If you’re a high school student who enjoys writing, there are plenty of national essay contests you can participate in – many of which include large rewards for the winners and finalists!
Awards range from monetary scholarships, cash amounts, all-expenses paid trips, and even donations to school libraries. For example, the JFK Profile in Courage Essay Contest combines scholarships, cash awards and travel: the winner receives a $5,000 cash award, $5,000 to invest in a college savings plan, and travel and lodging expenses to attend the ceremony in Boston.
Each contest has its own requirements, and they fall into a variety of categories: Literary Analysis, Politics & History, Personal Reflection, those geared to specific career fields such as science or journalism, as well as scholarships from religious and ethnic organizations. Check the application deadlines; if the deadline has passed for 2017, mark your calendar for next year!
Literary analysis contests are based on a specific piece of literature, and they are judged on both writing style and content. Judges look for writing that is clear, articulate and logically organized. Students should demonstrate a solid grasp of the themes and messages in the work about which they’re writing. For example, the Ayn Rand Institute hosts yearly essay contests for students from 8th grade through graduate school. Currently, topics center on three of Rand’s popular novels, Anthem (8th, 9th, 10th), Atlas Shrugged (12th grade, college and graduate), and The Fountainhead (11th, 12th).
Penguin’s national essay contest, The 19th Annual Signet Classics Student Scholarship Essay Contest is offered to students in 11th or 12th grade. This contest focuses on a different work each year — The Tempest in 2017 — and requires students to choose one of five topics. The topics include questions about character traits, themes, settings, and values.
Politics & History
Common themes of national essay contests include modern-day politics, past figures, and historical ideals or philosophies. These essays are analytical in nature and tend to be an opportunity for students to develop and enhance research, writing, and critical thinking skills.
The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation invites high school students to “consider the concept of political courage by writing an essay on a U.S. elected official who has chosen to do what is right, rather than what is expedient” through The Profile in Courage Essay Contest. Students are required to write an essay of 700 to 1,000 words, and to use at least five varied sources.
Open to all high school students, the Sons of the American Revolution offers the George S. & Stella M. Knight Essay Contest. The topic should deal with an event, person, philosophy, or ideal associated with the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, or the framing of the United States Constitution. Sources must include published book sources, and the essays are judged on historical accuracy, clarity of thought, organization, grammar, and documentation.
A plethora of essay contests allow students to submit reflections of a more personal – rather than historical or literary – nature. Many offer opportunities to write a letter, such as the essay required for the National World War II Museum’s Annual Essay Contest. This competition, “Dear Mr. Thompson,” focuses on the historical letter of James G. Thompson, who brought awareness to the effects of World War II on African Americans. The contest requires students to respond to Thompson’s concerns about the availability of liberty and justice for all Americans, regardless of their race, identity, or background. Though based in a historical context, essays should be written using examples from students’ own lives and experiences.
Some contests allow students to be highly creative and themes are open-ended. The Fleet Reserve Association (FRA) hosts an essay contest for students in 7th through 12th grade to promote the spirit of Americanism and patriotism. The essay is only 350 words, and has the theme “What the United States Flag Stands For.” Similarly, the Joe Foss Institute’s Hayes C Kirby Essay Scholarship Contest asks students to respond to “If not for them…where would we be?” with a minimum of 1500 words. It encourages entrants to be creative, while developing a clearly defined theme.
Specific Career Fields
Many essay contests focus on a specific field of study or career path. We are sad to report that after 30 years, The DuPont Challenge, the premier science essay contest for middle school and high school students, has been discontinued. 250,000 students in the United States and Canada reaped the satisfaction of participating. For students who love research and science writing, the National High School Journal of Science offers the opportunity to publish your research findings, in the areas of biology, chemistry, physics, environment, STEM, and policy.
For those interested in writing and journalism, the Society of Professional Journalists offers a high school essay contest in order to “increase high school students’ knowledge and understanding of the importance of independent media.” In a 300-500 word essay, students respond to a different topic each year. The topic for 2017 was, “Why is it important for a democratic society to have women involved in professional media and legal roles?”
Religious and Ethnic Scholarships
Some contents are sponsored by religious or ethnic groups, which typically require candidates to be affiliated with that particular group.
For example, the National Italian American Foundation has a list of scholarships that it sponsors, but to be eligible, a contestant must have at least one ancestor who emigrated from Italy, a 3.5 to 4.0 GPA, and be an NIAF member or have a parent or guardian who is a member. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic organization, has several scholarships available to the children and grandchildren of its members. The Young Christian Leaders Scholarship requires contestants to be active members of their church and submit two letters of recommendation.
The Morris J. & Betty Kaplun Foundation Essay Contests are for students in 7th through 12th grade. These essays focus on questions about maintaining your Jewish identity in a secular world and combating anti-Semitism on college campuses. The B’nai B’rith International Diverse Minds Writing Challenge is open to all high school students in 9th through 12th grade in each city/region where the contest takes place. This contest asks students to write and illustrate a children’s book that tells a story of tolerance, diversity or inclusion. The winner in each city/region receives a $5,000 college scholarship and becomes a published author.
Sometimes, the scholarships that you have the greatest chance of winning are those sponsored by your high school or city/town because the pool of applicants is smaller, and you likely have a stronger connection to the sponsoring organizations. Many high school guidance offices or parents’ associations have a list of scholarships that you can apply to. Some even post scholarships on the school website. For example, Paul D. Schreiber High School, Scarsdale High School, and Locust Valley Central School District, all list scholarships that vary in whether they are awarded based on merit or financial need.
Students with an interest and talent in writing should explore the many opportunities that lie within national essay contests. With such a wide range of topics, there’s something for everyone, and you may even start to build up some funds for college!
Of course, there are many more essay competitions and scholarship opportunities than are mention here. If you’d like to learn more, contact Collegiate Gateway – we’re always happy to help.