Daniel Tartakovsky: Debate in College Admissions and Personal Development

Daniel Tartakovsky is a senior at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in Southern California.. He won the 2012 Harvard Debate Tournament and recently graduated from Harvard

I’ve always loved to argue. At five years old, I’d ask my parents why, why, why without surrender: I was the mastermind of what my parents dubbed “The Inquisition.” In eighth grade (and to my parents’ dismay), I joined the debate team. Dad thought I should focus more on Math Club; “useless arguments” were unbefitting of a future engineer. But staying on the team has been the best choice I’ve ever made.

In school, I never felt that education was dynamic. I memorized material for tests and forgot it the next day. Even extracurricular activities – piano, tennis, French club, and mock trial were my other main ones – didn’t particularly inspire me. Debate gave me what I lacked. I was excited by the complex strategy involved in presenting arguments convincingly, in understanding how they interact, in knowing when to make the right argument and when to remain cautious. In its strategic nature, debate is a bit like chess, I think. But debate goes beyond moving the pieces. It demands presentation – a connection to one’s audience – and offers research opportunities far greater than what any high school curriculum could give. Even after months of researching one topic, I feel as though I’ve only begun learning what I ought to know. The constant push to find smarter arguments and better strategies is riveting – and it’s why I keep debating.

At the end of high school, I’ll have competed at more than fifty tournaments and spent thousands of hours researching, arguing, and traveling. Our team meets twice a week for two hours for practice, but much of the preparation happens informally – Skype meetings and individual work are key. On weekends, we fly across the country to compete at tournaments such as the Harvard Invitational or the national Tournament of Champions.

I’ve had the privilege of debating abroad as well when I competed in the international World Schools tournament with students from more than 50 different countries.  This was a different – and humbling – experience. My English isn’t any better than that of students from other countries, and I still lack deep knowledge of international affairs. By introducing me to new points of view, debate abroad forces me to challenge, revise, and defend my own perspective.

Debate has connected me to people all across the world with similar interests and a common thirst for knowledge. Although thousands join debate, the “debate community” is tightly knit and welcoming. At month-long summer camps, which I’ve had the chance to attend for the last three years, I’ve forged friendships and learned debate, philosophy, and strategy.

I think debate is largely why I was accepted to college. In a brief note, the Harvard officer who read my application mentioned that she’d enjoyed reading my essay about overcoming stubbornness through debate (believe it or not, debate also taught me when not to argue). She also mentioned that success in debate – and personal growth as a result of my involvement – set me apart from other applicants.

In the future, I hope to find a passion that will fill me with as much fervor as debate has for the last four years, and I urge others with the chance to join debate to take the opportunity. It might just change their lives.