Just 10 finalists remain in the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee, down from the 285 who traveled to the Washington, D.C., area earlier this week to participate in the 90-year-old contest. The young spellers have come from across the country (and some from overseas), represent diverse cultural backgrounds, and range in age from nine to 15.
With plenty of high-pressure moments and words like "panophthalmitis" to tackle, the contestants are facing challenges that most adults would consider fearsome. But the young spellers tend to be an ambitious lot and some hope that a win in the spelling bee will be a step toward acceptance at a prestigious college. In their biographies on the spelling bee's website, many of the contestants say they dream of going to schools like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.
Most of the students are already academic standouts. This year, 117 of the original 285 contestants speak more than one language and the majority say that math is their favorite subject in school.
Tejas Muthusamy, speller number 264 and a top ten finalist, has a biography that says, "His varied interests will undoubtedly help to lead him to his dream school, Harvard University, where he hopes to study biology or public policy." Tejas is in the sixth grade.
Many of the spelling bee champions have gone on to academic and professional success after winning the bee.
Ned Andrews took the championship in 1994 when he was only 13 years old. He went on to attend Yale University and later, University of Virginia's Law School, as reported by ABC News. Andrews also wrote a book titled The Champion's Guide to Success in Spelling Bees where he dishes out the need-to-know tactics and strategies for spelling bee victory.
Other winners have studied biochemistry, gone on to be nurses and surgeons, and attended Ivy League schools.
The contest has always been challenging but a glance at the list of winning words, starting from the competition's conception in 1925 and continuing all the way to the most recent spelling bee in 2014 makes it clear that the bee has become more difficult in recent years.
In 1932, for example, the winning word was "knack." In 2011 it was "cymotrichous." The silent "k" in knack makes it tricky, but cymotrichous presents a challenge on a completely different level. Most adults probably wouldn’t even know what the word means, much less be able to spell it.
In 2012 it was "guetapens," in 2013 the word was "knaidel," and in 2014 Ansun Sujoe and Sriram Hathwar were both crowned champion by correctly spelling "feuilleton" and "stichomythia," respectively.
The 2014 winners were both Indian American, continuing a seven-year streak of Indian American champions and sparking some degree of national controversy. Tweets like “The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN” and “No American sounding names who won the spelling B. #sad#fail” were common.
However, Paige Kimble, the bee's director, told The Washington Post that Indian American contestants have long exhibited a "commitment to pursue the spelling bee over many years," resulting in major success.
Tonight, the spellers put their months of hard work to the test. Whether veterans or new-comers, all face a high-stakes contest being watched around the world.
Dev Jaiswal, a 13-year old from Louisville, Miss., has returned for his second national spelling bee.
"It's very exciting, especially when you get a word you've never heard of before," he told the Associated Press. "It's always scary when that happens."