Winning Essay Contests: A Step-by-Step Guide

10 Steps to Writing Contest-Winning Essays

Did you know that you can win prizes for 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 is a step-by-step guide to writing essays that win contests. Follow these steps for your best chances of winning writing contests.

01
Read the Essay Contest Rules

Woman Reading Sweepstakes Rules
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The very 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 a perfectly good essay.

Pay special attention to:

  • The contest's start and closing dates.
  • How often you are allowed to enter.
  • The word or character count.
  • The contest's theme.
  • The criteria that the judges will use to pick the winners.
  • 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 write down 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 have finished your essay to ensure you haven't overlooked anything.

02
Brainstorm Your Essay Ideas

Woman Writing on a Notepad
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Many people want to jump right into writing their essay contest entries, but it's a better idea to brainstorm several different ideas. Oftentimes, your first impulse isn't your best.

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

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

03
Select the Essay Concept that Best Fits the Contest's Theme and Sponsor

Woman Coming Up with an Idea
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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.

04
Use a Good Hook to Grab the Reader's Attention

Hooking a reader
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When it's time to start writing your essay, remember that the first sentence is the most important of all. If you can start with a powerful, intriguing, moving, or hilarious first sentence, you'll hook your readers' interest and stick in their memory when it is time to pick winners.

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

05
Write the First Draft of Your Essay

Writing the First Draft of an Essay
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Now it's time for you to get all of your thoughts down on paper (or on your computer). Remember that this is the 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.

AFirst drafts are important because they help you overcome any 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.

06
Keep an Eye Out for "Red Mittens"

A Red Mitten Stands Out
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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.

While Evelyn Ryan entered jingle and ad-type contests, the red mitten concept can be used to make your essay contest entry stand out. 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.

07
Revise Your Essay for Flow and Organization

Proofreading Your Entry
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Once you have written the first draft of your essay, look over it to ensure that it flows smoothly. 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 when you should cut out extraneous words and make sure that you've come in under the word count limit, which will generally improve your writing.

In Stephen King's book, On Writing, 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 about how to self-edit.

08
Put Your Contest Entry Aside

Woman Relaxing
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Now that you have a fairly polished first 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. 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.

09
Revise Your Essay Contest Entry Again

Family Checking Over an Essay
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Now is the time to put the final polish on your essay. Have you said everything you wanted to say? Have you made your point? Does the essay still sound good when you read it out loud? Can you tighten up the prose by making any additional cuts in the word count?

This is a good time 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 ask a friend to double-check your spelling and grammar. Even your computer's spell check programs make mistakes sometimes, so it's helpful to have another person read it through.

10
Read the Essay Contest Rules One Last Time

Double Check Your Entry Before Submitting It
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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, it's a good idea to double-check to make sure you haven't overlooked anything.

Make a checklist of all of the essay requirements, then go through it 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!