September is usually club recruitment season when club leaders go out and try to get more students, particularly incoming freshmen, to join their club. Two of the most common academic competition clubs at both the high school and university level are Model United Nations and Debate. The two activities share some similarities — both feature aspects of public speaking and debating — so it may be difficult for a freshman or their parent to distinguish between the two. But Model UN and Debate are actually very different — they have different goals, teach different skills, and feature different experiences.
If you’re a student considering joining one of the activities, a parent wanting to encourage your child to join one of these activities, or a club leader looking to differentiate between the two, here are four major differences between Model UN versus Debate to understand:
1. Competition vs. Collaboration
The fundamental difference between the two is in their definition of success. Debate is purely a competition. Your goal in debate is to argue against your opponent and beat them in that argument. That’s how you win in a debate tournament. Debaters who win in multiple tournaments are individually ranked throughout the year. It’s really easy to spot a Debate person at a Model UN conference. They’re usually doing a great job countering everyone else’s arguments or ideas, but usually not doing enough to listen to others and try to solve the topic together.
In contrast, Model UN is about collaboration. The goal in a Model UN conference is to convince as many fellow delegates as possible to work with you and vote for your ideas. Elements of debating still take place, but it’s for the purpose of collaborating and improving on ideas. And although Model UN can still feel competitive (many give out awards), the delegates usually win or stand out by constructively collaborating with their peers instead of trying to shut them down with arguments. In most cases, delegates who are too competitive in Model UN may be considered to be undiplomatic, and the point of the activity is to practice being diplomatic. More often, the collaborative nature of Model UN creates friendships — many Model UN delegates look back fondly at the global network of friends they have made through the activity.
2. Debating Skills vs. Leadership Skills
Another key difference between the two is the type of skills that they emphasize. Debate is mostly a public speaking-oriented activity. Debaters go up and make arguments and counter-arguments. They learn to speak really, really fast (debaters will usually admit that it’s so fast that normal people would not understand them). They may learn to specialize in a few different debate events and therefore develop speaking styles that are relevant to those debate events. And they know that the judges are not just listening for sound arguments but for confident delivery and style.
In contrast, Model UN teaches students a more well-rounded set of leadership skills. This includes public speaking — Model UN delegates have to make prepared and impromptu speeches throughout the weekend. But Model UN also requires delegates to negotiate and to lobby — to find and work with a set of allies to solve a problem together. And Model UN provides more practice with research and role-playing skills as students’ topics and countries change at every conference. In other words, public speaking and debating in Model UN are merely two of several means to an end. Model UN more broadly emphasizes development of well-rounded leadership skills. The delegates who win awards or stand out in committee are usually the ones who built and led alliances within an entire committee.
3. For-or-Against Topics vs. Complex International Issues
The content that is debated or discussed in the two activities are obviously going to be slightly different, and the extent of those differences is also shaped by how the activities are structured. Debate usually has a finite set of topics that every debater in the same league will deal with for that particular school year. And for each topic, debaters are usually pitted as either for or against the topic. Therefore, everyone studies the same topics in-depth so that they know how to argue both sides really well, and they usually debate the same topics year long.
In contrast, Model UN discusses a variety of UN and international issues, and conferences are free to choose whatever issues they want. Some Model UN simulations have also moved beyond just international issues into a plethora of policy issues — both from the real world and from fiction. Furthermore, the policies for each topic are not two-sided. Model UN delegates are assigned one of 193 countries or various other organizations or government roles to represent, so their policies can fall within an entire complex spectrum between for and against. Therefore, the combinations of topics and perspectives to debate from are literally infinite and ever-changing. Model UN delegates usually have to start their research from scratch for every conference they attend, and they end up becoming exposed to a much broader set of international topics and policy perspectives than debaters typically would be.
4. Tournament vs. Conference
The two activities are also formatted differently. Debates are held in a tournament format. In a typical tournament, debaters compete against other debaters in a preliminary round and advance toward more competitive rounds as they win. A debate tournament may end with the top debaters at the tournament going against each other, with everyone else who has already been eliminated watching. The entire debate season is also like a tournament — debaters try to win at smaller debate competitions in order to qualify for larger regional, state, or national debate tournaments.
In contrast, Model UN is formatted as a conference. In a typical conference, a Model UN delegate representing one country will be placed in one committee the entire time and work in-depth with other delegates (representing other countries) in the same committee to solve the topics that they have been assigned in depth. There is no advancement or elimination; everyone gets to participate during the entire conference. The Model UN season is a series of independently-run conferences. Model UN delegates can attend whichever conferences their schools are going to — regardless if that’s a small local conference or a large international conference — though some MUN teams informally sort their delegates toward “novice” or “advanced” conferences based on past performance.
Ultimately, Debate and Model UN are two of the most popular academic activities available for high school and university students worldwide. Both activities help students develop public speaking confidence and the ability to debate from multiple policy perspectives. But the activities are also very different experientially as mentioned above, and they help develop different skills and arguably slightly different career interests. The activity that best suits a particular student will depend on their interests as well as the way the club is run at their school and the quality of the regional tournament or conference circuit.