Transitioning from High School Debate to APDA

By Parker Kelly, George Washington University, ’20

I went to high school in Houston, Texas and did 1 year of PF and 2 years of LD on the local and national circuits. I was in a few bid rounds and competed relatively consistently (especially senior year) but didn’t qualify for the TOC. I debate for GW now and came onto APDA knowing literally nothing about what the activity was and was lucky enough to have a great team able to show me the ropes.

Tournament Structure

While sleeping on the floors of a dorm room is a bit of a different experience than being in my own bed for locals or a hotel for the occasional tournament my school would travel to, for the most part tournaments are similar. Perhaps the most important difference is the existence of Equal Opportunity Facilitators, or EOFs. Having a person at every tournament that is ready to assist when people are discriminated against or are facing some other problem is a great asset and one that didn’t exist in high school. I know plenty of people in high school who would have appreciated having someone other than their close friends or a much older coach to talk to about their tournament experiences, and I recommend learning about the program and similar resources provided to everyone transitioning to APDA. The other major difference for novices in particular is the lack of divisions. While there are eliminations rounds and speaker awards for only novices (more on that later), there is not a separate pool in which novices compete. You will be debating against varsity throughout your time as a novice, a unique opportunity to see better debaters and also get destroyed several times. While it may seem painful at the time, I learned more in my rounds where I lost badly to great debaters than in rounds that I narrowly won against other novices.


Partnering with someone else for debate is a very interesting experience. I came to APDA from LD, so I did not have a lot of experience debating with a partner before APDA and found this to be one of the more difficult things to get used to. However, even if you did debate with a partner in High School, I think you’ll benefit from a few of the following tips:

  • Trust your partner: It can be very difficult to sit through many speeches without having much control, especially if you are MG and thus have to watch 3 speeches that you can’t have much of an effect on. Rather than attempting to try to get more say in the round by controlling what your partner says, you should keep communicating but also let them do what they need to and trust them to give a good speech. Additionally, if your partner doesn’t seem to trust you to give the speech, feel free to talk to them about it if it makes you uncomfortable during rounds. Usually, they don’t mean anything by it and simply don’t like feeling cut out of the round.
  • Mix up speeches: If you’re just starting out on APDA, I highly recommend trying every speech out multiple times before settling into some normal order with your partner or partners. What works best for you and any partner you debate with will not be immediately obvious and if you don’t try other options you’ll never know.
  • There is not a right answer for how to find a partner: As of the time I wrote this, I have debated with 6 different people and already have official plans to debate with a 7th. However, I’ve also debated with one person 9 times and the rest only 1. Debating with friends, mixing up your partnerships, or trying to find the one person you want to debate with for 4 years are all valid ways to go about finding partners, and there is no right way to do it.
  • In-Round Communication: We’ll have a full article on this later on, but learning to communicate with your partner in round is one of the most important things you can do to help your success. Learning to talk to one another or help with writing answers or new arguments is incredibly helpful, and dedicating time to developing that skill is very important.
  • Case Choice: Talk to your partner about strategies for tournaments and what cases you plan to read. Reading only the cases one of you wrote is likely to make one partner have less fun or feel less valued, so always make sure that both you and your partner are happy with the balance of what you’re reading.


On APDA, most judges you will see are other varsity competitors. This is a weird idea and was one of the hardest things for me to get used to, as that concept would have been incredibly weird in high school. However, you’ll quickly get used to it and it can actually help foster friendships and better relationships broadly between yourself and the APDA community. Because every judge is caught up on what modern debate looks like and every debater has a general idea of what the judge’s perspective is since they have to judge themselves. It takes some getting used to, to be sure, but over time I’ve found that I like this part of the judging system more and more.

The other major change in judging is calibration: every judge, or at least all the non-alumni judges, has to submit a ballot for a calibration round that tab will then use to give them a judge ranking. This helps ensure that the best rounds have the judges that tab thinks are best. While this doesn’t really change the tournament experience, it is worth understanding how this is done when considering your own calibration ballots or in attempting to understand how tournaments are run.


In the US, most high school debate involves both teams knowing the topic and doing out of round research to write their cases. On APDA, this changes dramatically. While I assume most people already know this, each APDA round involves side Government presenting a case of their choosing and giving the relevant background info to debate it before the round with no evidence being read during speeches. My first reaction to this was to think it was ridiculous, as I had spent 3 years dedicating hundreds of hours to researching and casing with the evidence I had found. Over time, however, I came to really enjoy APDA’s casing style, as being able to debate whatever you want to on Government and always debate something that the other side is passionate about while on Opposition ensures incredibly interesting rounds every time, or at least some variance in what you talk about.

As the case and round structures change, so do the relevant strategies. Here’s a small list of some recommendations I have for learning how to case:

  • Try Writing About Something You Know Well: The first 2 cases I wrote were just high school debate topics, one of which I read to this day. Since I had debated the topic dozens of times on each side and had done research on both, I was able to write out the case faster and ensure that I included the best arguments.
  • Be Creative: Once you have written a few cases on things you know well, try to branch out and be more creative in your case-writing. The freedom that APDA-style debate gives you is great, and trying new ideas and topics is a great way to capitalize on that freedom. I’ve personally read or debated against cases about music, sports, theater, mythology, and more.
  • Work With Others: Some of the most interesting and fun cases I’ve written and debated against were written in collaboration with my partner or other people on my team. I highly recommend this strategy because it will make casing more fun, lead to better cases, and ensure that you and your partner are on the same page during the round.

One warning: be very careful with tight and spec cases (If you don’t know what this means, I explain a bit more below). There is a tendency when writing a first case to write about whatever you’re most passionate about. Unfortunately, that idea will almost always be tight, as the things you believe are true and obvious often are. Be aware that many people on this circuit will have similar beliefs to you and will thus think that many things that may be debated in society more broadly are just true.
Another tendency everyone has with their first case is to write about things they know a remarkable amount about. I recommend talking to people on your team about any case ideas you have to make sure it is actually accessible to someone without your background knowledge before writing the case.


Whether you read tons of theory in high school or don’t know what the term means, APDA’s style of theory will be somewhat different for you. APDA theory has two primary types and several norms going along with each that you should know:

  • Tight Calls: Because side Government gets to read whatever case they want, there needs to be some check on reading unbeatable cases, the classic example of which is “THBT murder is bad”.
    While there are several broad strategies to tight call, the specific theory argumentation differs from a shell in high school in 2 key ways. First, the interpretation is phrased as a burden required to prove case is not tight. For example, an Opp team may argue that Gov needs to beat their own case to prove it isn’t tight, then will give reasons as to why that burden is correct (which function as standards on a theory shell). Second, there is not a “voter” section like there would be in high school, meaning that you don’t have to justify why fairness or education matters and you don’t have to argue to drop the opposing team, as they will lose if case is tight.
    The final important thing to note is that when you call a case tight, the opposition team’s job becomes only explaining why it’s tight. Unlike in High School, a tight call cannot be one of several off case arguments as it becomes the entire round.
  • Spec Calls: Another natural consequence of side Government getting to choose case is that they will be the only ones with background knowledge. As a result, fact claims made that are not common knowledge and not given in POCs cannot be brought into the round. These facts are called “specialized knowledge” or “spec” and should not be introduced. If they are, the debate over it should be simple: Opp can just claim that the knowledge is spec and they couldn’t reasonably be expected to know it or know whether it’s false and the judge should just drop that claim from the round.

While there are other theory calls that are occasionally made, these are the two basic, most common ones. As a general rule, judges are less willing to listen to lots of theory or vote on it, except with tight calls, so try to limit using it to only egregious instances.

Social Life On APDA

APDA has a unique social culture because so many people compete every weekend and spend remarkable amounts of time together. This includes socials that happen almost every weekend, long drives or bus rides with your own team, and almost everyone at the tournament spending all of their time in the same General Assembly room. I don’t have much to recommend about social life on APDA other than that making friends and having fun at tournaments should be just as important to winning if you want to truly enjoy your time in this activity. Some of my closest friends in college go to other colleges but do APDA so I’ve spent plenty of time with them at tournaments as well as time with them having fun outside of APDA. The social culture of APDA is not for everyone, and you should never feel pressured to go to socials or spend lots of time trying to make friends, but I highly recommend getting to know all of the great people on this league. I know I’ve never regretted it.

TOTY, SOTY, NOTY, And Qualifying To Nationals

The following definitions should help you better understand what the rankings on APDAWeb represent:

  • TOTY: TOTY means Team of the Year. The pairing with the most qual points earned in their best 5 tournaments at the end of the year wins.
  • SOTY: SOTY means Speaker of the Year. The individual debater with the most points from Speaker Awards at their best 6 tournaments wins.
  • NOTY: NOTY means Novice of the Year. The novice with the most points from Novice Speaker Awards at their best 5 tournaments wins.
  • Qualifying To Nationals: Debaters earn qual points by breaking to elimination rounds and advancing further into them, gaining more points based on the relative size of the tournament and making it closer to winning the full tournament. This year, the qualification bar for Nationals is 19.5 points. If you’re interested in seeing how many points you will gain from a certain round at a tournament of a certain size, I encourage you to go to and try some different numbers.

A Few Other Unique Aspects Of APDA

There are 3 other unique things in APDA that differ from high school that I think are worth taking advantage of:

  • Hybrids: Unlike in high school, your partners do not have to be from the same school. While I have personally not taken advantage of this yet (although will be doing so this weekend), the opportunity to debate with friends from around the league is a great way to strengthen friendships and have more fun on APDA. Additionally, special hybrids through the Novice Mentor Committee, the Diversity Initiative, and the Gender Empowerment Initiative are also available to novices if you would like to partner with a varsity for a tournament. Feel free to reach out to any of those committees directly (or to have your team do it) if you would like that opportunity!
  • Pro-Ams: Twice a year there is a tournament known as Pro-Ams where every team is a pair of one varsity and one novice debater (although there are occasionally novice-novice pairs). These tournaments ensure that novice debaters get the opportunity to work directly with more experienced varsity debaters and can learn from watching there partner directly during rounds, a great experience for novices and varsity alike. Additionally, one of the best experiences you can have on APDA as a novice is outspeaking your varsity partner, even if it’s for just one round.
  • Novice Elims: Novice elims are a separate elimination bracket to decide the best novice-novice pair at a tournament, broken out of the same pool as varsity elims but with only novices. If you’re lucky enough to participate in them, take full advantage. Not all novices will get the opportunity to be in these rounds and get practice debating for higher stakes in front of panels good, varsity debaters, so even though you can’t get qualified to nationals with them, still try to use them to keep getting better or at least to have some fun. Also, not everyone in novice elims consistently will be breaking as sophomores consistently, so it may be a while until you get that experience again. Enjoy them while you can.


Hopefully, this article can be a brief introduction to APDA for anyone coming from high school debate. Of course, there are certainly things I’m missing and some things I’ve said are based on my own experience rather than an objective evaluation of APDA. Regardless, I hope this can be useful to any and all novices who chose to read it, especially if you’ve made it this far in. Exempting some unfortunate cases, most people’s experience with APDA will be as fun as they desire to make it, so I hope you make the most of your time in this activity!

380 thoughts on “Transitioning from High School Debate to APDA

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