Winning Essay Contests: A Step-by-Step Guide

10 Steps to Writing Contest-Winning Essays

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 win contests. Follow these steps for your best chances of winning writing contests.

Read the Essay Contest Rules

Woman Reading Sweepstakes Rules
Read the Rules Carefully Before You Start Planning Your Essay. Image (c) Hero Images / Getty Images

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're 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 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

Woman Writing on a Notepad
Brainstorming Will Help You Win Essay Contests. Nick Dolding / Getty Images

Many people want to jump right into writing their essay contest entries, but it's a better idea to take some time to brainstorm different ideas. 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 however else you like 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 out coherently. Just capture enough of the idea that you know what you meant when you review your results.

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? 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.

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

Woman Coming Up with an Idea
Make Sure Your Idea Fits the Contest's Theme. Robert Deutschman / Getty Images

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.

Also, consider whether any of your rejected ideas might make good secondary themes for your essay.

Use a Good Hook to Grab the Reader's Attention

Hooking a reader
A Surprising Hook Can Grab Attention for Your Essay. Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

When it's time to start writing your essay, remember that the first sentence is the most important of all. You want to make sure that your first paragraph grabs the reader's attention.

When you start with a powerful, intriguing, moving, or hilarious first sentence, you hook your readers' interest and stick 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 some 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

Writing the First Draft of an Essay
Don't Worry, Your First Draft Doesn't Have to Be Perfect!. Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images

Now it's time for you 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

Proofreading Your Entry
Proofread Your Essay Carefully. Carmen MartA-nez BanAs / Getty Images

Once you've 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.

Keep an Eye Out for "Red Mittens"

A Red Mitten Stands Out
Use the Red Mitten Concept to Make Your Essay Stand Out. Vicki Reid / Getty Images

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, you can use the red mitten concept 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.

Put Your Contest Entry Aside

Woman Relaxing
Let Your Thoughts About Your Essay Settle for a Little While. Caiaimage/Paul Viant / Getty Images

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.

Revise Your Essay Contest Entry Again

Family Checking Over an Essay
Enlisting Your Family and Friends to Review Your Essay Can Be Very Helpful. Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

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 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.

Read the Essay Contest Rules One Last Time

Double Check Your Entry Before Submitting It
Take a Moment to Make Sure Your Essay Qualifies Before Submitting. Maskot / Getty Images

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!