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Essay Contests for Teens

By Howard and Susan Richman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #33, 2000.

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Howard and Susan Richman


Sometimes a real challenge with homeschooling, especially as our kids move into the teen years, is finding a purpose for pulling a piece of writing to a final edited product. Why go through all the work of revising, reworking, and rethinking that goes into any quality essay? After all, mom knows what you're thinking anyway, right? What's the point? And sometimes there's a real problem of setting a deadline on a writing project - a deadline that will really stick and have consequences. We're probably all too familiar with the many excuses we can allow our kids as we almost encourage them to let deadlines slide: "Well, you know, we have that trip to the city for the play with the support group on Thursday, and then the math club on Friday, and Uncle Jim in arriving with his kids on Saturday . . . Well, why don't you just try to get that paper done for next week sometime . . ." And the time keeps slipping farther away and the paper sits still unfinished.

Enter another way to encourage kids to put in the time needed to bring a piece of writing to a final edit, and on time too: the essay competition. There are a full range of possibilities out there, in almost all areas of the high school curriculum. Taking part in these types of competitions can help homeschoolers hone their basic communication skills and maybe even more importantly help them learn that they are the type of kids who can really meet deadlines, firm ones. After all, a wonderful essay submitted two days late is completely discounted from competition. This is an important life skill that will serve them well throughout their adult lives, and a good thing to start working on now. Essay competitions also give students a real audience to write for - someone beyond just mom and dad. By this stage in our kids' lives it can be useful to try to work to a standard so that their work just might win recognition.

One caution though . . . do not think that essay contests are only valuable to enter if you win. In fact, obviously most times a student enters any essay contest he won't officially win a prize - so make sure you feel the essay topic is one that will be very valuable for your student to tackle even if he doesn't win. That is, don't encourage a student to enter a competition you really think is dumb or inferior . . . none of you will have your heart in the work, and it will be a worthless endeavor. Instead, look for a competition that fits in with your overall plans for the year, or especially suits your child's interests.

Also look for essay competitions that offer sound guidelines that will really help your teen do well and learn from the writing experience. Many of the contest websites listed below have excellent and detailed descriptions of what type of research and thinking and creativity they are looking for. These will be very helpful guides for you and your kids as you hone the essay or story and evaluate it for the competition. You can even find guidelines for developing a whole course around an in-depth research competition - and watch your student learn to use a wider variety of study materials than you ever thought possible. It's like doing unit studies that your student develops on his own, with the contest guidelines helping focus the study towards a final end product.

Remember too that many homeschool students will also be facing a unique type of "essay contest" at the end of their high school years: the college admissions essay and the college scholarship essay. These are always especially important for homeschool applicants, as colleges really want to know more about their unique education and their writing abilities. Getting in shape through writing to the parameters set by other competitions earlier on can give homeschoolers a real boost in this area.

So where do you find out about essay competitions? First, just start keeping your eyes open. Often local community organizations run essay contests and promote them through your local newspaper. Sometimes regional museums sponsor essay contests . . . check out their websites to see if anything is being offered. Do searches on the Internet, but be careful you don't fall for a scam essay scholarship contest. If a contest asks for an entry fee, it better be a bonafide and well-known competition like the Scholastic Writing Awards competition or National History Day, and not some money-making scheme where no real winners will be chosen. Often using the many free scholarship search engines on the Internet will turn up various essay competitions - check out www.fastweb.com or www.collegeboard.org to get started.

And, finally, check out the list of national competitions shown here. Something should fit into your curriculum and help your students find an engaging challenge that's worth doing. Save this list until next Fall, as some of the contest deadlines will have passed for this year already.

Creative Writing and Literature

  1. Scholastic Writing Awards
    This very prestigious annual competition, sponsored by Scholastic Books, encourages a wide range of writing; there are categories for personal essays, short stories, plays, poetry, journalistic writing, even science fiction. Open to students in grades 7-12, with some special options for submitting a full portfolio of writing for seniors. Excellent guidelines. Entry fee $5 per submission, cash awards. Due date: mid January. Scholastic Books, 555 Broadway, New York, NY 10012. (212) 343-6493. Web: http://www.scholastic.com/artandwriting/

  2. Letters About Literature 2000
    An annual competition sponsored by Weekly Reader and The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Students are asked to write a letter to the author of a book that has had a great impact on them, sharing how the book affected them. They are not looking for the typical book report (the directions point out that the author already knows the plot of the book!) - students are instead urged to reflect on what impact the book made on their lives, how it made them act differently, see issues in a new light, etc. Kids in our writing club (we've often used this as our monthly assignment) have won honorable mentions many times in this competition, and my daughter Molly was once a national finalist for her letter to Anne Frank. Cash awards, certificates. Open to students in grades 4-7 (level I) and grades 8-12 (level II). December 17 deadline. King's College, c/o The Graduate Reading Program, 133 N. River St., Wilkes-Barre, PA 18711. (203) 705-3500. Web: http://www.loc.gov/loc/cfbook/letters.html.

  3. USA Weekend Student Fiction Contest
    Sponsored by USA Weekend, the insert that goes in many Sunday newspapers across the country, students are asked to write an original short story of no more than 1500 words, that takes place at least partially in summer in the 1990's. A homeschooler from Pennsylvania, Dillon Wright-Fitzgerald, was one of the 5 national finalists in this competition last year, earning a gift certificate, and publication on the USA Weekend website, plus a great full-page newspaper article in her hometown paper. The guidelines on their website are quite helpful, including many intriguing ways to use a newspaper to help you gain ideas for stories. Open to students in grades 9-12, and homeschoolers are specifically welcomed. Mid-February deadline. USA Weekend, PO Box 4252, Blair, NE 68009-4252. Web: http://www.usaweekend.com/01_issues/010107/010107teens_contest.html.

History and Civics

  1. Eldred World War II Essay Contest
    Sponsored by the small but wonderful Eldred World War II Museum in north central PA. This is only the second year for this contest, and I heard about it when Rachel Bell, a homeschooler from Pennsylvania, was named 2nd-place winner in the 1999 competition. This year the contest is expanded and open to students in many more states, and it will really be a wonderful spur to in-depth learning about WWII. This year's question: How did the United States' economic and industrial system contribute to the allied victory in World War II? Excellent guidelines on website. Open to students in grades 9-12, no entry fee. Many substantial cash awards - $25,000 in total prize money, including up to 30 honorable mentions of $250 each. Deadline March 15. Eldred WWII Museum, Box 273, Eldred, PA 16731. (814) 225-2220. Web: www.eldredwwiimuseum.org.

  2. National History Day
    This annual competition for junior high and senior high students has both project, presentation, and essay categories. Students first compete at regional, then state and national competitions. Many homeschoolers have qualified for state level competitions, and at least one homeschooler has been a national winner. Each year a broad theme is chosen. For 2000 it's Turning Points in History, which students can examine through any era in history, local to worldwide. Use of primary documents is a must. Exemplary guidelines and handbook are available right on-line, helping you to design a whole curriculum with History Day at the core. For students in grades 6-12. Scholarship awards, entry fees. Competition starts at the beginning of each year. National History Day, 0119 Cecil Hall, College Park, MD 20742. (301) 314-9739. Web: www.nationalhistoryday.org.

  3. Sons of the American Revolution Essay Contest
    Now called the Knight Essay Contest, this annual competition asks students to examine any aspect of the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, or the US Constitution, in a 500- to 750-word essay. Open to 11th- and 12th-grade students only. Many states have local competitions, leading to state and national competition - large submissions are also welcomed. Cash awards and publication. Chairman, NSSAR Knight Essay Contest, 1000 S. 4th St., Louisville, KY 40203. Email: k2000essay@aol.com. Web: http://www.sar.org/youth/knightrl.htm.

  4. Optimists International Essay Contest
    A civics essay competition, with students responding this year to the topic "Where would I be without freedom" in a 400-500-word essay. Open to all students in high school under age 19. Students enter at local club level (contacts listed on website), then on to district level, and winners earn an all-expenses-paid weeklong trip to Valley Forge Freedoms Foundation 4-day workshop. Deadline for club level is end of February, districts mid-April. (800) 678-8389 x224. Web: http://www.optimist.org/prog-essay.html.

  5. Center for the American Founding
    This essay competition focuses on the question "How the founding of America has changed the world," and homeschoolers have been specifically invited to take part. Judges will look at originality of thought and quality of execution. Essays must be one-page, single-spaced, typed. State and national winners. Prizes include a scholarship to Close Up Washington, a one-week tour of Washington DC, plus cash awards and publication. Part of a "Re-Elect America" national event that includes a nationwide bus tour of all state capitals, ending up in Philadelphia on July 4th, 2000 - state winners will be honored at each state capital visit. Deadline: January 10, 2000. Center for the American Founding, 1401 Chain Bridge Rd., Suite 100, McLean, VA 22101. (703) 556-6595. Email: info@founding.org. Web: http://www.founding.org/tour/html/compass.html.

  6. National Peace Essay Contest
    This is a serious foreign policy essay contest, sponsored by the US Institute for Peace. Excellent and rigorous guidelines on website, including sample winning essays from previous years. Our son Jesse won 2nd and 3rd place in PA state competition when he was in high school at home, and his homeschool friend Brandon Geist won first place from PA, earning a trip to Washington, DC for a special weeklong program on foreign policy. Open to students in grades 9-12. College scholarship awards for all state and national winners. National Peace Essay Contest, 1200 17th Street NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036-3011. Web: http://www.usip.org/ed/Programs/NPEC/npec.html.

Science and Health

  1. Young Naturalist Awards 2000
    Sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, this annual competition encourages wide ranging science research and thinking. Students in grades 7-12 write essays related to the selected theme for the year. For 2000, projects could involve looking back 100 years to see what we knew in a science area now compared to then, and what we might know in another 100 years. Or students could write about a possible science museum exhibit they'd like to see, or about a science exploration. Sample winning student essays are on their website. Scholarship awards at each grade level. Deadline: January 3, 2000. $3 entry fee. Young Naturalist Awards, c/o Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Inc., 555 Broadway, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10012-3999. Info: (212) 343-5582. Web: http://www.amnh.org/youngnaturalistawards.

  2. DuPont Challenge Science Essay Awards Program
    This program has been open to 7th through 12th graders, and Ross Lang, an 8th-grade PA homeschooler, won an honorable mention in this competition last year. I've heard rumors that it may only be open this year to 12th-graders. Submission deadline: January 28. No fee. DuPont Challenge, General Learning Corporation, 60 Revere DR, Suite 200, Northbrook IL 60062. (847) 205-3000. Web: http://www.glcomm.com/dupont.

  3. Mothers Against Drunk Driving Essay Contest
    Annual essay contest for grades 4-12, where students write a brief 250-word essay related to the theme for the year - currently it's "Strong Enough to Say No." Great info on website, with winning entries from previous year. (800) GET-MADD to find local/state chapter to submit essay. Web: http://www.madd.org/under21.


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