How Collegiate Quizbowl Works

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How Collegiate Quizbowl Works: A Guide for New Players and Teams


This article is designed as an introduction to quizbowl as it is played on the collegiate level. If you are completely new to the game, you should look at the article on quizbowl to familiarize yourself with the game before returning to this guide. Note that people currently involved in quizbowl are usually more than happy to discuss the process of starting a quizbowl team and connect you to other quizbowl players in your region, so feel free to ask questions in the quizbowl forum for new collegiate teams.

This guide may not define all of the terms it uses; please either click the hyperlink to the article on that term, or use the Quizbowl basics and Quizbowl lingo categories as a glossary if need arises.

A Few Basics

This section is devoted to the basics, or what you should know before you start playing quizbowl at the collegiate level.


Collegiate quizbowl involves two teams of up to four players competing on questions in tossup/bonus format. All college tournaments use tossups with multiple clues in descending order of difficulty, so teams that know more about the answer can buzz in first (i.e. the tossups are pyramidal). Links to several videos of 2013 ACF Nationals are available here, which may give you an idea of what quizbowl (at a very high level--these are extremely hard questions) looks like before you read the rest of this article.

The Circuit

The circuit, broadly speaking, consists of all collegiate clubs who regularly attend weekend quizbowl tournaments. Your team will largely attend tournaments within a few hours' radius of your campus, since local circuits usually organize by geographic region.

The Clubs

If you want to play quizbowl, you're most likely going to have to join a club (or team) at your college or university. A quizbowl club is responsible for organizing practices, running tournaments, and coordinating attendance at tournaments, as well as managing the funds, at the school in question.

See NAQT's guide to starting a college quizbowl club or the (soon-to-be-created) article on How to start a collegiate quizbowl club.


Almost all quizbowl communication is currently done via the Internet. The primary place for national discussion of quizbowl is on the forums, which is also the site for almost all tournament announcements. Registering for tournaments usually is as simple as sending an email. In addition, players from around the country frequent the quizbowl IRC channel. Most clubs and some areas of the circuit also create their own e-mail mailing lists for sending messages about upcoming tournaments and the like.

Your best source of information on the forums will be the Collegiate Announcements and Results and Collegiate Discussion sub-forums. (There is also a section for New Collegiate Teams specifically to get advice about their areas.) You should try to make sure that someone in your club is checking the forums on at least a weekly basis, so that your club is up-to-date on the latest happenings on the circuit.

If you have a question about any aspect of collegiate quizbowl after reading this guide, you are encouraged to register for the forums and post your question in the Collegiate Discussion section, but please read the forum rules before posting.

Question Sets

The questions used in collegiate quizbowl may come from ACF, from NAQT, or be written independently. All of them are pyramidal-style questions, but they do vary in terms of their difficulty and distribution.


ACF, or the Academic Competition Federation, is a loosely centralized organization that provides four high-quality academic tournaments each year. Games of ACF quizbowl are played on packets of 20 tosssups and 20 bonuses, untimed. The four sets provided by ACF are:

  • ACF Fall, a novice-difficulty tournament, which typically runs on the first or second weekend in November. This tournament is strongly recommended for newer teams.
  • ACF Winter, a medium-difficulty tournament, which typically is run in November. This tournament is designed to be accessible and engaging for teams of all strengths.
  • ACF Regionals, a regular-difficulty tournament, which typically takes place in February.
  • ACF Nationals, is a difficult tournament, which typically takes place in April at only one site for the entire country. With NAQT's ICT (see below), it is one of the two national championships for college quizbowl teams.

ACF is known for its commitment to quality, which includes limited trash (pop culture), and a focus on more academic topics. All ACF tournaments are packet-submission, which means that each team competing at an upcoming ACF event must submit a full packet of questions to the central editing team before they play (with some exceptions allowing newer players to opt out). Those packets are then centrally edited for factual accuracy, quality, and difficulty consistency by a team of central editors, who may also merge, pare down, or cut some packets to get a good set. When a team attends an ACF tournament, therefore, they play on packets written by other teams just like theirs. The schedule gives out "bye" rounds or skips over packets written by attending teams as needed, so no team gets an unfair advantage by playing on its own packet.

Collegiate Novice

There are sometimes special novice-only tournaments designed for new teams. Consult the forums to see if those are happening this year as well as NAQT's collegiate schedule.


NAQT, or National Academic Quiz Tournaments, is an incorporated organization that provides questions for high school and collegiate play as well as various quizbowl television shows. NAQT tournaments are played timed, in two ten-minute halves which can feature up to 24 tossups and 24 bonuses altogether. NAQT produces two collegiate sets each year:

  • Sectional Championship Tournament (SCT) is a regular-difficulty tournament, and typically runs on the second weekend in February.
  • Intercollegiate Championship Tournament (ICT) is a national-difficulty tournament, and typically takes place in late March or early April. Teams must qualify for the ICT by performing well at their region's Sectional; SCT performances are converted into a number called the D-value which determines the invited teams. ICT and ACF Nationals (see above) are the two national championships.

Each of NAQT's college tournaments features Division I, in which any university students from the same school may play on the team, and a restricted Division II, which uses easier questions and restricts eligibility to newer or less-experienced players. Division II SCT is also highly recommended for newer teams.

Notable quirks of the NAQT format include a higher emphasis on current events, geography, and popular culture. NAQT's questions are typically shorter than ACF's and include powers.

Other/independent question sets

Many invitational tournaments exist during the year which are not run by either NAQT or ACF. Most of these tournaments are written/edited by one or two college teams that work together to produce questions or solicit questions from playing teams in the packet-submission model (described above in the ACF section). Almost all independent tournaments imitate ACF's style of question writing and distribution of within packets, though some may make modifications such as the addition of powers to tossup questions. (This used to be called "modified ACF," or "mACF.") Independent tournaments may set their own eligibility restrictions, either on a national basis or a host-by-host basis.

Because talented/interested question writers and editors cycle in and out of the college quizbowl game with time, the exact schedule of independent events changes somewhat from year to year. Many long-surviving independent tournaments include Penn Bowl, organized by Penn, the Minnesota Undergraduate Tournament organized by students and alumni of the University of Minnesota, and the Terrapin Invitational Tournament, "organized" by the University of Maryland.


Quizbowl questions are written for use at tournaments throughout the year, at which an individual host (usually a school quizbowl club using university building space) invites all the other teams in the area to come play a large number of games of quizbowl across the morning, afternoon, and early evening. Tournaments will charge an entry fee for each attending team (usually between $80 and $120 for events in the US), and usually offer discounts to teams that bring along necessaries such as a buzzer or a scorekeeper. Each school may bring multiple separate teams to a single tournament, which are usually labeled as the "A-Team," "B-Team," "C-Team," etc. in descending order of predicted skill. Most good tournaments attempt to offer attending teams nine to twelve games against a variety of area schools, using a set consisting of fourteen to eighteen separate packets of questions.

During the School Year

With the exception of Thanksgiving weekend, winter break, and the summer, there is some tournament happening somewhere on almost every Saturday of the academic year. The quizbowl year is roughly divided between a fall semester from late September to early December, in which Collegiate Novice, ACF Fall, and several other invitationals happen, and a spring semester from late January through April, in which the NAQT SCT, ACF Regionals, and both national tournaments (ICT and ACF Nationals) all happen, with further invitationals filling out the calendar in the spring as well. Check the forums or your area of the circuit's mailing list to become informed of all tournaments happening in your area.


Many people love quizbowl so much that they even want to play during the summer! From the time schools let out in mid-May through August, each summer usually features a few informally-organized quizbowl events that players can attend. Because school teams are usually disbanded for the year and might not be able to reunite for geographical reasons, summer tournaments are basically always open (any player from any school, and people from no school at all, may unite with any other player on a team with no eligibility restrictions). Recurring summer events of recent vintage have included VCU Open.

Chicago Open

The "crown jewel" of independent quizbowl events, and almost always the most difficult event of the year, Chicago Open attracts players from all over the nation to a "nationals-plus"-difficulty event, and many side tournaments are organized to keep everyone awake playing lots of quizbowl for two to three days.


Most clubs spend between three and six hours a week at practice, dividing club members into arbitrary teams and playing packets from old tournament sets. Regularly-scheduled practices, using academic questions like the ones at upcoming tournaments, are a vital ingredient for the continued survival of any college quizbowl team. Currently, there are thousands and thousands of packets from old question sets available online for free (though NAQT sets are still only legally available by direct purchase). See below for packet repositories.

Attending Tournaments


It is important to determine whether teams and players are eligible for a given tournament before they attend. Most tournaments require all teams to be representing only one school (i.e. you can't mix players from different schools to play on one team); this includes all ACF and NAQT events as well as any event that specifically advertises itself as "closed". The overwhelming majority of teams playing at any given college tournament are teams from a single school.

Occasionally some tournaments, including most non-Nationals tournaments that are above regular difficulty and events in regions such as the Pacific Northwest with few active teams, are "open tournaments", allowing non-students and mixed-school teams to participate in any configuration.

Though most easier-than-regular tournaments, such as ACF Fall, do not specifically restrict experienced or good players, an informal gentleman's agreement precludes especially strong players or teams from bringing their full strength.

Some particularly-enterprising high school teams play in some local college tournaments in their area on top of high school tournaments, either for extra challenge or because there is a lack of opportunity for high school competition in their area. Most college hosts permit this, though some areas and state associations (such as Illinois) may have more specific rules.


Because tournaments cost money, paying for them is an important aspect of college quizbowl life.

  • Many teams can get club funding through their school's student organizations office or similar funding opportunities. Check with your own student activities organization and ask around for various potential funds.
  • Host your own tournament - either a college tournament like the ones your team attends - or a high school tournament, reserving rooms in which to host the event and charging entrants a fee which you can then use to pay for other tournaments and travel costs throughout the year. This is a great way to fund a team, but does require some preparation to work well.
  • If necessary, pay some or all of the costs out of pocket.
  • Many college teams get a team bank account which they can keep their funds in and hand down as team captains, treasurers, etc. graduate.

Physical Travel - Getting To (and From) Tournaments

The most important thing any collegiate quizbowl player can learn for the game is how to drive. Quizbowl tournaments are held at many campuses throughout the year, and the most efficient way to get to them is by car. Bringing a car to campus, or getting familiar with a rental service such as Avis [] or Zipcar [], is critical. Occasionally, campuses will have their own vehicles for rent; Dartmouth can notably obtain a large van for off-campus travel. Road trips may be long; for drives over four or five hours, it may be advisable to stay over in a hotel near the tournament rather than make a single-day trip. This is, however, a great opportunity for team bonding and exciting travel stories.

Many clubs with a campus reasonably close to others with also take note of public transportation options such as bus, ferry, or train, and sometimes use public transportation options that might help you get to where you need to go. When using public transportation, it's always important to watch the time tables carefully to find a cost-effective travel plan which leaves lots of wiggle room in the event of delays or tournaments that run past their intended end time. [ Megabus], [ Bolt Bus], and other low-cost bus services are an increasingly-popular, if somewhat scrappy, service for traveling quizbowl teams if they're going to and from major urban centers. A car is still often necessary to get to more remote campuses or campuses outside a major city.

Many teams are far enough from the location of national championships that it makes sense to buy airplane tickets and fly to those tournaments.

Writing Packets

Some tournaments throughout the year will be packet-submission, requiring attendees to write a packet of questions to attend. Discounts to the entry fee are typically given for questions submitted eight weeks and six weeks before the tournament, and additional penalty fees added for questions submitted less than four weeks before the tournament. New teams may operate on different schedules and are always encouraged to submit a packet regardless of whether one is necessary.

For more information on writing questions, please see Jerry Vinokurov's excellent treatise on How to Write Questions. It's also essential to consult the official ACF on distributing, writing, and style-formatting your packet; other tournament hosts are likely to have the same standards [1].

If one school is sending multiple teams of different people to the same tournament (e.g. the University of Chicago sends a "Chicago A" team of Seth and Selene, and a "Chicago B" team of Michael and David), it is essential that those separate teams share no information with each other about the contents of their submitted packets (neither Seth nor Selene may say anything to Michael or David - or any other competing team - about their packet, or vice versa). Obtaining information about another team's packet and failing to report the mistake constitutes cheating.

Schedule at a Tournament

The typical college tournament takes place on a Saturday; very occasionally, if the existence of a conflicting high school tournament or other major obstacle prevents hosting on a Saturday, there may be a tournament held on Sunday. Registration usually goes until some time between 8:45 and 9:30 AM, when the tournament director hosts an opening meeting and sends teams off to their Round 1 rooms. The tournament usually goes for four to six rounds, pauses for a lunch break, and continues until its conclusion in the early evening.

Teams are arranged into a predetermined schedule of rounds, in which brackets of teams play a round-robin within their bracket. Each bracket contains teams of many skill levels. The strongest teams in the field may then be split off into a top bracket for more playoff rounds as the rest of the field plays consolation games against teams of a similar skill level to themselves. Many tournaments end in a finals match, whose entrants either have a tied record or a record separated by one loss (i.e. one team had 11 wins and 0 losses over the day, and the other went 10-1). See finals for more information on the usual quizbowl procedure for finals matches.

The ideal round of quizbowl takes about 25 minutes on the clock (factoring in pauses, halftime, etc. to a 20-minute game) and 25 to 30 minutes for an untimed game, depending on the skill level of teams involved. Given this ideal length and a lunch break of about an hour, it is entirely possible for a well-run tournament to finish ten rounds by 4 PM; however, travel delays, time spent walking to new rooms between games, possible slow moderators, and other miscellaneous issues such as protests should lead teams planning travel to assume that tournaments will end much later - usually between 6 and 7 PM for the average regional event.

See this page on the ACF website for short descriptions of suggested schedules for use at tournaments of varying sizes.

External Links

For more information about the college game, you are encouraged to visit the following websites:


Packet Archives

Communication forums

Enjoy quizbowl!