Opinion
Student Achievement Opinion

How Winning the National Spelling Bee Prepared Me for High School

What I learned from a six-year spelling odyssey
By Dev Shah — May 28, 2024 4 min read
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Each year, around 11 million spellers participate in the National Spelling Bee circuit. To reach the national stage, one must win their class, school, district, and regional bees. After winning my regional bee, I focused on the home stretch—I studied thousands of roots, hundreds of thousands of words, countless vocabulary lists, and etymological patterns of languages from every corner of the world.

I had lost dozens of bees since I started competing in the 2nd grade. The first word I stumbled over was “Wednesday,” butchering it as “W-E-N-S-D-A-Y.” In 2021, I was eliminated in the third round out of 20, and in 2022, I didn’t even qualify. The final year of eligibility was the 8th grade, so I had only one chance left in 2023.

Studying for the bee was overwhelming at times. Realizing this in 6th grade, I streamlined the process by tracking my progress with a Google Sheet. I recorded the number of words studied, roots, and the pages I reached in various vocabulary and etymology textbooks. With almost 500,000 words in the dictionary, I cataloged my weak spots into dozens of Excel sheets, sorting them by language.

I now apply this extensive organization to projects and assignments in high school. I break up large tasks just like I did in my structured approach. This sectioning also requires stamina. In my training regimen, I studied from seven to 10 hours every day, punctuated by regular breaks.

Through this training, I identified the most effective study methods, mnemonics, and conducive environment for focus. I have an Excel sheet solely filled with clever rhyming and memory tactics to help me remember spellings. So, now, if I need to learn a scale on the cello or lines for my Macbeth project, I devise a mnemonic.

And in my classes, the words I once decoded pop up regularly. In biology, I came across taxonomic terms and species with Greek and Latin roots I had dissected. My history textbook holds epochs and cultures I once learned to spell, and during Spanish class, I can connect verbs and words back to their Latin predecessors. For example, the Spanish saber for “to know” or “to taste” derives from the Latin sapere—as found in “insipid.” An insipid dish is dull and has no taste.

Most importantly, my repertoire comes in handy for English class where I see vocabulary words in various texts. Vocabulary is a huge part of the National Spelling Bee; there’s no point in learning a word if you can’t use it correctly. I use the vocabulary words in English essays and for articles I have penned in The Washington Post and Fortune.

However, all these perks are worth zilch when compared to the emotional benefits of the bee. The best spellers aren’t those who memorize every word in the dictionary but those who can spell even when uncertain.

Champion spellers must manage their emotions on stage, especially when taking risks. Just imagine: You receive a word you’ve never heard of and, with 90 seconds on the clock, you have to spell it in front of millions of viewers and thousands of unfamiliar eyes glaring at you. A single misplaced letter or reversal of order causes the infamous ring that signals your elimination.

The composure I gained from the pressure helps me when I present in front of a class and take my oral exams. When I was spelling in front of an audience as wide as my eyes could see, I entered a Zen state. It’s not that I am used to the pressure, but rather that I conditioned my mind to it through breathing tactics and exercises.

After reflecting on my spelling journey before my final year of eligibility, I realized that I spent so much time chasing the victory but not finding joy in the process itself. That’s what defined my spelling bee experience last year—and what ultimately led me to the championship title.

I let go of the pressure that I had to win and, instead, I focused more on having fun by learning the words. In 7th grade, when I didn’t make the cut for the nationals, I felt despondent and utterly destroyed. In a diary entry I wrote at the time, I said, “I worked harder than I ever did and I still lost.”

After that loss, I reminded myself why I even started in the first place: my passion for words. Similarly, now that I’m in high school, I focus on enjoying the experience of learning, instead of chasing a perfect score on every test.

Last June, I finally achieved my dream after six years of trial and error. My journey didn’t happen the way I wanted but the way I needed it to.

The spelling bee has taught me more than just being able to spell obscure words correctly. It taught me how to plan and organize. I’ve learned to be unafraid to take risks and to enjoy learning about the world. I can now connect my vast knowledge of words to science, history, and more. My regimen has taught me so much about who I am as a student, a speller, and a person.

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