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Everything You Should Know about the John Locke Institute (JLI) Essay Competition

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We first wrote about the world-famous John Locke Institute (JLI) Essay Competition in our list of 20 writing contests for high school students. This contest is a unique opportunity to refine your argumentation skills on fascinating and challenging topics that aren’t explored in the classroom.

The Oxford philosopher, medical doctor, political scientist, and economist John Locke was a big believer in challenging old habits of the mind. In that spirit, the JLI started this contest to challenge students to be more adventurous in their thinking. 

While not quite as prestigious as getting published in The Concord Review, winning the grand prize or placing in one of the 7 categories of the John Locke Essay Competition can get your college application noticed by top schools like Princeton, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. Awards include $2,000 scholarships (for category prize winners) and a $10,000 scholarship for the grand prize. (The scholarships can be applied to the JLI’s Summer Schools at Oxford University, Princeton University, or Washington DC, or to its Gap Year programs in Oxford University, Guatemala, or Washington DC) 

But winning isn’t necessarily the best thing about it. Simply entering the contest and writing your essay will give you a profound learning experience like no other. Add to that the fact that your entry will be read and possibly commented on by some of the top minds at Oxford and Princeton University and it’s free to enter the competition. The real question is: why wouldn’t you enter? Here’s a guide to get you started on your essay contest entry.

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The John Locke Institute Essay Competition is open to any high school student anywhere in the world, ages 15-18. Students 14 or under are eligible for the Junior prize. 

John Locke Essay Competition Topics

The essay questions change from year to year. You can choose from 7 different categories (Philosophy, Politics, Economics, History, Psychology, Theology, and Law). Within each category, there are 3 intriguing questions you can pick from. When you’re debating which question to write about, here’s a tip. Choose whichever question excites, upsets, or gives you any kind of strong emotional response. If you’re passionate about a topic, it will come through in your research and your writing. If you have any lived experience on the subject, that also helps. 

There are some sample questions the 2023 contest for each of the seven JLI essay subject  categories and the Junior Prize (the questions change each year):

  • Philosophy: Is tax theft? 

  • Politics: Do the results of elections express the will of the people?

  • Economics: What would happen if we banned billionaires?  

  • History: Which has a bigger effect on history: the plans of the powerful or their mistakes?

  • Psychology: Can happiness be measured?

  • Theology: What distinguishes a small religion from a large cult?

  • Law: Are there too many laws?

  • Junior Prize: What, if anything, do your parents owe you?

John Locke Writing Contest Requirements

Your essay must not exceed 2,000 words (not counting diagrams, tables of data, endnotes, bibliography, or authorship declaration) and must address only one of the questions in your chosen subject category. No footnotes are allowed, but you may include in-text citations or endnotes. 

Timeline and Deadlines

January - New essay questions are released

April 1st - Registration opens

May 31st  - Registration deadline

June 30th - Essay submission deadline

We highly recommend you check the JLI website as soon as the new questions are released in January and start researching and writing as soon as you can after choosing your topic. You must register for the contest by the end of May. The deadline for the essay submission itself is at the end of June, but we also recommend that you submit it earlier in case any problems arise. If you start right away in January, you can have a few months to work on your essay. 

John Locke Institute Essay Competition Judging Criteria

While the JLI says that their grading system is proprietary, they do also give you this helpful paragraph that describes what they are looking for: “Essays will be judged on knowledge and understanding of the relevant material, the competent use of evidence, quality of argumentation, originality, structure, writing style and persuasive force. The very best essays are likely to be those which would be capable of changing somebody's mind. Essays which ignore or fail to address the strongest objections and counter-arguments are unlikely to be successful. Candidates are advised to answer the question as precisely and directly as possible.” (We’ve bolded important words to keep in mind.) 

You can also join the JLI mailing list (scroll to the bottom of that page) to get contest updates and to learn more about what makes for a winning essay.

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Research and Essay Writing Tactics

Give yourself a baseline. First, just write down all your thoughts on the subject without doing any research. What are your gut-level opinions? What about this particular question intrigued you the most? What are some counter-arguments you can think of right away? What you are trying to do here is identify holes in your knowledge or understanding of the subject. What you don’t know or are unsure about can guide your research. Be sure to find evidence to support all the things you think you already know. 

Create a reading/watching list of related books, interviews, articles, podcasts, documentaries, etc. that relate to your topic. Find references that both support and argue against your argument. Choose the most highly reputable sources you can find. You may need to seek out and speak to experts to help you locate the best sources. Read and take notes. Address those questions and holes in the knowledge you identified earlier. Also, continue to read widely and think about your topic as you observe the world from day to day. Sometimes unrelated news stories, literature, film, songs, and visual art can give you an unexpected insight into your essay question. Remember that c is a learning experience and that you are not going to have a rock-solid argument all at once.

Read past essays. These will give you a sense of the criteria judges are using to select winning work. These essays are meant to convince the judges of a very specific stance. The argument must be clear and must include evidence to support it. You will note that winning entries tend to get straight to the point, show an impressive depth of knowledge on the subject with citations to reputable sources, flow with excellent reasoning, and use precise language. They don’t include flowery digressions. Save that for a different type of writing.

Proof your work with a teacher or mentor if possible. Even though your argument needs to be wholly your own, it certainly helps to bounce ideas around with someone who cares about the topic. A teacher or mentor can help you explore different options if you get stuck and point you toward new resources. They can offer general advice and point out errors or weaknesses. Working with a teacher or mentor is important for another reason. When you submit your entry, you will be required to provide the email address of an “academic referee” who is familiar with your work. This should be teachers, mentors, or other faculty members who are not related to you.

Good luck!

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