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Top 20 Best Writing Contests for High School Students

13 minute read

Writing contests are a great way to focus on a topic that excites you, organize your thoughts, showcase your research and/or creativity, join a community, gain recognition, and even win cash, scholarships, and all-expenses-paid travel. The other nice thing about writing is that you can do it on your own time, and it doesn’t cost a dime. You can fit it around other summer activities or on weekends. You don’t need to win first place in these competitions to reap the benefits either. Many competitions offer all sorts of prizes at various levels, and you may get invaluable feedback from expert judges that will help you in your future writing projects–and, yes, winning looks great on college applications too!

We’ve organized this list of teenage writing contests alphabetically, by the hosting institution. It covers a broad swath of subjects, including: scientific research; persuasive essays; poetry; comics; and philosophical arguments.

Pro tip: Most of these competitions publish past winners on their websites. Read these winning entries to get inspired and to get a sense of the format, length, tone, and subject matter that’s considered winning material. It’s also just fascinating to read this great writing.

Want to work on a writing project but want feedback? Check out our Polygence mentors. Most of these competitions don’t mind if you polish your work with a mentor if the work and ideas behind your entry are your own.

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Writing Contests for High School Students

As entry requirements, writing prompt availability (if applicable), application and submission deadlines, and judging criteria may change year to year, be sure to refer to the specific contest websites for those that catch your attention.

1. The Adroit Prizes for Poetry and Prose

  • Hosting institution: The Adroit Journal

  • Awards: $200

  • Writing prompt availability: n/a

  • Submission deadline: Mid-May

The submission guidelines for this writing contest are very nuanced; in short, you can send up to 5 “packets” of writing. Each “packet” can consist of either 6 poems or 3 prose pieces (fiction or creative nonfiction, and a total of 3,500 words combined). Winners and runners-up will be published in The Adroit Journal.

This contest is open to students internationally and winners are announced in mid-October. Each year, the contest features a different set of esteemed judges. Judges in 2023 were Natalie Diaz (poetry) and Ocean Vuong (prose). 

Note: this writing contest has a non-refundable $15 submission fee; students can apply for financial assistance if needed

2. National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards

  • Hosting institution: Alliance for Young Artists & Writers

  • Awards: Scholarships of up to $12,500

  • Writing prompt availability: n/a

  • Submission deadline: December or January, depending on your region

The prestigious Scholastic Art & Writing Awards has been around since 1923 and has an impressive list of past winners including Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, John Updike, and Sylvia Plath. There are 11 writing categories including humor, flash fiction, poetry, short stories, journalism, and more.

You may win at the regional level and then be automatically entered into the national contest. Winners at the national level are invited to attend a star-studded ceremony in New York City and your writing will be published in the annual anthology Best Teen Writing.

As timelines will vary based on your specific region and which writing contest you enter, the calendar on the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers site is a great resource for students to refer to for information about important dates and deadlines.

Learn more about Why You Should Apply for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards!

3. National High School Essay Contest

  • Hosting institutions: American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP)

  • Awards:

    • 1st: $2,500 and a paid trip to the nation’s capital from anywhere in the U.S. for the winner and his or her parents, plus an all-expense paid educational voyage courtesy of Semester at Sea

    • 2nd: $1,250 and full tuition to National Student Leadership Conference’s International Diplomacy summer program

  • Writing prompt availability: Fall

  • Submission deadline: April 1, 2024

Every year, this essay contest invites high school students  to explore a topic that touches upon issues of peace building and the protection of national security. Your response to this prompt should be an essay of 1,000-1,500 words. Winning essays are also published on the website so you can see past topics and research.

You must be a U.S. high school student to participate and meet all eligibility requirements (e.g., your parents cannot be in the Foreign Service). It’s best to refer to AFSA’s site for the most up-to-date information about very specific writing contest rules and guidelines. The judging criteria include the quality of analysis, quality of research, form, style, and mechanics.

4. Young Writers Awards

  • Hosting institution: Bennington College

  • Awards: $500 (1st in each category), $250 (2nd in each category)

    • YWA winners who enroll at Bennington receive a $15,000 scholarship each year -  for a total of $60,000 

  • Writing prompt availability: n/a

  • Submission deadline: Early November

Bennington College has quite a literary pedigree, with alumni that have garnered twelve Pulitzer Prize winners, three U.S. poet laureates, four MacArthur Geniuses, countless New York Times bestsellers, and two of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. In honor of its legacy, Bennington College started this contest to celebrate great writing by high school students.

You’re invited to submit writing in one of the following categories: poetry (3 poems), fiction (up to 1500 words), or nonfiction (up to 1500 words). All work must be reviewed, approved, and sponsored by a teacher. Homeschool students may use a mentor.

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5. My Impact Challenge

  • Hosting institution: Bill of Rights Institute

  • Awards: Up to $10,000, with $40,000 in total prizes 

  • Writing prompt availability: n/a

  • Submission deadline: May 19, 2024

In this contest, a 1,200-word essay is part of a larger project that also includes a service project that you’ve completed along with a 2,000-word report detailing your inspiration, project plan, details of how you executed the plan, and how your understanding of civic virtue and your community grew as a result. Visual documentation of your project is also required. You’ll be judged on the impact your project had on the community, knowledge gained, originality, mechanics, and your understanding of civic virtue.

Get more information about the submission guidelines and judging rubric for My Impact Challenge on the Bill of Rights Institute website.

6. Ocean Awareness Contest

This international writing contest was created to raise awareness about environmental issues through creative communication. Students aged 11 through 18 are eligible to participate.

The prompt for 2023 involved thinking about climate change and posing possible solutions for the climate crisis. The idea is to move beyond the bad news and celebrate the work that is being done by countless “climate heroes”—the scientists, activists, artists, and educators striving to make our world more habitable.

The writing prompt for the 2024 Ocean Awareness Contest is Tell Your Climate Story. Your submission can take the form of creative writing, film, interactive and multimedia, poetry, and spoken word.

The Ocean Awareness Contest FAQs on the Bow Seat site are an excellent resource to find out more specific information about how to participate in this writing competition.

7. Essay Contest

  • Hosting institution: Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA)

  • Awards: $1,000 scholarship + free trip to conference (1st), $500 scholarship (2nd), $250 scholarship (3rd)

  • Writing prompt availability:  Currently Available

  • Submission deadline: June 1, 2024

If you love Jane Austen novels, you must enter this contest! Each year, JASNA asks students from all around the world to think about a topic inspired by a work by Jane Austen and how this topic reflects on our culture today. The 2023 JASNA Essay Contest topic was about marriages and proposals, as inspired by the theme in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The 2024 JASNA Essay Contest topic will be announced in November 2023. Your original insights and clear, correct writing should then take the form of a 6-8 page essay written in English. Past essay winners are published on the website.

8. Profile in Courage Essay Contest by JFK Presidential Library

Inspired by JFK's book, Profiles in Courage, this writing contest invites you to describe and analyze an act of political courage by a U.S. elected official serving after JFK was born (1917). Essays must be between 700 and 1,000 words and include a minimum of five sources. Judges are looking for originality, supporting evidence, source material, high-quality writing, and organization. They also want to see evidence that you understand the meaning of political courage.

Note: students must provide the name of a nominating teacher on their registration form, so make sure you coordinate with an educator who can serve in that capacity. Refer to the Profile in Courage Essay Contest eligibility requirements for more information.

9. John Locke Essay Competition

  • Hosting institution: John Locke Institute

  • Awards: Awards: $2,000 scholarship (for 1st in each of the 8 categories)

  • Writing prompt availability: n/a

  • Application deadline: Late May

  • Submission deadline: Late June

Ready to think deep thoughts? This contest gives you the chance to refine your skills in argumentation (e.g,, independent insights, depth of knowledge, clear reasoning, critical analysis, and rhetoric) and have your work assessed by experts. You can choose from 1 of 3 challenging questions posed in 7 different categories (Philosophy, Politics, Economics, History, Psychology, Theology, and Law) in the form of a 2,000-word (max) essay. There’s also a junior category for students who are under age 15 (i.e., 14 or younger).

Your entry will be judged by a panel of Oxford and Princeton faculty. Winning essays are posted on the John Locke Institute website, and you can check out the fascinating archive.

Read our blog post, Everything You Should Know about the John Locke Institute Essay Competition to learn more about this writing contest!

10. High School Poetry Prize and Ten-Minute Play Contest

  • Hosting institution: Lewis Center for the Arts - Princeton University

  • Awards: 

    • Poetry: $1,500 (1st), $750 (2nd), $500 (3rd)

    • Play: $500 (1st), $250 (2nd), $100 (3rd)

  • Writing prompt availability: Late October (Poetry)

  • Submission deadlines:

    • Poetry: Late November

    • Play: April 1, 2024

Princeton University has two writing contests that are open to 11th grade students and it is possible to enter both of them:

Entries for both contests are judged by Princeton faculty.

11. EngineerGirl Writing Contest

  • Hosting institution: National Academy of Engineering

  • Awards: $500 (1st), $250 (2nd), $100 (3rd)

  • Writing prompt availability: September

  • Submission deadline: Early February

This essay contest features a new writing prompt every year dealing with engineering’s impact on the world. The 2023 contest focused on diversity in engineering and how that might future design solutions. The prompt for the 2024 EngineerGirl Writing Contest is The Secret Life of Everyday Items. High school students are limited to 750 words and must cite anywhere from 3-10 resources. Winning and honorable mention entries are published on the website.

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12. Achievement Awards in Writing

Each year, the National Council of Teachers of English posts a thought-provoking prompt and participants in 10th and 11th grades are welcome to respond in up to 10 pages. 

The writing prompt for the 2023 contest was based on Malala Yousafzai’s address to the United Nations; the prompt for 2024 comes from Michele Obama’s book, Becoming:

“If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you'll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.”

Writing contest entries are not limited to informative or persuasive essays. They can also take the form of a research report, a personal narrative, a fictional story, a series of poems, a photo essay, or a comic or graphic narrative.

Other NCTE Writing Contests for Students

Promising Young Writers

  • Open to 8th graders

  • Submission deadline is mid-February

National Writing Award: The Humanities and a Freer Tomorrow - in partnership with the National Humanities Alliance

  • Open to 11th and 12th graders

  • Submission deadline is late October

13. YoungArts Writing Competition

  • Hosting institution: The National Foundation for the Advancement of Artists

  • Awards: Prizes up to $10,000, Entry to National YoungArtsWeek, Presidential Scholar In the Arts designation, grants and funding, residency opportunities

  • Writing prompt availability: June 2024

  • Submission deadline: Mid-October

This multidisciplinary competition has entry categories across 10 disciplines. Writing is one of them, and you may submit your writing in the form of creative nonfiction, novel, play or script, poetry, short story, or spoken word. To be eligible to apply you must be a U.S. sophomore, junior, or senior. The website features a great section with tips and testimonials from past winners and guest artists. Awards are not simply cash-based. Entry into this organization connects you to a lifelong network and access to master artists.

14. Creative Writing Scholarship

  • Hosting institution: National Society of High School Scholars

  • Awards: $2,000 prize (3 given out for fiction and 3 given out for poetry)

  • Writing prompt availability: Early May

  • Submission deadline: Early October

You can enter this contest in the fiction or poetry category, or both. Fiction must be no more than 5,000 words. Your poem must appear as you would like for it to be published. Judging criteria include creativity, technique, expression, and originality. In addition to your writing, you’ll need to submit a recommendation from a teacher, a school transcript, an academic resume, and a photo of yourself.

15. Young Lions Fiction Award

  • Hosting institution: New York Public Library

  • Award:

    • Three (3) $2,000 awards for the Fiction category

    • Three (3) $2,000 awards for the Poetry category

  • Writing prompt availability: n/a

  • Submission deadline: Early September

The Young Lions Fiction Award was started by Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, Rick Moody, and Hannah McFarland as a safety net and support system for young writers. You must be 35 or younger to submit your work for consideration. The catch with this particular contest is that your submission must be in the form of a published novel or collection of short stories that was published within the year of the contest–galley proof is an acceptable format.

As most high school students won’t have a published book to submit, this contest is a bit of a stretch–it’s generally geared toward young writers in their 20s and 30s. That said, if you have published a book, this is an amazing opportunity and it is a very prestigious distinction to be among the five finalists.

16. Rachel Carson Intergenerational Sense of Wonder / Sense of the Wild Contest

  • Hosting institution: Rachel Carson Landmark Alliance

  • Awards: Publication on the contest website

  • Writing prompt availability: n/a

  • Submission deadline: Mid-November

Unlike the other writing contests listed here, this writing submission is meant to be co authored by you and at least one older adult. This could be your parent, grandparent, teacher, neighbor, mentor, etc. The idea is that you and your coauthor are from two different generations and that will inspire both of you to look at nature differently. You can choose to write about 1 of 2 themes and you can also choose to write it as an essay or as a poem. (Either can have up to 500 words). You may also include an original photograph with your entry.

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17. High School Essay Contest

Raising awareness of the importance of independent media in our lives is the key goal of this contest. The topic for 2023 was “While consumers are drawn toward tweets and sound bites, how can journalists tell more of the story without losing readers’ interest?” U.S. high school students in grades 9 through 12 are invited to respond to this prompt with an essay of 300-500 words.

The judging criteria include: adherence to the topic and a logical interpretation of the subject (40 pts); vocabulary and style (30 pts); grammar (20 points); neatness (5 pts); and proper format (5 pts).

18. Voice of Democracy

  • Hosting institution: Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)

  • Awards: $35,000 college scholarship (grand prize); $1,000-$21,000 (other national scholarships); $1,000 (each state winner)

  • Writing prompt availability: n/a

  • Submission deadline: Late October

This audio-essay contest was created in 1947 to promote patriotism for our U.S. democracy. High school students are invited to express their patriotism via a recorded speech. Each year students win $1.3 million in educational scholarships and incentives from this VFW contest. The 2023-24 prompt is: “What are the greatest attributes of our democracy?”

Students will write and record their essay response. (The audio file should be 3-5 minutes long.) The judging criteria include originality (30 pts), organization and flow (35 pts), and speech delivery (35 pts). You submit your audio file and written essay to your local VFW Post, which you can find on the VFW site we link to above.

Patriot’s Pen

VFW has a writing contest for students in sixth through eighth grade, called Patriot’s Pen. The 2023-24 prompt for this contest is: “How are you inspired by America?”

19. World Historian Student Essay Competition

Open to all students internationally (grades K-12), this contest provides a prompt based on world history education and how it impacts you. The prompt for 2023 asks you to think about a family story related to a historical event or your family’s cultural background. Your response must be an essay of approximately 1,000 words. Judging criteria include a clear thesis, concrete supporting examples, evidence of synthesis and evaluation, and organization. They are also looking at your overall ability to communicate how a better understanding of world history has changed you.

20. New Voices One-Act Competition

  • Hosting institution: YouthPLAYS

  • Awards: $250 and publication in YouthPLAYS (1st), $100 (runner-up)

  • Writing prompt availability: Early January

  • Submission deadline: May 1, 2024

This contest accepts any unpublished, non-musical one-act play from anyone under age 19. Your play must be between 10-14 minutes in length (a read-through before you submit is recommended) and at least 10 pages long. The play should be suitable for a school production and should ideally feature youth characters in age-appropriate roles. Your cast must also have two or more characters and more female roles are encouraged.

How Students Can Benefit From Participating in Writing Competitions

Writing competitions offer high school students a unique opportunity to showcase their skills, gain recognition, and enhance their college admissions prospects. Here are 10 ways writing contests can make a positive impact and be beneficial for student participants:

1. Demonstrating your commitment to writing

When you actively engage in writing competitions, you demonstrate your passion and commitment to the craft. Admissions officers appreciate applicants who have pursued their interests with dedication.

2. Showcasing your skills

Writing contests allow you to showcase your writing skills, whether it's in the form of essays, poetry, or other creative works. High-quality submissions can impress admissions committees.

3. Building a strong portfolio

Over time, your participation in various writing competitions can help you build a diverse and impressive writing portfolio. This portfolio can be submitted as part of your college application to highlight your talents.

4. Gaining recognition

Winning or even being recognized as a finalist in a prestigious writing contest can significantly boost your application. Admissions officers are more likely to take notice of applicants with such accomplishments.

5. Differentiating yourself

In a competitive admissions landscape, it's essential to stand out from the crowd. Participation in writing competitions sets you apart and adds a unique dimension to your application.

6. Highlighting your interests

Writing competitions can be a reflection of your academic and personal interests. They show that you are intellectually curious and proactive in pursuing your passions.

7. Earning scholarships and awards

Many writing contests offer cash prizes or scholarships as rewards. These can help offset the cost of your education, making you a more attractive candidate to colleges.

8. Receiving Expert Feedback

Writing competitions often involve evaluation by expert judges. Constructive feedback from these judges can help you improve your writing skills, which is valuable both academically and in your application essays.

9. Enhancing Your Writing Abilities

Regularly participating in writing contests hones your writing abilities, making you a more effective communicator. This skill is beneficial for college coursework and beyond.

10. Reflecting On Personal Growth

As you participate in writing competitions, you may explore new topics and perspectives. This growth as a writer and thinker is something you can discuss in your application essays.

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