How to Take Your Essay Contest Entries from Average to Awesome

Want to Win Essay Contests? Use This Checklist to Give Your Entries an Edge

When judges read essay contest entries, they need to consider dozens, or even hundreds, of potential winners. Can you imagine having to read that many essays on a single subject? After a while, many of those entries simply blend together and are forgotten.

And guess what? Those forgotten essays aren't the ones that are chosen to win. For your entry to rise to the top, average just won't cut it; you need to aim for an awesome entry.

Luckily, you don't have to be a professional writer to be a winner. Here is a ten-point checklist to evaluate your essays and boost your chances of winning.

Does Your Awesome Entry Stand Out from the Crowd?

A King Penguin standing out from a sea of chicks, just as your essay should stand out.
Make your essay stand out from the crowd to increase your chances of winning. Image (c) Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

If you want your contest entry to be noticed, you'll need to stand out from the crowd. So consider what you can do to make your essay unique from hundreds of other entries. What will make your entry unique?

The best method to use will depend on the contest you're entering and the story you're telling. But some ideas to consider include:

  • Use an Unexpected Format: Instead of a standard essay, try using a poem, a rap, or a jingle to express yourself.
  • Make the Judges Laugh: Make your essay funny, or inject a bit of humor into an otherwise serious topic.
  • Play with Language: Try using puns, coining words, having fun with alliteration.
  • Have a Unique Viewpoint: Your competitors will have done the most obvious take on the essay's theme to death. Don't follow in their footprints. Look for a fresh take or a uniquely personal viewpoint.

Does Your Entry Fit the Contest's Theme?

A holiday display that fits a theme, just as your contest entry should.
Make sure you understand and follow the contest's theme. Image (c) Lynne Brotchie / Getty Images

Each contest had a specific theme for their entries, whether it be connected to their brand ("How has our dishwashing detergent helped you save time in the kitchen?") or more general ("How do you find more time to spend with your family?") 

If you want to win, you need to make your essay's relation to that theme strong and clear from beginning to end.

Some strategies you might try to make sure your essay fits the theme include:

  • Match the Wording in the Rules: If you can do it without being awkward (and only if it's not awkward!), try to mirror the language from the rules in your essay.

    For example, if the essay is about "how you find more time for your family," you might want to try using a phrase like, "It's hard to find time for all of the things I want to do with my life, but  my family always comes first..." or another variation.
  • Ask a Friend to Read the Essay: It's always a great idea to have a friend read your contest entry to make sure it doesn't have any errors. But you can also ask your friend what they think the essay is about. This gives you a good insight about whether you've hit the theme or not.

Does Your Entry Match the Sponsor's Image and Audience?

Mother and daughter playing with flour in the kitchen, example of being family-friendly.
If the contest's sponsor has a family-friendly image, make sure your contest entry matches. Image (c) Caiaimage/Sam Edwards / Getty Images

The sponsor of the contest will have a big impact on the tone of your essay. Your tone will be very different if you're writing for Maxim, Campbell's, or Woman's Day.

You can go a step farther as well. A great contest entry appeals not just to the sponsor, but also to their target audience.

Does the sponsor market primarily toward kids? Toward young adults? Senior citizens? The tone of a great essay will be a good fit with the sponsor's company image.

Some tips for getting a good idea of the sponsor's image include:

  • How Do They Describe Themselves? Visit their website and look for the words that they use to talk about their business. Is the company fun? Family-friendly? Compassionate? Edgy?
  • Who Does Their Advertising Target? Look at their images on their website, and any commercials you can find (YouTube is a good place to look). What image are they trying to convey? Who is the target of their ads?

Is Your Essay Grammatically Correct?

Order and chaos in writing.
Your essay should be organized and grammatically correct. Image (c) Gary Waters / Getty Images

There are few things that will break a reader out of your story faster than stumbling across poor writing and grammar. It immediately gives the impression that you don't know what you are doing. You don't want your judges thinking about how badly you write instead of the story you're trying to tell!

Furthermore, many contests use grammar and spelling as part of the judging criteria. Aside from thinking less of your writing, the judges could be knocking off points for easily-corrected mistakes. 

Some ways to ensure your essay is grammatically correct include:

  • Have a Friend Check It For You. Here's another situation in which another set of eyes can really help you. Ask a friend to read your essay for you, and point out any mistakes.
  • Follow Standard Proofreading Tips: the Grammar Expert offers 10 Steps for Proofreading Essays that should help you find mistakes.
  • Use a Free Grammar Checker: There are automated programs that can help you find problems in spelling and grammar. Most word processing programs, like Microsoft Word, come with these features built in. There are also online tools to use, like Grammarly, that can help catch problems.

Does Your Essay Have a Strong Start and a Good Hook?

A man with a strong start to a race, just like your essay should have a strong start.
The beginning of the essay should start off strong, to capture interest immediately. Aksonov / Getty Images

An awesome contest entry is compelling from the very first sentence, grabbing the judges' attention right away. If your first sentence is compelling, your judges are going to be focused on your writing and more receptive to hearing what you have to say.

One of my favorite examples of this is from a reader who wrote in to tell me how she got on the show, "Queen for a Day" with a great hook

To get on the show, you had to tell the sponsors what you would want to win. Jewelry, furs, and household appliances were common requests, but my reader took a different tack. She wrote: "I want to win 200 bananas, an air purifier, and 2 suits for my husband."

Imagine how that first sentence stood out from among hundreds of requests for diamonds and washing machines. 200 bananas? How could you stop yourself from reading on to find out why? .

So how can you make your essay grab someone's attention, right at the start? Some ideas include:

  • Start with an interesting quote.
  • Make a challenging statement.
  • Start with some suspense, an air of mystery.
  • Show a quirky, unique perspective.

Is Your Essay Memorable?

Man jumping into pool with inflatable pool toy
An entry that breaks expectations will be one the judges will remember. Image (c) Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Great essays will stay in the contest judges' mind long after they've finished reading. Those are the ones that the judges are going to think of when it is time to choose the winners.

So what can you do to make an essay memorable?

  • End Strong. A strong beginning is a good way to grab attention, but a strong end is how your essay sticks with the reader. Make that final sentence resoundingly strong so the judges can't ignore you.
  • ​​​Use Your Unique Voice. Don't be afraid to let your personality shine through. Judges want to feel like they're hearing your personal story, not something that's so formal or staid that it becomes boring.
  • Think Outside the Box. Bustle has an article about memorable college application essays, which includes a college application where students could ask their own question and answer it. One student got in my asking himself the question, "Do I play the trombone?" and his answer? "No."

    Would I recommend taking that path if you really wanted to get into college? Not really. But it does show that sometimes, thinking outside the box makes you memorable enough to win.

Does Your Essay Follow the 3 C's of Writing?

Image showing how simplicity can make a big impact in contest entries.
In writing contests, sometimes less is more. Image (c) pchyburrs / Getty Images

Kurt Vonnegut shared some advice on story telling: "Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted."

The last thing you want is for your judge to feel like your essay is wasting his or her time.

So keep in mind the three C's of a great contest entry: clear, concise, and coherent.

That doesn't mean that your contest entries should be short, it just means that every word has to communicate meaning. Every sentence should play a role in advancing the story.

Edit, edit, edit your essay to make sure it is as powerful as it can be.

Does Your Essay Flows Smoothly from Concept to Concept?

Image of water flowing smoothly, as essay contest entries should
Awesome essays flow smoothly from one concept to the next. Image (c) Don Bishop / Getty Images

A great contest entry flows smoothly from one idea to the next. If your entry is disjointed and staccato, it's going to be memorable, but not in a good way.

Look at each paragraph of your entry, and see whether the idea progresses naturally from step to step. 

For ideas about how to make your essay read smoothly, check out the Homework Expert's article, Make Your Paragraphs Flow to Improve Writing.

Does Your Essay Evoke the Reader's Emotions?

A photo invoking emotions of joy, love, and nostalgia.
An essay that evokes real emotions will be stronger and more memorable. Image (c) Andrey Artykov / Getty Images

Really great essay contest entries tap into your most authentic feelings to evoke emotions in your readers. Whether the emotions are joyful, sad, or angry, evoking them will make your essay more memorable (there's a scientific reasoning for that).

A lot of people turn to sob stories to evoke emotions, and they can be effective. But remember that your judges don't want to end up feeling bummed out. If possible, try to end even a sad story on an uplifting note.

And remember, there are plenty of other emotions you can draw upon to make your essay awesome: joy, nostalgia, triumph, and tenderness might be good options to try.

Does Your Contest Entry Follow the Rules?

Rules of the road; following contest rules are nearly as important.
Following the rules carefully will keep your entry from being eliminated. Image (c) Larry Washburn / Getty Images

The absolute most important quality of a great contest entry is that it strictly follows the rules. It doesn't matter how good your writing is if your essay is disqualified from the contest.

It is easy to get so caught up in your writing that you miss a detail in the rules. So it's a good idea to read through the requirements before you start writing, and then to go through them point-by-point after your essay has been completed, to make sure there are no oversights.

Ready to Start Writing?

Once you have a good idea for how your essay should be structured, click the link above to learn how to write a contest-winning essay.