The Congressional Award: An impressive honor Scouts can earn just by being Scouts

In Congress, it’s the rare subject about which there’s unanimous agreement.

It’s the Congressional Award, the highest recognition Congress bestows on young people. To qualify, a young person must meet certain goals in four key areas: voluntary public service, personal development, physical fitness and expedition/exploration.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yes, many of the activities young people enjoy in Scouting fit nicely into those four categories. Better yet, double-dipping is encouraged, meaning work on merit badges, rank requirements and Eagle projects counts toward the award.

This natural correlation explains why, in 1999, the BSA became partners with the Congressional Award Foundation, which remains Congress’ only charity.

As jobs and colleges become increasingly more competitive, the Congressional Award — along with a young person’s experience in Scouting — will look great on a résumé. That “something extra” is exactly what hiring managers and college admissions counselors want to see.

Scouts have been earning the Congressional Award ever since it was established in 1979. In 2019, at least 75 of the 538 Congressional Award Gold Medal recipients were Scouts. But I say it’s time to raise that number even higher. The award is noncompetitive, meaning anyone who properly completes the requirements will receive the award.

Important: Scouts must register first

Before you consider retroactively counting Scouting experience toward the award, let me point out one key statement from the Congressional Award site: “This is not an award for past accomplishments. Instead, you are honored for achieving your own challenging goals after registering for the program.”

That means your Scouts should register for the award as soon as possible after turning 13.5 years old, giving them the maximum amount of time to count Scouting requirements toward their progress.

But even if your Scout or Venturer is 16, 17 or older, all hope is not lost. They have until their 24th birthday to complete the requirements.

‘Things I was already doing in Scouting’

After registering, any qualifying activity — in school, Scouting or another extracurricular activity — can count toward the award. That fact is confirmed in the award’s FAQs: “If you belong to groups such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Venturing, 4-H, etc., your activities may often be used to achieve a particular goal.”

That was certainly the case for Eagle Scout Todd Christian, who earned the Congressional Award in 2019, at age 23.

“I completed all of the requirements for the program exclusively through the things I was already doing through Scouting,” he says.

Christian earned the Gold Medal, which is the highest of the Congressional Award’s six levels. That top honor includes an invite to the national award ceremony in Washington, D.C., where honorees meet other recipients as well as their congressional representatives. (Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s ceremony was held virtually.)

The Gold Medal requires at least 400 hours of volunteer time, 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness, and an expedition of at least five days and four nights.

“Essentially, anyone who completes a multiday trek as well as a comprehensive service project — what we call an Eagle project — has already overcome a major hurdle to receiving the top award,” Christian says.

The entry-level award — the Bronze Certificate — is within even closer reach for most Scouts. It requires 30 hours of volunteer service, 15 hours of personal development, 15 hours of physical fitness, and a one-day expedition or exploration.

“Virtually every Scout has met these requirements many times over, just by being a Scout,” Christian says.

Eagle Scout Cutler Shiver of Georgia (second from left) received the Congressional Award Gold Medal in 2019.
Eagle Scout Cutler Shiver of Georgia (second from left) received the Congressional Award Gold Medal in 2019.

How to earn the award and what to expect

Explore the program requirements here. Keep in mind that each level is cumulative, meaning time spent on one award carries over to the next. For example, completing 200 hours of service for the Silver Medal means you’re already halfway to the 400 needed for Gold.

Scouts who want to count their work in Scouting toward the Congressional Award should keep three things in mind:

  1. Scouts must register for the program before beginning to count work toward it.
  2. The minimum age to register is 13.5, and all goals must be met before turning 24.
  3. Scouts should document their work closely so it’s easy to share it with the Congressional Award program when it’s time to submit. Many Scouts already do this level of documentation when working on merit badges like Personal Management or projects like the Eagle Scout project.

Going for Gold?

Scouts like to aim high, so I’m guessing that many will be eyeing that Gold Medal. Christian shared a few examples of how Scouts might meet or exceed Gold Medal requirements just by enjoying all that Scouting has to offer.

  • 400 hours of voluntary service: Scouts spend a lot of time helping others and serving in
    leadership roles, and it’s surprising how quickly they accumulate more than 400 hours. Eagle Scout service projects could easily fulfill a large chunk of the 400 hours needed.
  • 200 hours of personal development: Scouts could register these hours by learning new skills, such as those taught in merit badges. It takes time, but it’s fun to pursue a new passion.
  • 200 hours of physical fitness: Working toward merit badges like Cycling, Swimming, Hiking, Backpacking and Athletics will give Scouts a good foundation for this requirement.
  • Four nights and five days on an “expedition or exploration”: A single trip to many BSA high-adventure bases would qualify, and Philmont Scout Ranch is mentioned by name in the FAQs. The primary requirement is that participants “plan, prepare and be responsible.”
  • 24 months of work toward the award: Scouts work for months toward lofty goals like the Eagle Scout Award, Quartermaster Award (Sea Scouts) or Summit Award (Venturing). All this time will count.

A Scouter’s role

While it is certainly appropriate to present this opportunity to your Scouts and Venturers, keep in mind that — like anything else in Scouting — the Scouts should take the lead.

But as a Scouter, you still play an important role.

Any young person wishing to earn the Congressional Award will need Advisors and Validators — adults who can help a young person navigate the program and verify completion of requirements.

According to the official FAQs, Scoutmasters are ideally suited for this role — with a few exceptions.

“Teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, club leaders and Scoutmasters would all make excellent Advisors and Validators,” according to the FAQs. “The only guideline in choosing an Advisor or Validator is that they cannot be your parent, relative or peer.”

The Congressional Award during COVID-19

Thankfully, Scouting has not been on pause during the coronavirus pandemic. Scouts are still having fun, earning merit badges and serving others.

Likewise, progress toward the Congressional Award can continue. For the official guidance on navigating the award during COVID-19, see this article from the Congressional Award Foundation.

About Bryan Wendell 3281 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.