3 Top Pre-University Essay Writing Contests 2024

4 Jul, 2023 | University Preparation

What are essay writing contests?

Essay writing contests provide a challenging – yet rewarding! – opportunity to advance beyond the school curriculum, delve further into a chosen subject, and gain invaluable experience to boost your university applications. 

These unique competitions are a great way to develop academic skills like researching, writing and critical thinking. Being able to demonstrate these skills when applying to universities will help your application stand out to admissions tutors and get you one step closer to your university place!

What are the benefits of competing in an essay writing contest?

Competing in an essay writing contest means thinking big and challenging yourself. Going beyond the restrictions of a school curriculum, it’s all about self-expression and bold thinking! 

Thinking and writing in this ambitious and stimulating way is a great window into the kind of critical thinking and research that you’ll be doing at university and beyond. Exploring new and exciting topics within your subject will also help you gain the kind of knowledge and experience needed to showcase your passion in university applications and job interviews. 

What’s more, essay writing contests offer the chance to gain academic recognition at an early stage in your professional career, and are very impressive in scholarship and grant applications!

How do I know which essay competition is for me?

If you’re interested in competing in an essay competition, the first thing to do is to find one that suits you. Many essay competitions are specific to certain subjects, or designed for students from certain countries or of certain ages. The OxBright Essay Competition, for example, is designed for bright 15-18 year olds and covers a range of different subjects, from architecture to engineering. 

Don’t forget to check out the prizes on offer, too! OxBright’s competition includes a number of awards, such as the Most Outstanding Essay prize which grants the winner a place at the Oxford Scholastica residential summer school in Oxford. All shortlisted entries will also be invited to attend an OxBright online conference, free of charge!

It’s also important to consider the judging criteria for an essay writing competition. At OxBright, we look for creative and original ideas, and relevance to our worldview, which means demonstrating active and long-term thinking. 

Which essay competition should I enter?

So, where can you find the ideal essay writing contest for you? There are many competitions to choose from. Some provide a great deal of freedom to explore your subject of interest, no matter your age or where you’re from, while others have more rigid entry criteria and focus on particular fields or issues, or are based in particular countries. 

The best way to find your ideal competition is to search the internet, paying particular attention to competitions you’re eligible to compete in, and whose research interests align with your own. Whatever your interest, the chances are there’s a competition out there for you!

Top 3 essay writing competitions

Here are a handful of top essay writing competitions that might be the one for you:

1. Woolf Essay Prize 2023

The Woolf Essay Competition is run by the University of Cambridge’s Newnham College, where modernist writer Virginia Woolf gave a talk on “Women and Fiction” in 1928.  This was later canonised in her seminal essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’. 

The prize is open to all female students in year twelve (or equivalent), regardless of country or school. It provides the opportunity to explore women in literature, history, society and culture, following in the critical footsteps of Woolf herself. 

Their website provides more information about the competition, including this year’s questions, a list of prizes, and essays from previous winners to inspire you.

2. Royal Geographical Society and Financial Times School Essay Competition 2023

The Royal Geographical Society, a learned society supporting geographers across the world, is running an essay competition in partnership with the Financial Times, inviting students to answer one of the most pressing questions of our age: 

What risks are associated with climate change and what should we be doing about it?

Judges are looking for well-evidenced essays or ArcGIS StoryMaps, and are encouraging applications from passionate geography students between 16 and 18 from the UK or British International Schools overseas. 

Winning entries will be published on the Society’s website, with the chance to be published on the Financial Times site and in the Routes Journal. This is a fantastic opportunity to gain recognition for your hard work, and to situate your name alongside some of the most important researchers and academics in the field. 

You can find out more about how to enter on their website.

3. OxBright Essay Competition 2023

The OxBright Essay Writing Competition is open to 15-18 year olds who are looking to progress beyond the school curriculum. This year’s question is: 

Many believe we face daunting global challenges ahead. How can long-term thinking in the field of [your subject] foster optimism about the future?

The competition provides a great deal of freedom due to the extensive list of subjects included in the criteria. Creative writing, economics, history, mathematics and medicine are just a handful of the fields you can focus on in your essay. 

All shortlisted entrants will be invited to attend an online Awards Ceremony on 28th October 2023, where the winners will be announced. 

Judges are looking for thoroughly researched essays that are packed with fresh, exciting thinking. The deadline for applying is Saturday 30th September 2023, and you can find all the information you need on our website.

Two OxBright students celebrating their success.

4 Tips for Success

With lots of prizes and opportunities available, you might be wondering how to make sure your essay stands out. Here are four tips to keep in mind when writing:

1. Thoroughly read and discern the guidelines for any competition you’re entering – successful essays will be those who demonstrate a clear understanding of what is being asked of them.

2. Make your essay compelling, well-researched and inventive to pique the interest of a review panel.

3. Start with a strong, clear thesis! Essays that clearly outline what you’re proposing, and how you’re proposing it, are appealing to readers and judges.

4. Keep to a clear and organised structure. It’s easy to spot the difference between an essay that has been thoroughly planned and edited, and a rushed essay containing lots of mistakes or contradictions.

Harvard University has a detailed and informative resource on strategies for writing an essay, which may be useful in helping you to produce a sophisticated and concise piece of writing worthy of a prize or publication.

We hope this article has given you an insight into the extraordinary opportunities available through essay writing competitions, and it has demonstrated how these contests provide a perfect opportunity for developing a wide range of skills that will remain invaluable when applying to university and beyond. 

Essay writing competitions are easy to enter, rewarding to work on, and encourage you to consider some of the most important questions currently being asked in the world of academia. Good luck!


By Sam Cox

Sam is a recent English graduate from the University of Bristol whose interests include twentieth-century fiction, film, and cultural criticism.

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