How to Win Essay Contests: A Step-by-Step Guide

10 Steps to Writing Contest-Winning Essays

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rules in essay writing contest

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Did you know that you can win prizes with your writing skills? Essay contests are a fun way to turn your creativity and your command of the written word into great prizes. But how do you give your essay the edge that gets it picked from among all of the other entries?

Here's a step-by-step guide to writing essays that impress judges. Follow these steps for your best chances of winning writing contests.

Read the Essay Contest Rules

The first thing that you should do to win essay contests is to read the rules thoroughly. Overlooking one small detail could be the difference between winning the contest and wasting your time.

Pay special attention to:

  • The contest's start and end dates.
  • How often you're allowed to enter.
  • The word or character count .
  • The contest's theme.
  • The criteria that the judges will use to pick the winners.
  • Who the sponsoring company is, and what their branding is like.
  • And any other details the sponsor requires.

It might help you to print out the sweepstakes rules and highlight the most important elements, or to take notes and keep them close at hand as you write.

If you summarize the relevant rules in a checklist, you can easily check the requirements off when you've finished your essay to ensure you haven't overlooked anything.

Brainstorm Your Essay Ideas

Many people want to jump right into writing their essay, but it's a better idea to take some time to brainstorm different ideas before you start. Oftentimes, your first impulse isn't your best.

The Calgary Tutoring Centre lists several reasons why brainstorming improves your writing . According to their article, brainstorming lets you:

"Eliminate weaker ideas or make weaker ideas stronger. Select only the best and most relevant topics of discussion for your essay while eliminating off-topic ideas. Or, generate a new topic that you might have left out that fits with others."

For a great brainstorming session, find a distraction-free area and settle in with a pen and paper, or your favorite method to take notes. A warm beverage and a healthy snack might aid your process. Then, think about your topic and jot down quick words and phrases that are relevant to your theme.

This is not the time to polish your ideas or try to write them coherently. Just capture enough of the idea that you know what you meant when you review your notes.

Consider different ways that you can make the contest theme personal, come at it from a different angle, or stand out from the other contest entries. Can you make a serious theme funny? Can you make your ideas surprising and unexpected?

Write down all your ideas, but don't judge them yet. The more ideas you can come up with, the better.

Select the Essay Concept that Best Fits the Contest's Theme and Sponsor

Once you've finished brainstorming, look over all of your ideas to pick the one you want to develop for your essay contest entry.

While you're deciding, think about what might appeal to the essay contest's sponsor. Do you have a way of working the sponsor's products into your essay? Does your concept fit the sponsor's company image?

An essay that might be perfect for a Budweiser contest might fall completely flat when Disney is the sponsor.

This is also a good time to consider whether any of your rejected ideas would make good secondary themes for your essay.

Use a Good Hook to Grab the Reader's Attention

When it's time to start writing your essay, remember that the first sentence is the most important. You want to ensure that your first paragraph is memorable and grabs the reader's attention.

When you start with a powerful, intriguing, moving, or hilarious first sentence, you hook your readers' interest and stick out in their memory when it is time to pick winners.

Writer's Digest has some excellent tips on how to hook readers at the start of an essay in their article, 10 Ways to Hook Your Reader (and Reel Them in for Good) .

For ideas on how to make your essay unforgettable, see Red Mittens, Strong Hooks, and Other Ways to Make Your Essay Spectacular .

Write the First Draft of Your Essay

Now, it's time to get all of your thoughts down on paper (or on your computer). Remember that this is a first draft, so don't worry about perfect grammar or if you are running over your word count. 

Instead, focus on whether your essay is hitting the right emotional notes, how your story comes across, whether you are using the right voice, and if you are communicating everything you intend to.

First drafts are important because they help you overcome your reluctance to write. You are not trying to be good yet, you are trying to simply tell your story. Polishing that story will come later.

They also organize your writing. You can see where your ideas fit and where you need to restructure to give them more emotional impact.

Finally, a first draft helps you keep your ideas flowing without letting details slow you down. You can even skip over parts that you find challenging, leaving notes for your next revision. For example, you could jot down "add statistics" or "get a funny quote from Mom" and come back to those time-consuming points later.

Revise Your Essay for Flow and Organization

Once you've written the first draft of your essay, look over it to ensure that it flows. Is your point well-made and clear? Do your thoughts flow smoothly from one point to another? Do the transitions make sense? Does it sound good when you read it aloud?

This is also the time to cut out extraneous words and ensure you've come in under the word count limit.

Generally, cutting words will improve your writing. In his book, On Writing , Stephen King writes that he once received a rejection that read: "Formula for success: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%." In other words, the first draft can always use some trimming to make the best parts shine.

If you'd like some tips on how to improve your first draft, check out these tips on how to self-edit .

Keep an Eye Out for "Red Mittens"

In her fantastic book, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio , Terry Ryan talked about how her mother Evelyn used "red mittens" to help her be more successful with contest entries.

As she put it:

"The purpose of the Red Mitten was almost self-explanatory -- it made an entry stand out from the rest. In a basket of mittens, a red one will be noticed."

Rhyme, alliteration, inner rhyme, puns, and coined words were some of the red mittens that Evelyn Ryan used to make her entries pop. Your essay's red mitten might be a clever play on words, a dash of humor, or a heart-tuggingly poignant story that sticks in the judges' minds.

If your first draft is feeling a little bland, consider whether you can add a red mitten to spice up your story.

Put Your Contest Entry Aside

Now that you have a fairly polished draft of your essay contest entry, put it aside and don't look at it for a little while. If you have time before the contest ends, put your essay away for at least a week and let your mind mull over the idea subconsciously for a little while.

Many times, people think of exactly what their essay needs to make it perfect... right after they have hit the submit button.

Letting your entry simmer in your mind for a while gives you the time to come up with these great ideas before it's too late.

Revise Your Essay Contest Entry Again

Now, it's time to put the final polish on your essay. Have you said everything you wanted to? Have you made your point? Does the essay sound good when you read it out loud? Can you tighten up the prose by making additional cuts in the word count?

In this phase, it helps to enlist the help of friends or family members. Read your essay to them and check their reactions. Did they smile at the right parts? Were they confused by anything? Did they connect with the idea behind the story?

This is also a good time to ensure you haven't made any grammar or spelling mistakes. A grammar checker like Grammarly is very helpful for catching those little mistakes your eyes gloss over. But since even computer programs make mistakes sometimes, so it's helpful to have another person — a good friend or family member — read it through before you submit it.

Read the Essay Contest Rules One Last Time

If you've been following these directions, you've already read through the contest rules carefully. But now that you've written your draft and had some time to think things over, read them through one more time to make sure you haven't overlooked anything.

Go through your checklist of the essay requirements point-by-point with your finished essay in front of you to make sure you've hit them all.

And now, you're done! Submit the essay to your contest, and keep your fingers crossed for the results !

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rules in essay writing contest

Contest Guidelines

Please read these Guidelines carefully before clicking below to submit. Failure to read and follow these guidelines could result in your essay being ineligible.

Live Deliberately Essay Contest Guidelines:

  • Submission: Essays should be submitted using the online form only. NEW FOR 2019-2020: Each contestant MUST provide contact information for a teacher or other adult sponsor, 21 years of age or older, in order to complete the submission process. Please do not email or mail entries. Each participant can submit one entry for consideration (per year).
  • Deadline:   The 2019-2020 Essay Contest Deadline is February 15, 2020 . Entries received after Midnight EST on that day will not be considered.
  • Length:  Essays should be no longer than 750 words. This is a maximum word count; if your response to the prompt can be clearly and powerfully communicated in fewer than 750 words, that is great.
  • Eligibility: The contest is open to youth around the world. Youth must be between 14-18 years of age when the Contest closes on February 15, with the following exception.  Nineteen-year-olds who are enrolled in high school or an equivalent program are eligible in the 14-18 age group. Past winners are not eligible to participate.
  • Adult Sponsor: EVERY contestant (regardless of age) must have a teacher, club advisor, parent, or other adult sponsor 21 years of age or older . The Sponsor must review the contestant’s work prior to submission to ensure that it meets contest guidelines. Essays cannot be submitted without providing the name and email address for a Sponsor. The Sponsor will receive an email when the form is submitted confirming that they have been named as a Contest Sponsor.
  • Language: Essays should be written in English and represent the youth’s original work.  Youth are welcome to write their essay in their native language (if not English) but it must be translated into English for submission.
  • Original Work: A teacher/Sponsor can provide pre-writing activities and appropriate review, editing, and translation support, but the ideas, content, structure and style of the actual essay MUST come from the youth alone.
  • Name the file “LastnameFirstinitial2020”. For example, our Director of Education, Whitney Retallic’s submission would be titled “RetallicW2020”.
  • Winners: A panel of reviewers selected by The Walden Woods Project will judge entries and will typically award one Winner and a limited number of Honorable Mentions for each of two age categories: 14-16 yrs and 17-18 yrs. The Essay Contest Advisory Board makes the final decisions and has the authority to offer more or fewer awards in any given year, including the possibility of selecting no winner in a particular age group. Winning essays and those receiving Honorable Mention will be featured on our website, alongside a brief profile and picture of the author.
  • Prizes: The winner for each age group will receive a $500 cash prize, a certificate of recognition from The Walden Woods Project and a copy of Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition,  autographed by the book’s editor, Jeffrey S. Cramer, our Curator of Collections at The Walden Woods Project Library . The cash prize will come in the form of a check (in the US) or wire (outside of the US). If the check expires or is lost, a $29 cancellation fee will be deducted from the total when the check is re-issued. Contestants who receive Honorable Mention will receive a certificate of recognition and an autographed copy of Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition .
  • Addresses Prompt — The essay effectively takes into account, either literally or metaphorically, the entirety of the prompt. Please do not submit an essay that is being used as your “college essay.” If an essay does not make an earnest attempt to address the Contest’s prompt, it will not be considered for review.
  • Focus —The thesis/main message is clear and supported throughout. The essay does not stray from the main message.
  • Organization & Structure —The essay is organized and well-structured. Author demonstrates command of grammar, spelling and mechanics.
  • Voice/Originality —The essay uses a highly engaging and personal style. The author finds fresh or interesting ways to convey ideas. The author approaches the topic from a unique perspective.
  • Evidence of Personal Reflection —The essay demonstrates that the author has genuinely explored the topic/question and how it relates to his or her own life. The essay reflects a depth in reflection.

I’ve read the Guidelines and I’m ready to submit my essay!

R eturn to Essay Contest Home Page


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  1. Winning Essay Contests: A Step-by-Step Guide

    When in doubt, you can follow these general guides when submitting for writing competitions: • Double space (except for poetry and scriptwriting) • Use a standard font, like Courier, Times New Roman or Arial. • Be sure your name and contact info is at the top of the submission. • Cut and paste in body of e-mail.

  2. Contest Guidelines

    Live Deliberately Essay Contest Guidelines: Submission: Essays should be submitted using the online form only. NEW FOR 2019-2020: Each contestant MUST provide contact information for a teacher or other adult sponsor, 21 years of age or older, in order to complete the submission process. Please do not email or mail entries.


    RULES No entry fee is required, and all rights in the story remain the property of the author. All types of fiction are welcome. By submitting to the Contest, the entrant agrees to abide by all Contest rules. All entries must be original works by the entrant, in English.

  4. Teen Writing Contest Rules and Judging Criteria

    Rules for the Monthly High School and College Writing Contest: Essay must relate to the monthly theme and writing prompt. Essay must be your original work. Essay can be no longer than 500 words. Essay must be non-fiction and follow the form of a diary, journal, blog, memoir, or essay.