June 27, 2013 at 4:05 PM ET
"I tried to find companies and products that I understood and that I had a personal interest in owning."
A pearl of wisdom from Warren Buffett? No, this one comes from Carly O'Connell.
O'Connell, age 12, and three other young investors are the winners of the InvestWrite essay competition, and they visited New York this week in a victory lap. The trip included a stint on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and a stop at the New York Fed to see the gold vault.
The contest, run by the Sifma Foundation and sponsored by McGraw Hill, is open to teams of students who play the Stock Market Game, a decades-old simulation that lets students invest an imaginary $100,000 portfolio. In the essay, contestants discuss an investment scenario and recommend asset allocations. The four winners were chosen from a field of 20,000.
While the top four are clearly excellent writers and avid students of the market, their investment performance was mixed.
"I got destroyed," said John Petrie, a senior at Columbus Academy in Gahanna, Ohio, whose team tried shorting several stocks and then "spent the rest of the game buying high and selling low."
But the team of Hudson Sneed, a sixth-grader at Hartselle Junior High School in Hartselle, Ala., finished eighth in that state, thanks to a bet on Boeing.
O'Connell, a sixth-grader at Old Hammondtown School in Mattapoisett, Mass., and her team had mixed results. But the recommendation in her essay—buy Flowers Foods, the acquirer of the Hostess brand—was spot on. The stock was at about $20 when she devised her strategy and is currently close to $33.
"At 12 years old, I know a lot about lunch-box snack cakes, so that's where I focused my attention," she said. Her most important piece of investment advice: "Follow your instincts."
The students got to reap the rewards of their financial literacy at a time when most Americans are getting the opposite results.
In a recent survey by the Investor Education Foundation at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, 61 percent of respondents were unable to answer three of five questions correctly—a record weaker than the one set three years earlier.
Sen. Kay Hagan (D.-N.C.) has introduced the Financial Literacy for Students Act, but it islanguishing in committee.
The consequences of Americans' lack of know-how with finances are reflected in everything from the subprime meltdown to our dismal savings rate.
And such lack of understanding has more ramifications. Without grasping the implications, many young people are saddling themselves with college debt that often reaches into the tens of thousands of dollars.
They are being asked "to make some of the most important decisions of their life, whether to invest in education at an early time, and whether to take out debt," said Annamaria Lusardi, professor at the George Washington University School of Business. Financial literacy is "a new skill that is necessary to live in today's society," she added.
But these challenges don't concern the winners of the InvestWrite contest—at least not right now. They're too busy savoring their trip, and some are considering a future in finance.
"Everyone likes money," said Andrew Bent, a junior at Poolesville High School in Poolesville, Md., who scored with Toyota and Apple. He called his visit to the stock exchange floor "awesome" and said he was looking forward to seeing the gold at the Fed.
Finance, he said, "is very interesting to me."
—By CNBC's Kelley Holland.