Entering an essay contest is one of the most beneficial things you can do as a writer. Apart from helping you to validate your skills and giving you an opportunity to practice and thereby hone your skills even more, you could get a lot of benefits from winning.
Even though your skill as a writer will be the single most important factor, here are a number of ways to improve your chances of taking the top prize in an essay competition:
Research the Competition
This step is very important and should always be the first thing you do before you even put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) at all. Get as much information as you can about the organizers, the judges and any sponsors.
First, this will help you understand the context of the essay contest better. For instance, if you’re entering the Peter Drucker essay contest, understanding who he was and what he believed in will naturally help you get the bigger picture of where the topic was derived from. You’ll be able to focus on the right issues and increase your chances of impressing the judges that way.
Secondly, inasmuch as most essay contests stipulate that they will only judge the content and style of entries and not the perspective or ideology, there’s still a likelihood that they’ll tilt in favour of those entries that align with their own stance on the issues. This will not work as well for those contests that employ independent judges, but since most contests are judged in-house, it’s a good rule of thumb to work with.
You’ll have to apply caution here though, so you won’t make the mistake of simply copying whatever the organization or judges have written on the topic. It’ll be quickly spotted and apart from being penalized for plagiarism, you won’t get any marks for creativity, which is often a crucial component of the evaluation.
Find and Review Past Essays
When I was writing my entry for the Carnegie Council essay competition I won back in 2015, I checked the winning entries from previous years and noticed that many of them had a personal slant to them. Based on that, I began my entry with a personal story and made sure that it remained that way throughout.
Going through winning entries can help you understand the style to use and whether it’s advisable to include other elements like graphics, graphs etc. This works because many contests use the same judges from year to year, and even when they change them, they likely give them the same guidelines to evaluate entries with. Go back as far as possible so you’ll have a better chance of spotting patterns.
Some writing contests publish winning entries, and all you’ll have to do is to check the website and download them. For others, you might have to contact the winners on social media to ask them, but most people will happily oblige you. Just remember to ask nicely and then add a compliment or two when you’re thanking them afterward.
Begin Writing in Time
There’s nothing that reduces your chances of winning an essay more than submitting a rushed, poorly-edited entry.
When you wait till the last day for submission to begin writing your essay contest entry, you’ll have less time to conduct research and put your thoughts together before writing it, and you might have to submit without thoroughly editing it for grammatical and structural errors. A rushed essay is easy to spot, and the judges will take you much less seriously if they spot a few errors within the first few minutes of reading your work, regardless of how brilliant your ideas are.
To prevent this, use whatever planning tool (your diary, to-do-list app or sticky notes on your desktop) to keep track of which contests you want to enter and when the closing dates for submissions are. If you won’t be able to get through it in a single day, break it up into different tasks (outline, writing and review, for instance) and set reminders for each one.
You’ll find that writing without the pressure of an impending deadline will be much more convenient, plus your work will be significantly better since you’ll be able to spend more time thinking through things and doing a thorough job in the editing phase.
Always Start with An Outline
When you’ve researched the essay competition, checked past entries and decided on what the focus should be, the next step should be to draw up a clear outline of what you want to include in the essay.
An outline will help you keep your thoughts on track and help you structure your writing properly. You’ll be able to visualize what your essay will look like when it’s completed, and it’ll be easy to see if you need to adjust the positioning of any sections in order to have a more logical flow.
In addition, it’ll force you to prioritize regarding what you really have to include in the essay and what you can do without, which is especially important in essays that have strict word limits.
Get A Reviewer (or Three)
Self-editing is good, and in most of your writing, you can use tools like Grammarly and not need to have someone else review your work. When it comes to very crucial works like an essay contest entry though, it’s much better to have someone else take a look at your work. Even top writers have editors for their own writing.
The first reason why you need an essay reviewer is that the person will be able to approach the editing with a dispassionate objectivity that you simply won’t be able to do for yourself. Since the person has no emotional investment in what you’ve written, they’ll be able to critique it as thoroughly as necessary.
The good thing is that you don’t necessarily need to find an expert editor for this. Since the essay judges are unlikely to be professional editors themselves, your essay is unlikely to be judged based on whether you placed your semicolon correctly or not. What you need is the natural flow and engagement that would appeal to intellectuals who may be experts on the subject matter.
On the whole, writing and winning essay contests may not be an exact science, but the tips above will definitely improve your chances in any competition in which you apply them. The key thing to remember is that a well-written essay is the foundation of your entry. Continue to learn, practice your writing skills and enter as many essay contests as you can. It’s a numbers game: The more you do, the more you’ll get.
Lawyer, writer and entrepreneur.