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10 Great Essay Writing Tips
Knowing how to write a college essay is a useful skill for anyone who plans to go to college. Most colleges and universities ask you to submit a writing sample with your application. As a student, you’ll also write essays in your courses. Impress your professors with your knowledge and skill by using these great essay writing tips.
Prepare to Answer the Question
Most college essays ask you to answer a question or synthesize information you learned in class. Review notes you have from lectures, read the recommended texts and make sure you understand the topic. You should refer to these sources in your essay.
Plan Your Essay
Many students see planning as a waste of time, but it actually saves you time. Take a few minutes to think about the topic and what you want to say about it. You can write an outline, draw a chart or use a graphic organizer to arrange your ideas. This gives you a chance to spot problems in your ideas before you spend time writing out the paragraphs.
Choose a Writing Method That Feels Comfortable
You might have to type your essay before turning it in, but that doesn’t mean you have to write it that way. Some people find it easy to write out their ideas by hand. Others prefer typing in a word processor where they can erase and rewrite as needed. Find the one that works best for you and stick with it.
View It as a Conversation
Writing is a form of communication, so think of your essay as a conversation between you and the reader. Think about your response to the source material and the topic. Decide what you want to tell the reader about the topic. Then, stay focused on your response as you write.
Provide the Context in the Introduction
If you look at an example of an essay introduction, you’ll see that the best essays give the reader a context. Think of how you introduce two people to each other. You share the details you think they will find most interesting. Do this in your essay by stating what it’s about and then telling readers what the issue is.
Explain What Needs to be Explained
Sometimes you have to explain concepts or define words to help the reader understand your viewpoint. You also have to explain the reasoning behind your ideas. For example, it’s not enough to write that your greatest achievement is running an ultra marathon. You might need to define ultra marathon and explain why finishing the race is such an accomplishment.
Answer All the Questions
After you finish writing the first draft of your essay, make sure you’ve answered all the questions you were supposed to answer. For example, essays in compare and contrast format should show the similarities and differences between ideas, objects or events. If you’re writing about a significant achievement, describe what you did and how it affected you.
Stay Focused as You Write
Writing requires concentration. Find a place where you have few distractions and give yourself time to write without interruptions. Don’t wait until the night before the essay is due to start working on it.
Read the Essay Aloud to Proofread
When you finish writing your essay, read it aloud. You can do this by yourself or ask someone to listen to you read it. You’ll notice places where the ideas don’t make sense, and your listener can give you feedback about your ideas.
Avoid Filling the Page with Words
A great essay does more than follow an essay layout. It has something to say. Sometimes students panic and write everything they know about a topic or summarize everything in the source material. Your job as a writer is to show why this information is important.
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Essay Contest Winning Entries
We are pleased to recognize the winners of our Essay Contest by publishing their essays on our website for all to enjoy .
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Past Winning Essays
2022 winning essay by theodora mcgee, 2021 winning essay by anna dougherty, 2020 winning essay by noah durham, 2019 winning essay by elazar cramer, 2018 winning essay by jeffrey seaman, 2017 winning essay by daud shad, 2016 winning essay by zhen tu, 2015 winning essay by matthew waltman, 2014 winning essay by ben wolman, 2013 winning essay by jamie baer, 2012 winning essay by patrick reilly, 2011 winning essay by kevin kay, 2010 winning essay by michael reed, 2009 winning essay by margo balboni, 2008 winning essay by laura schapiro, 2007 winning essay by maia gottlieb, 2006 winning essay by ben loffredo, 2005 winning essay by allie comet, 2005 winning essay by kevin zhou, 2004 winning essay by avram sand, 2004 winning essay by will schmidley, 2003 winning essay by michael sloyer, 2002 winning essay by emily ullman, 2001 winning essay by tyler boersen, 2001 winning essay by stephanie dziczek, 2000 winning essay by peter buttigieg.
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The Best Writing Contests of 2023
Writing competitions curated by Reedsy
- Flash Fiction
- Science Fiction
- Science Writing
- Script Writing
- Young Adult
Manage a competition? Submit it here
Join our short story competition
Submit a short story based on 1 of 5 weekly prompts. Winners get $250.
Showing 554 contests
The reedsy prompts contest.
Every Friday, Reedsy sends out five writing prompts. Enter your response within a week for a chance at $250. Winners may also be included in a future issue of Reedsy’s literary magazine, Prompted.
$25 credit toward Reedsy editorial services
Deadline: December 31, 2023
Fiction, Short Story
Narratively's 2023 Profile Prize
Narratively is looking for profile pieces that tell the story of ordinary people or communities doing extraordinary things. The grand prize winner will receive $3,000, and the two finalists will receive $1,000 each. Guest judges are renowned journalists Gay Talese, Lisa Lucas and Rebecca Traister.
$1000 for two other finalists
Deadline: April 14, 2023
Bacopa Literary Review
Bacopa Literary Review is an annual international print journal published by the Writers Alliance of Gainesville. Our Bacopa Literary Review Editors’ blog shows the quality of writing we seek by highlighting work we respect from previous Bacopa issues as well as other sources.
£200 in 6 categories
$100 Honorable mention in 6 categories
Deadline: April 16, 2023
Fiction, Non-fiction, Poetry, Short Story, Essay, Flash Fiction, Humor
Elegant Literature's Contest For New Writers
One of the largest awards open to unpublished writers, and the only one closed to professionals. We are the first magazine to pay pro rates and only accept submissions from new writers, paying new authors over $50,000 last year. One new writer receives the grand prize. We also choose the best stories, pay the authors above-professional rates, and publish them in our magazine. March head judge is Creag Munroe.
Paid publication, 25 x $20 USD | Free entry to Novelist Accelerator | Now Novel Package
Deadline: April 01, 2023
Crime, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Humor, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, Short Story, Thriller, Young Adult, Flash Fiction, Science Writing
New Deal Writing Competition
Genesee Valley Council on the Arts
GVCA is excited to announce the eighth annual New Deal Writing Competition! This competition challenges writers to use a painting chosen by the staff at GVCA as inspiration for a short story. This year’s painting is “Small Town” by Edmund Yaghjian, an oil painting.
2nd: $100 | 3rd: $50
Young Sports Journalist Competition 2023
Pitch magazine is pleased to announce the launch of the Young Sports Journalist competition 2023! We are seeking well-argued articles from students aged 14-24 for this competition.
£150 in each category
Publication | Work experience at The Times and FIPP
💰 Fee: FREE
Deadline: April 07, 2023
Geminga: $250 for Tiny Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, or Art
Geminga is a neutron star so small it was difficult to detect. It was named, in part, for a transcription of gh’è minga, meaning “it’s not there.” With Geminga: $500 for Tiny Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, or Art, Sunspot Lit honors the power of the small. No restrictions on theme or category. Word limit is 100 for fiction and nonfiction. Micropoetry is limited to 140 characters. Graphic novelsshould be 4 pages or less.
Publication in digital and print
Deadline: March 31, 2023
Crime, Essay, Fantasy, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Horror, Humor, Memoir, Mystery, Non-fiction, Poetry, Romance, Science Fiction, Script Writing, Short Story, Thriller, Young Adult
New Writers Poetry Competition 2023
The New Writers Poetry Competition 2023 is open to published and unpublished poets from around the world. There is no specific theme but poems should be no longer than 40 lines. NewWriters.org.uk will donate £1.00 from each entry to First Story (a creative writing charity in the UK).
2nd: £300 | 3rd: £200
Deadline: July 12, 2023
King of Essay
To all TV shows nerds: we're incredibly excited to announce a competition for the best essay based on the TV series you are keen on. This is a new challenge for folks who may be under budget and interested in winning subscriptions on streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney).
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or Disney+ subscription for 6 months
Deadline: May 15, 2023
Crime, Essay, Fantasy, Horror, Humor, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, Short Story, Thriller, Young Adult
7 Day Story Writing Challenge
Register now for our next 7-day story writing challenge. A secret theme, a randomly assigned genre and just 7 days to write a story of no more than 2,000 words. Our 7 day story writing challenges take place throughout the year. The challenges are free and you can even get feedback on your story. Take part in one challenge or take part in all of them!
Deadline: May 14, 2023
Fiction, Flash Fiction, Short Story
First Pages Prize
This international prize is open to unagented writers anywhere in the world for the first five pages (1,250 words) of a longer work of fiction or creative nonfiction. This year we will award three prizes in BOTH fiction and creative nonfiction! In addition to cash awards, winners receive developmental mentoring, consultation with a literary agent, and publicity.
Developmental Mentoring & Agent Consultation
Deadline: April 10, 2023
Crime, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Humor, Memoir, Mystery, Non-fiction, Novel, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller, Young Adult
Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize
Exceptionally international in scope, the prize supports writers who have not yet published a book-length work, with no limits on age, gender, nationality, or background. The winners of each category (fiction, poetry and life writing) will receive a £1,000 cash prize and publication, and will be published in Wasafiri’s print magazine. Shortlisted writers will have their work published on Wasafiri’s website.
Mentoring & Publication
Deadline: June 30, 2023
Fiction, Poetry, Memoir, Non-fiction
The Mysterious Case
The theme of this contest is "The Mysterious Case". The main character or characters of your entry must have a suspenseful investigation with a mystery in the plot. This change must occur in the story before the end of the fourth chapter and must be mentioned in your book description.
2nd: €250 | 3rd: €100
Deadline: April 02, 2023
Crime, Fiction, Novel
The 2023 Ink Across Borders Prize
The European Society of Literature
This competition is seeking out literary talent in Africa, Asia, and other typically underrepresented parts of the world. We want to build bridges between the West and the East, the North and the South. To ensure writers from these places have the opportunity to gain international attention, we’re launching The 2023 Ink Across Borders Prize.
The Synopsis Skirmish—a contest for querying authors
Darling Axe Editing
Summarize your novel in 500 words for a chance at a $1000 CAD prize pool! Our judge, Michelle Barker, will be asking herself one question: "Does this synopsis convince me that I'm in the hands of an adept novelist with a unique and engaging story to tell?"
2nd: $200 CAD | 3rd: $100 CAD
Deadline: May 31, 2023
Crime, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Humor, Memoir, Mystery, Non-fiction, Novel, Novella, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller, Young Adult
Nature and Place Poetry Competition
The Rialto working in association with the RSPB, BirdLife International, Cambridge Conservation Initiative and The University of Leeds Poetry Centre. Poems are invited that deal with any aspect of nature and place – these terms will be given a wide interpretation by the judge Ian McMillan.
2nd: £500 | 3rd: £250
Deadline: March 01, 2023 (Expired)
The Pinch Literary Awards & Page Prize
The Pinch Literary Journal
The 2023 Pinch Literary Awards accepts poetry and fiction. The 2023 Page Prize accepts non-fiction.
$2000 for poetry & fiction winners
$1000 for Page Prize winner
Fiction, Poetry, Short Story, Non-fiction
Adrienne Rich Award for Poetry
Beloit Poetry Journal
Submit 1-3 unpublished poems on any subject in any style up to a maximum of 10 pages per entry. (We enjoy long poems!)
Deadline: April 30, 2023
The Bath Novel Award
The Bath Novel Awards
The Bath Novel Award is a £3,000 international prize for emerging writers of adult fiction. Submit the first 5,000 words plus a one page synopsis of your novel for adults or young adults. Shortlisted entries will receive manuscript feedback and literary agent introductions.
£1800 for one longlistee
Fiction, Novel, Young Adult
North Street Book Prize
Submit a self-published or hybrid-published book, up to 200,000 words in length. One grand prize winner will receive $10,000, a marketing analysis and one-hour phone consultation with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, a $300 credit at BookBaby, three months of Plus service (a $207 value) and a $500 account credit from Book Award Pro, and 3 free ads in the Winning Writers newsletter (a $525 value)
$1,000 for top winner in each category | $300 for honorable mentions
Fiction, Memoir, Non-fiction, Poetry, Children's, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller, Young Adult
Write By The Sea Writing Competition
Write By The Sea
Flash Fiction (700 words), Short Story (2,500 words), Poetry (40 lines) Memoir/Personal Essay (1,000 words). The winner of each category will receive a cash prize of €500, a beautiful hand-crafted WBTS 2023 Writing Competition trophy and a free weekend pass to Write By The Sea festival 2023. All four winning pieces will be published on the Write By The Sea website.
2nd: €200 | 3rd: €300
Deadline: June 04, 2023
Essay, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Memoir, Poetry, Short Story
Dave Williamson National Short Story Competition
Manitoba Writers' Guild
Open to writers across Canada. Short prose in English, 2,500-5,000 words in any fiction genre. We actively encourage submissions from all writers who are 18 years of age or older.
2nd: $600 CAD | 3rd: $400 CAD
Chapter One Prize
Gutsy Great Novelist
The Gutsy Great Novelist Chapter One Prize is awarded for an outstanding first chapter of an unpublished novel. The prize is open internationally to anyone over 18 writing a novel in English in any genre for adult or YA readers. Winners will be announced March 31, 2023.
2nd: $500 |3rd: $250
Fiction, Novel, Young Adult, Crime, Fantasy, Horror, Humor, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller
Romance on the Road
Write an original, factual, first-person travel story about a time you experienced romance while traveling. Feel free to explore romance in all of its manifestations, but ensure that your travel story builds itself around the context of a place or experience. Editors will be looking for originality, voice, and a satisfying story arc that captures attention and makes use of imagery to pull the reader along at every step.
Deadline: March 19, 2023
Non-fiction, Romance, Travel
Aurora Polaris Creative Nonfiction Award
Trio House Press
We seek un-agented full-length creative nonfiction manuscripts including memoir, essay collections, etc. 50,000 - 80,000 words.
Deadline: August 31, 2023
Essay, Memoir, Non-fiction
100 Word Writing Contest
100 words per entry. Submit as many entries as you’d like. All ages. All genders. All nationalities. All writers welcome. This year's theme is the power of words. The words we write, the words we say, the words we keep to ourselves. They make a difference in the lives of those around us. How can you use your words to instill a sense of calm, of hope, of community? To remind one another of the beauty of diversity. To encourage us to support, love, and inspire one another.
2nd: writing coach package 3rd: developmental or diversity editing package.
Essay, Fantasy, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Humor, Memoir, Mystery, Non-fiction, Science Fiction, Science Writing, Thriller, Young Adult
Southword Literary Essay Competition
Munster Literature Centre
The competition is open to original, unpublished, personal essays between 2500 ‒ 5000 words. We’re looking for personal, confessional essays which border on memoir ‒ gripping essays full of memories and feelings. The best indicator of the kind of thing which interests us is what we have published in past issues; essays by Kim Addonizio, Sandra Beasley, Simon Van Booy, Carlo Geblér, Thomas Lynch, Anthony Walton, Helen Mort and Kim Moore.
8 Runners-Up: €500
Deadline: February 28, 2023 (Expired)
This is our third exclusively-for-women-writers story-writing international contest. ‘Cos life is all about celebrating womanhood and surviving through various challenges it brings along! Theme: Separation. Word count: 1000 – 2500 words. Author eligibility: Writers of age 16 and above, from all across the globe. All entries must be in English. Only original works that have not been published in print, digital or online publications will be considered.
Deadline: February 20, 2023 (Expired)
International Welsh Poetry Competition 2023
International Welsh Poetry Competition
The first Welsh Poetry Competition was set up by poet & writer Dave Lewis in 2007. The aim is to inspire people to capture life in the present day and to give a voice to a new generation of poets and writers. We are not interested in purely academic types of literature but would much rather see pure raw passion burst onto the creative writing scene in Wales.
2nd: £250 | 3rd: £125
International Poetry Book Awards 2023
Poetry Book Awards
The Poetry Book Awards is an annual, international book award given to the best poetry books produced by indie writers, self published authors or books published by small, truly independent presses. We are proud to be a Welsh based international awards programme, open to all indie authors and self published poets globally.
2nd: £200 | 3rd: £100 | Publication
Deadline: July 31, 2023
NextTribe Short Story Contest for Women (Over 45)
Next Tribe Inc
We believe women age 45+ have much fuel to write good stories, so our contest is exclusively for this demographic.
2 runners up: $100 | Publication in NextTribe
Deadline: May 08, 2023
Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction
The aim of the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize is both to celebrate the best of new, boundary-pushing short fiction and to give winners the most visibility possible for their writing. This year, the stories of 2000 words or fewer will be judged by Ottessa Moshfegh, Tiffany Tsao, and Mariana Enriquez.
€1,500 + a 7-day stay at the Civitella Ranieri artist’s residency in Umbria, Italy
2nd and 3rd place: €750
Eco Friendly Writing Contest
Howard's New Beginnings
The aim of the contest is to share eco-friendly ideas. Tell us something you think helps make the planet become more eco-friendly such as an eco-friendly product or packaging, a recipe for a natural product, or a waste-management tip. Up to 500 words. Any writer from anywhere can submit an entry. Contest deadline is April 22 2023, Earth Day.
Deadline: April 22, 2023
Essay, Non-fiction, Science Writing
WriterAdvice seeks flash memoir, a personal life story running 750 words or less.
Publication in our e-zine
Deadline: March 02, 2023 (Expired)
Booksie 2023 Poetry Contest
Booksie is looking to crown its 2018 Poet Laureate. The poetry can be of any type, length, or content, but it must be your own. The poetry can be serious or whimsical, fact or fiction, but it should strike a chord that makes us sit up and take notice. We're looking for poems that say something and make a reader sit up and think. You may submit as many entries as you like.
$150 to two runners-up
Deadline: June 15, 2023
Discover the finest writing contests of 2022 for fiction and non-fiction authors — including short story competitions, essay writing competitions, poetry contests, and many more. Updated weekly, these contests are vetted by Reedsy to weed out the scammers and time-wasters. If you’re looking to stick to free writing contests, simply use our filters as you browse.
Why you should submit to writing contests
Submitting to poetry competitions and free writing contests in 2022 is absolutely worth your while as an aspiring author: just as your qualifications matter when you apply for a new job, a writing portfolio that boasts published works and award-winning pieces is a great way to give your writing career a boost. And not to mention the bonus of cash prizes!
That being said, we understand that taking part in writing contests can be tough for emerging writers. First, there’s the same affliction all writers face: lack of time or inspiration. Entering writing contests is a time commitment, and many people decide to forego this endeavor in order to work on their larger projects instead — like a full-length book. Second, for many writers, the chance of rejection is enough to steer them clear of writing contests.
But we’re here to tell you that two of the great benefits of entering writing contests happen to be the same as those two reasons to avoid them.
When it comes to the time commitment: yes, you will need to expend time and effort in order to submit a quality piece of writing to competitions. That being said, having a hard deadline to meet is a great motivator for developing a solid writing routine.
Think of entering contests as a training session to become a writer who will need to meet deadlines in order to have a successful career. If there’s a contest you have your eye on, and the deadline is in one month, sit down and realistically plan how many words you’ll need to write per day in order to meet that due date — and don’t forget to also factor in the time you’ll need to edit your story!
For tips on setting up a realistic writing plan, check out this free, ten-day course: How to Build a Rock-Solid Writing Routine.
In regards to the fear of rejection, the truth is that any writer aspiring to become a published author needs to develop relatively thick skin. If one of your goals is to have a book traditionally published, you will absolutely need to learn how to deal with rejection, as traditional book deals are notoriously hard to score. If you’re an indie author, you will need to adopt the hardy determination required to slowly build up a readership.
The good news is that there’s a fairly simple trick for learning to deal with rejection: use it as a chance to explore how you might be able to improve your writing.
In an ideal world, each rejection from a publisher or contest would come with a detailed letter, offering construction feedback and pointing out specific tips for improvement. And while this is sometimes the case, it’s the exception and not the rule.
Still, you can use the writing contests you don’t win as a chance to provide yourself with this feedback. Take a look at the winning and shortlisted stories and highlight their strong suits: do they have fully realized characters, a knack for showing instead of telling, a well-developed but subtly conveyed theme, a particularly satisfying denouement?
The idea isn’t to replicate what makes those stories tick in your own writing. But most examples of excellent writing share a number of basic craft principles. Try and see if there are ways for you to translate those stories’ strong points into your own unique writing.
Finally, there are the more obvious benefits of entering writing contests: prize and publication. Not to mention the potential to build up your readership, connect with editors, and gain exposure.
Resources to help you win writing competitions in 2022
Every writing contest has its own set of submission rules. Whether those rules are dense or sparing, ensure that you follow them to a T. Disregarding the guidelines will not sway the judges’ opinion in your favor — and might disqualify you from the contest altogether.
Aside from ensuring you follow the rules, here are a few resources that will help you perfect your submissions.
Free online courses
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The Non-Sexy Business of Writing Non-Fiction
How to Write a Novel
Understanding Point of View
Developing Characters That Your Readers Will Love
Writing Dialogue That Develops Plot and Character
Stop Procrastinating! Build a Solid Writing Routine
Story Editing for Authors
How to Self-Edit Like a Pro
Novel Revision: Practical Tips for Rewrites
How to Write a Short Story in 7 Steps
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Literary Devices and Terms — 35+ Definitions With Examples
10 Essential Fiction Writing Tips to Improve Your Craft
How to Write Dialogue: 8 Simple Rules and Exercises
8 Character Development Exercises to Help You Nail Your Character
200+ Short Story Ideas
600+ Writing Prompts to Inspire You
100+ Creative Writing Exercises for Fiction Authors
Story Title Generator
Pen Name Generator
Character Name Generator
After you submit to a writing competition in 2022
It’s exciting to send a piece of writing off to a contest. However, once the initial excitement wears off, you may be left waiting for a while. Some writing contests will contact all entrants after the judging period — whether or not they’ve won. Other writing competitions will only contact the winners.
Here are a few things to keep in mind after you submit:
Many writing competitions don’t have time to respond to each entrant with feedback on their story. However, it never hurts to ask! Feel free to politely reach out requesting feedback — but wait until after the selection period is over.
If you’ve submitted the same work to more than one writing competition or literary magazine, remember to withdraw your submission if it ends up winning elsewhere.
After you send a submission, don’t follow it up with a rewritten or revised version. Instead, ensure that your first version is thoroughly proofread and edited. If not, wait until the next edition of the contest or submit the revised version to other writing contests.
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The Winners of Our Personal Narrative Essay Contest
We asked students to write about a meaningful life experience. Here are the eight winning essays, as well as runners-up and honorable mentions.
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By The Learning Network
Update: Join our live webinar on Oct. 8 about teaching with our Narrative Writing Contest.
In September, we challenged teenagers to write short, powerful stories about meaningful life experiences for our first-ever personal narrative essay contest .
This contest, like every new contest we start, was admittedly a bit of an experiment. Beyond a caution to write no more than 600 words, our rules were fairly open-ended, and we weren’t sure what we would get.
Well, we received over 8,000 entries from teenagers from around the world. We got stories about scoring the winning goal, losing a grandparent, learning to love one’s skin and dealing with mental illness. We got pieces that were moving, funny, introspective and honest. We got a snapshot of teenage life.
Judging a contest like this is, of course, subjective, especially with the range of content and styles of writing students submitted. But we based our criteria on the types of personal narrative essays The New York Times publishes in columns like Lives , Modern Love and Rites of Passage . We read many, many essays that were primarily reflective but, while these pieces might be well-suited for a college application, they weren’t exactly the short, powerful stories we were looking for in this contest.
The winning essays we selected were, though, and they all had a few things in common that set them apart:
They had a clear narrative arc with a conflict and a main character who changed in some way. They artfully balanced the action of the story with reflection on what it meant to the writer. They took risks, like including dialogue or playing with punctuation, sentence structure and word choice to develop a strong voice. And, perhaps most important, they focused on a specific moment or theme — a conversation, a trip to the mall, a speech tournament, a hospital visit — instead of trying to sum up the writer’s life in 600 words.
Below, you’ll find these eight winning essays, published in full. Scroll to the bottom to see the names of all 35 finalists we’re honoring — eight winners, eight runners-up and 19 honorable mentions. Congratulations, and thank you to everyone who participated!
The Winning Essays
Nothing extraordinary, pants on fire, eggs and sausage, first impressions, cracks in the pavement, sorry, wrong number, the man box.
By Jeniffer Kim
It was a Saturday. Whether it was sunny or cloudy, hot or cold, I cannot remember, but I do remember it was a Saturday because the mall was packed with people.
I was with my mom.
Mom is short. Skinny. It is easy to overlook her in a crowd simply because she is nothing extraordinary to see.
On that day we strolled down the slippery-slick tiles with soft, inconspicuous steps, peeking at window boutiques in fleeting glances because we both knew we wouldn’t be buying much, like always.
I remember I was looking up at the people we passed as we walked — at first apathetically, but then more attentively.
Ladies wore five-inch heels that clicked importantly on the floor and bright, elaborate clothing. Men strode by smelling of sharp cologne, faces clear of wrinkles — wiped away with expensive creams.
An uneasy feeling started to settle in my chest. I tried to push it out, but once it took root it refused to be yanked up and tossed away. It got more unbearable with every second until I could deny it no longer; I was ashamed of my mother.
We were in a high-class neighborhood, I knew that. We lived in a small, overpriced apartment building that hung on to the edge of our county that Mom chose to move to because she knew the schools were good.
We were in a high-class neighborhood, but as I scrutinized the passers-by and then turned accusing eyes on Mom, I realized for the first time that we didn’t belong there.
I could see the heavy lines around Mom’s eyes and mouth, etched deep into her skin without luxurious lotions to ease them away. She wore cheap, ragged clothes with the seams torn, shoes with the soles worn down. Her eyes were tired from working long hours to make ends meet and her hair too gray for her age.
I looked at her, and I was ashamed.
My mom is nothing extraordinary, yet at that moment she stood out because she was just so plain.
Mumbling I’d meet her at the clothes outlet around the corner, I hurried away to the bathroom. I didn’t want to be seen with her, although there was no one important around to see me anyway.
When I finally made my way to the outlet with grudging steps, I found that Mom wasn’t there.
With no other options, I had to scour the other stores in the area for her. I was dreading returning to her side, already feeling the secondhand embarrassment that I’d recently discovered came with being with her.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mom was standing in the middle of a high-end store, holding a sweater that looked much too expensive.
She said, “This will look good on you. Do you want it?”
It was much too expensive. And I almost agreed, carelessly, thoughtlessly.
Then I took a closer look at the small, weary woman with a big smile stretching across her narrow face and a sweater in her hands, happy to be giving me something so nice, and my words died in my throat.
I felt like I’d been dropped into a cold lake.
Her clothes were tattered and old because she spent her money buying me new ones. She looked so tired and ragged all the time because she was busy working to provide for me. She didn’t wear jewelry or scented perfumes because she was just content with me.
Suddenly, Mother was beautiful and extraordinarily wonderful in my eyes.
I was no longer ashamed of her, but of myself.
“Do you want it?” My mom repeated.
By Varya Kluev
I never kissed the boy I liked behind the schoolyard fence that one March morning. I never had dinner with Katy Perry or lived in Kiev for two months either, but I still told my entire fourth-grade class I did.
The words slipped through my teeth effortlessly. With one flick of my tongue, I was, for all anybody knew, twenty-third in line for the throne of Monaco. “Actually?” the girls on the swings beside me would ask, wide eyes blinking with a childlike naivety. I nodded as they whispered under their breath how incredible my fable was. So incredible they bought into it without a second thought.
I lied purely for the ecstasy of it. It was narcotic. With my fabrications, I became the captain of the ship, not just a wistful passer-by, breath fogging the pane of glass that stood between me and the girls I venerated. No longer could I only see, not touch; a lie was a bullet, and the barrier shattered. My mere presence demanded attention — after all, I was the one who got a valentine from Jason, not them.
This way I became more than just the tomboyish band geek who finished her multiplication tables embarrassingly fast. My name tumbled out of their mouths and I manifested in the center of their linoleum lunch table. I became, at least temporarily, the fulcrum their world revolved around.
Not only did I lie religiously and unabashedly — I was good at it. The tedium of my everyday life vanished; I instead marched through the gates of my alcazar, strode up the steps of my concepts, and resided in my throne of deceit. I believed if I took off my fraudulent robe, I would become plebeian. The same aristocracy that finally held me in high regard would boot me out of my palace. To strip naked and exclaim, “Here’s the real me, take a look!” would lead my new circle to redraw their lines — they would take back their compliments, sit at the table with six seats instead of eight, giggle in the back of the class when I asked a question. I therefore adjusted my counterfeit diadem and continued to praise a Broadway show I had never seen.
Yet finally lounging in a lavender bedroom one long-sought-after day, after absently digesting chatter about shows I didn’t watch and boys I didn’t know, I started processing the floating conversations. One girl, who I had idolized for always having her heavy hair perfectly curled, casually shared how her parents couldn’t afford to go on their yearly trip the coming summer. I drew in an expectant breath, but nobody scoffed. Nobody exchanged a secret criticizing glance. Instead, another girl took her spoon of vanilla frosting out of her cheek and with the same air of indifference revealed how her family wasn’t traveling either. Promptly, my spun stories about swimming in crystal pools under Moroccan sun seemed to be in vain.
The following Monday, the girls on the bus to school still shared handfuls of chocolate-coated sunflower seeds with her. At lunch, she wasn’t shunned, wasn’t compelled to sit at a forgotten corner table. For that hour, instead of weaving incessant fantasies, I listened. I listened to the girls nonchalantly talk about yesterday’s soccer game where they couldn’t score a single goal. Listened about their parent’s layoff they couldn’t yet understand the significance of. I listened and I watched them listen, accepting and uncritical of one another no matter how relatively vapid their story. I then too began to talk, beginning by admitting that I wasn’t actually related to Britney Spears.
By Ryan Young Kim
When first I sat down in the small, pathetic excuse of a cafeteria the hospital had, I took a moment to reflect. I had been admitted the night before, rolled in on a stretcher like I had some sort of ailment that prevented me from walking.
But the nurses in the ward were nice to me, especially when they saw that I wasn’t going to be one of the violent ones. They started telling me something, but I paid no attention; I was trying to take in my surroundings. The tables were rounded, chairs were essentially plastic boxes with weight inside, and there was no real glass to be seen.
After they filled out the paperwork, the nurses escorted me to my room. There was someone already in there, but he was dead asleep. The two beds were plain and simple, with a cheap mattress on top of an equally cheap wooden frame. One nurse stuck around to hand me my bedsheets and a gown that I had to wear until my parents dropped off clothes.
The day had been exhausting, waiting for the psychiatric ward to tell us that there was a bed open for me and the doctors to fill out the mountains of paperwork that come with a suicide attempt.
Actually, there had been one good thing about that day. My parents had brought me Korean food for lunch — sullungtang , a fatty stew made from ox-bone broth. God, even when I was falling asleep I could still taste some of the rice kernels that had been mixed into the soup lingering around in my mouth.
For the first time, I felt genuine hunger. My mind had always been racked with a different kind of hunger — a pining for attention or just an escape from the toil of waking up and not feeling anything. But I always had everything I needed — that is, I always had food on my plate, maybe even a little too much. Now, after I had tried so hard to wrench myself away from this world, my basic human instinct was guiding me toward something that would keep me alive.
The irony was lost on me then. All I knew was that if I slept earlier, that meant less time awake being hungry. So I did exactly that. Waking up the next day, I was dismayed to see that the pangs of hunger still rumbled through my stomach. I slid off my covers and shuffled out of my room. The cafeteria door was already open, and I looked inside. There was a cart of Styrofoam containers in the middle of the room, and a couple people were eating quietly. I made my way in and stared.
I scanned the tops of the containers — they were all marked with names: Jonathan, Nathan, Kristen — and as soon as I spotted my name, my mouth began to water.
My dad would sometimes tell me about his childhood in a rural Korean village. The hardships he faced, the hunger that would come if the village harvest floundered, and how he worked so hard to get out — I never listened. But in that moment, between when I saw my container and I sat down at a seat to open it, I understood.
The eggs inside were watery, and their heat had condensated water all over, dripping onto everything and making the sausages soggy. The amount of ketchup was pitiful.
But if I hadn’t been given plastic utensils, I think I would have just shoved it all into my mouth, handful by handful.
By Isabel Hui
When I woke up on August 4, 2016, there was only one thing on my mind: what to wear. A billion thoughts raced through my brain as wooden hangers shuffled back and forth in the cramped hotel closet. I didn’t want to come off as a try-hard, but I also didn’t want to be seen as a slob. Not only was it my first day of high school, but it was my first day of school in a new state; first impressions are everything, and it was imperative for me to impress the people who I would spend the next four years with. For the first time in my life, I thought about how convenient it would be to wear the horrendous matching plaid skirts that private schools enforce.
It wasn’t insecurity driving me to madness; I was actually quite confident for a teenage girl. It was the fact that this was my third time being the new kid. Moving so many times does something to a child’s development … I struggled finding friends that I could trust would be there for me if I picked up and left again. But this time was different because my dad’s company ensured that I would start and finish high school in the same place. This meant no instant do-overs when I pick up and leave again. This time mattered, and that made me nervous.
After meticulously raiding my closet, I emerged proudly in a patterned dress from Target. The soft cotton was comfortable, and the ruffle shoulders added a hint of fun. Yes, this outfit was the one. An hour later, I felt just as powerful as I stepped off the bus and headed toward room 1136. But as I turned the corner into my first class, my jaw dropped to the floor.
Sitting at her desk was Mrs. Hutfilz, my English teacher, sporting the exact same dress as I. I kept my head down and tiptoed to my seat, but the first day meant introductions in front of the whole class, and soon enough it was my turn. I made it through my minute speech unscathed, until Mrs. Hutfilz stood up, jokingly adding that she liked my style. Although this was the moment I had been dreading from the moment I walked in, all the anxiety that had accumulated throughout the morning surprisingly melted away; the students who had previously been staring at their phones raised their heads to pay attention as I shared my story. My smile grew as I giggled with my peers, ending my speech with “and I am very stylish, much like my first period teacher.” After class, I stayed behind and talked to Mrs. Hutfilz, sharing my previous apprehension about coming into a new school and state. I was relieved to make a humorous and genuine connection with my first teacher, one that would continue for the remainder of the year.
This incident reminded me that it’s only high school; these are the times to have fun, work hard, and make memories, not stress about the trivial details. Looking back four years later, the ten minutes I spent dreading my speech were really not worth it. While my first period of high school may not have gone exactly the way I thought it would, it certainly made the day unforgettable in the best way, and taught me that Mrs. Hutfilz has an awesome sense of style!
By Adam Bernard Sanders
It was my third time sitting there on the middle school auditorium stage. The upper chain of braces was caught in my lip again, and my palms were sweating, and my glasses were sliding down my nose. The pencil quivered in my hands. All I had to do was answer whatever question Mrs. Crisafulli, the history teacher, was going to say into that microphone. I had answered 26 before that, and 25 of those correctly. And I was sitting in my chair, and I was tapping my foot, and the old polo shirt I was wearing was starting to constrict and choke me. I pulled pointlessly at the collar, but the air was still on the outside, only looking at the inside of my throat. I was going to die.
I could taste my tongue in my mouth shriveling up. I could feel each hard-pumping heartbeat of blood travel out of my chest, up through my neck and down my arms and legs, warming my already-perspiring forehead but leaving my ghost-white fingers cold and blue. My breathing was quick. My eyes were glassy. I hadn’t even heard the question yet.
Late-night readings of my parents’ anatomy textbooks had told me that a sense of impending doom was the hallmark of pulmonary embolism, a fact that often bubbled to the surface of my mind in times like these. Almost by instinct, I bent my ring and little fingers down, holding them with my thumb as the two remaining digits whipped to my right wrist and tried to take my pulse. Mr. Mendoza had taught us this last year in gym class. But I wasn’t in gym class that third period. I was just sitting on the metal folding chair, waiting for Mrs. Crisafulli to flip to the right page in her packet for the question.
Arabella had quizzed me in second-period French on the lakes of Latin America. Nicaragua. Atitlán. Yojoa. Lake Titicaca, that had made Raj, who sat in front of me, start giggling, and Shannon, who sat three desks up and one to the left, whip her head around and raise one fist to her lips, jab up her index finger, and silence us. Lakes were fed by rivers, the same rivers that lined the globe on my desk like the cracks in the pavement I liked to trace with my shoe on the walk home. Lake Nicaragua drains into the San Juan River, which snakes its way around the port of Granada to empty into the Caribbean Sea. I knew that.
At that moment I was only sure of those two things: the location of Lake Nicaragua and my own impending doom. And I was so busy counting my pulse and envisioning my demise that I missed Mrs. Crisafulli’s utterance of the awaited question into her microphone, as I had each year in the past as one of the two people left onstage.
“ … Coldest … on earth,” was all I heard. My pencil etched shaggy marks as my shaking hands attempted to write something in the 20 seconds remaining.
“Asia,” I scrawled.
So, for the third time in three years, I got it wrong, and for the third time, I didn’t die. I walked home that day, tracing the faults in the pavement and wondering what inside me was so cracked and broken. Something had to be fissured inside, like the ridges and rivers on my desk globe that I would throw out later that evening, but fish from the trash can when the sun rose the next day.
By Michelle Ahn
My phone buzzes. An unfamiliar number with a 512 area code — I later find out it’s from Texas. It’s a selfie of a 30-something man, smiling with his family, a strange picture to receive as I live halfway across the country.
For the past three years, I — a 14-year-old girl living in Virginia — have been getting texts meant for this man, Jared. Over the years, I’ve pieced together parts of who he is; middle-aged, Caucasian, and very popular according to the numerous messages I’ve received for him.
Throughout this time, I’ve also been discovering who I am. When I received the first text, I was a playful sixth grader, always finding sly ways to be subversive in school and with friends. With this new method of mischief in my hands, naturally, I engaged:
“My sweet momma just told me that BYU Texas Club is holding a Texas Roundup free BBQ dinner on October 10th! Thought y’all would enjoy,” came one of the texts.
After staring at the message for a while, I responded.
As time went on, the story of the mystery man deepened. I was halfway through sixth grade, for example, when I learned he was part of the “Elder’s Quorum,” a rather ominous-sounding group. Looking it up, I learned that it was not a cult, as I’d initially thought, but rather an elite inner circle within the Mormon Church.
This was around the same time my family had stopped going to church. I’d started to spend more time taking art classes and trying out various sports — tennis, basketball, even archery — and soon church fell to the side. Instead, I meddled in the Quorum’s group texts; when a message came about a member moving away, I excitedly responded, “Let me help y’all out, brother!”
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but after a while I started to feel guilty about this deception. I wondered if I’d somehow ruined Jared’s reputation, if his friends were turned off by my childish responses. I was also dealing with changes within my friend group at the time; the biggest change being letting go of a close but toxic friend; I realized that I needed friendships that were more mutually supportive.
Shortly after, I got a phone call from a strange woman. She started talking about the struggles in her life; her children, her job, even about how she wanted to leave Texas forever. In comparison, my own problems — the B minus I’d gotten, the stress of an upcoming archery tournament, the argument I had with my sister — all seemed superficial. I timidly informed her I wasn’t Jared, and her flustered response told me that I should have told her at the start of the call.
A while later, I got another text: “Congratulations on getting married!” It had never occurred to me how much Jared’s life had changed since I had received his number. But of course it did; over time, I’d outgrown my prankster middle school self, gained the confidence to build a solid friend group, and devoted myself to my primary loves of art and archery. Why wouldn’t Jared also be settling into his own life too?
Though I’ve since taken every opportunity to correct those who text Jared, it still happens every once in a while. Just last month, I got another random text; all it said was: “Endoscopy!” When I got it, I laughed, and then I wrote back.
“Hey, sorry, you have the wrong number. But I hope Jared’s doing well.”
By Maria Fernanda Benavides
“Mayfier? Marfir?” the tournament judge called squinting her eyes, trying to find the spelling error, although there was no error.
“It’s Mafer. It’s a nickname for my full name, Maria Fernanda.”
She stared at me blankly.
“My parents are creative,” I lied, and she laughed.
“O.K., Mahfeer, you’re up!”
I walk to the center and scanned the room before starting as instructed. I took a deep breath.
I reminded myself, “Use your voice.”
I spoke loudly at first, trying to hide the fact that I was overthinking every single word that came out of my mouth. As my performance continued, the artificial confidence became natural, and I started speaking from my heart as I told the story of my experience as an immigrant woman, and I described how much I missed my father who had to travel back and forth every weekend to see my mom and me, and how disconnected I felt from my family, and how I longed to have a place I could call home.
My performance came to an end, and I made my way back to my seat with newly found optimism as I reflected on how performing had consumed me.
I used my voice. Finally. I had found my home in the speech program.
Waiting for the speech tournament to post the names of the finalists was excruciating. I jumped off my seat every time a staff member passed by. I didn’t care about accumulating state points or individual recognition. I wanted the chance to speak again.
Finally, a girl walked up to the oratory postings with a paper on her hand, and the entire cafeteria surrounded her, impatiently waiting to see who the finalists were. Then, I saw it.
My name. Written in dense, black letters.
I smiled to myself.
This time, as I walked to the oratory final, I did so by myself, as I had finally acquired self-assurance needed to navigate the quiet hallways of the high school. I could only hear the heels of the two girls behind me.
“I heard that Saint Mary’s Hall freshman made it to oratory finals,” one of them said, obviously speaking about me. “She broke over me. I didn’t see her performance. Did you? Did you see her performance? What is her speech about?” she questioned the other one.
“It’s about being a Mexican immigrant.”
“Oh, so that’s why she broke.”
“It’s the same pity narrative, there’s nothing different about it.”
Suddenly, the confidence that I had acquired from the previous rounds vanished, and I found myself wishing that I had my older, more experienced teammates by my side to help me block the girls’ words. But no one was there.
I thought my narrative was what made my words matter, what made me matter.
But they didn’t matter. Not anymore. From that moment on, I knew I would be recognized around the circuit as the Mexican girl whose name no one knows how to pronounce. I didn’t even need to speak about my identity to be identified. Everyone would recognize me not for my achievement or my being, but by the peculiar way I pronounce words. I could speak about different topics, but it felt like it wouldn’t make a difference. It felt like my voice didn’t make a difference.
“Mafer, how did it feel?” my coach asked me after the round. “It felt amazing!” I lied.
I didn’t feel anything. Not anymore. Speech gave me a voice, but it also took it away.
By Gordon Lewis
We’re all average boys: hard working in school, spending every minute together in the summer, and doing our best to pretend we don’t have a worry in the world. The facts are no different as the sun is beginning to set on a warm July evening. Sam and I say goodbye to Ben, stepping out of our best friend’s house.
“My sister is going to pick me up while we’re walking, is that O.K.?” I ask.
“Actually, she can probably drive you home, too.”
“Sounds good,” says Sam, but lacking his usual upbeat, comedic energy. Neither of us says anything else, but I’m O.K. with it, we just keep walking. I look around, admiring the still, peaceful park as the warm summer breeze brushes across my face. The crickets are chirping and an owl sings along between the soft hum of cars rolling along nearby. It’s nature’s tune of serenity.
I almost forgot Sam was with me until he asked, “Can I ask you kind of a weird question?”
“Sure,” I say, expecting a joke in poor taste as per usual.
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” he says before asking.
More hesitantly, I say, “O.K.”
“Do you have someone that you talk to about like deeper stuff … Like more emotional stuff?” Silence hits us like a brick wall: The crickets stop chirping, the owl stops hooting, even the cars stop driving by. It’s deafening. I’m only shocked at the question because it’s Sam, one of the happiest and funniest people I know.
I’m wondering. My disappointment takes over just as quickly as my hope fades as I fail to come up with a name. In the end, the closest thing I can think of is the book I occasionally write in when I’m feeling sad or stressed.
“Huh,” I say quietly, “I’ve never really thought about that, but I guess not.”
“Yeah, I didn’t either, but at camp we did activities and had talks that led to more emotional conversations.” I’m silently both jealous and proud of him, but it’s mostly jealousy.
“It’s funny,” I say, “in English we always joked about that TED Talk guy talking about the man box, but it’s actually so true. We shouldn’t feel like we can’t talk about deeper stuff like that.”
“Yeah,” laughed Sam. Silence drapes over us again, but this time it’s more comfortable. I’m lost in my thoughts trying to think of what to say next, but there’s too much. I’ve never had an opportunity like this before. However it’s not shocking or overwhelming, even though it’s with Sam of all people — instead it’s therapeutic.
The silence is broken once again by Sam:
“Like I never told you guys that my parents got divorced.”
“I’m-I’m sorry,” I say, “That really sucks.” I’m disappointed in myself for not saying more.
“It’s O.K.,” Sam says, but I know he’s lying. I can feel his sadness.
Drowning in my thoughts, I try to pick out something to say. But there’s too much to say. There are too many options after being silent for 16 years.
Headlights appear in front of us, and for a split second I’m relieved, but it rapidly turns into regret.
Knowing it’s Rose, I quickly tell sam, “If you ever want to talk again just let me know.”
I say hi to Rose, masking my solemn, thoughtful mood as tiredness. The warm breeze gives my cheek one final kiss; nature resumes her number, and the cars roll by again as Sam and I reluctantly step into the car.
In alphabetical order by the writer’s last name
“Sorry, Wrong Number” by Michelle Ahn
“Speechless” by Maria Fernanda Benavides
“First Impressions” by Isabel Hui
“Nothing Extraordinary” by Jeniffer Kim
“Eggs and Sausage" by Ryan Young Kim
“Pants on Fire” by Varya Kluev
“The Man Box” by Gordon Lewis
“Cracks in the Pavement” by Adam Bernard Sanders
“The First (and Last) Time Speedy Wasn’t Speedy Enough” by Maya Berg
“Searching for Air” by Sydney Do
“Fear on My Mind” by Daytona Gerhardy
“Under the Starry Sky” by Letian Li
“Chinatown Diptych” by Jeffrey Liao
“They” by Haven Low
“The Vigil” by Beda Lundstedt
“How My Brother Taught Me to Drive” by Sarah Shapiro
“The Six in Mid-August” by Liah Argiropoulos
“‘Those Aren’t Scratches Are They?’” by Casey Barwick
“Brown Is Beautiful” by Tiffany Borja
“I Am Ordinary, After All” by Rebecca Braxley
“Torn” by Melanie D.
“The Stupid Seven” by Madeline G.
“Speak No Evil” by Amita Goyal
“Building My Crown” by Ambar Guzman
“Me, Myself, and a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” by Zachary Hommel
“The Tomato” by Raymond Huang
“Out” by Michael H.
“Cold Noodles With a Side of Birdballs” by Audrey Koh
“Banya in Siberia” by Arshiya Sanghi
“Traffic” by Kecia Seo
“The Power of Ambiguity” by Marcus Shallow
“Land Mine” by Geneve Thomas-Palmer
“How to Fall Asleep With the Lights On” by Caroline Wei
“The Taste of Tofu” by Amy Zhou
“The Newcomer’s Journey” by Maria Z.
Thank you to all our contest judges!
Edward Bohan, Amanda Christy Brown, Elda Cantú, Julia Carmel, Elaine Chen, Nancy Coleman, Nicole Daniels, John Dorman, Shannon Doyne, Jeremy Engle, Tracy Evans, Ross Flatt, Vivian Giang, Caroline Crosson Gilpin, Michael Gonchar, Lovia Gyarkye, Annissa Hambouz, Karen Hanley, Christine Hauser, Susan Josephs, Shira Katz, Dahlia Kozlowsky, Megan Leder, Miya Lee, Debbie Leiderman, Shauntel Lowe, Keith Meatto, Sue Mermelstein, Amelia Nierenberg, Anna Nordeen, John Otis, Ken Paul, Pia Peterson, Natalie Proulx, Nancy Redd, Kenneth Rosen, Rebecca Rufo-Tepper, Kristina Samulewski, Meghan Stoddard, Brett Vogelsinger, Bonnie Wertheim, Jack Wheeler, Lena Wilson, Sanam Yar
How to Win Essay Contests: A Step-by-Step Guide
10 steps to writing contest-winning essays.
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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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