the same format. They start with either an introduction or an abstract and then an introduction. The introduction frames the main topic and sets the scene for the rest of the paper. At the end of the introduction, usually a thesis statement is introduced that then guides the rest of the paper.
From there, the main section involves the primary analysis of the paper. This is usually broken into a number of smaller chunks to keep the reader engaged and following the broader argument. Sometimes this also involves a narrative description of the historical figure in question. The paper then usually ends with a short conclusion. You should try to innovate on the analysis and the writing quality (more on that next), not as much on the structure.
9. Write, write, and rewrite
All of the Concord Review essays that are selected showcase a level of writing that is difficult to accomplish at first try. Instead, each of these papers clearly show a significant amount of time writing and rewriting. As you work on your essay, make sure to allocate time to rewriting your essay and getting feedback from others. This will be critical for you to successfully write an essay that gets accepted!
As an example of thoughtful writing, here is the introductory paragraph of Jack Tae Hyun Yoon’s 2016 winning essay “John Law: Murderer, Economist, Statesman.” Louis XIV’s (1643-1715) absolutist France was an authoritarian paradise: “L’etat, c’est moi,” declared the so-called Sun King as he consolidated France’s place as the leading power of Europe. Indeed, the state—with all its various wars and monuments—was the personification of Louis XIV’s towering ego. Yet by the King’s death in 1715, the vast expenses of financing wars such as the costly War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and building massive construction projects such as the palace at Versailles had left behind a staggering national debt of 2,800 million livres... Nevertheless, while economic turmoil meant hardship for the vast majority of the nation, in the eyes of daring speculators, it signified opportunity, and France met its very own daredevil financier in the form of a mysterious Scotsman named John Law (1671-1729). While Law’s economic system foreshadowed several modern economic policies, its decline served as an early reminder that money is not physical wealth, but rather human confidence in an idea.
10. Prepare alternative publications and competitions to submit to
Ultimately, the Concord Review is prestigious because it is hard to get in. Even with all of the above preparation, it’s very possible that you won’t be accepted to the journal. In that case, be prepared and think of proactive ways to use your essay. After you’ve spent dozens of hours on the project, you shouldn’t let it go to waste. You can identify other history essay competitions, other student journals, or local places for you to publish your work (note that you can’t submit the same article to the Concord Review and another journal. But, you could adapt that piece and submit it somewhere else!). The key is that you don’t let the time you spent on the project go to waste!
One extra tip: Find a mentor
For a long project like this, it’s important to have someone to push your thinking and writing. A history teacher could be a great mentor here or you could identify a history researcher, who can give you the researcher perspective. You want this person to give you direct feedback and to help you shape your thesis, writing, and research process.
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.
Stephen Turban, Lumiere Education