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Hear it from the Judges

It is usually the little details that make the difference between runner-up and winning entries. Learning to see things and be mindful of opportunities to improve are skills that must be developed all on their own.

In order to help students in this, here are some tips gathered from past judges to help you tone your skills, make your entry stand out among the hundreds, or perhaps just give it that final tweak that could make the difference in the final round!

The number one tip for each category is to take some time and examine works by great artists/writers in the field you are working. Read good essays and poems. Study good art and photography. This will be the biggest help to you as you develop your skills.

Note: these are mainly just tips, not necessarily requirements, for an entry.


What do judges look for in a winning essay?

  • First, judges look for an answer to the question or topic at hand. There is no right or wrong answer, but don’t try to force a pre-existing essay or idea into the contest just because you have already put work into it.
  • Judges also appreciate a creative interpretation or answer to the theme or question at hand.
  • Judges look for a logical flow using proper grammar and spelling. Develop an interesting writing style with good, creative ideas well expressed with clear, clean mechanics.
  • Have a compelling introduction, a thesis statement up front, and a good strong conclusion. Each paragraph should be on-topic and contribute to the whole.

What makes one essay really stand out in the judging?

  • The best kind of writing is the kind that gets you absorbed into it! Use strong, vibrant language that immediately draws you in, making you want to read more. Vivid imagery, compelling storylines/cases/subjects, humorous or fresh turns of phrase that don’t sound too stilted-all these can capture a judge’s interest.
  • Essays will also stand out for having a unique topic. Don’t just be content with the first thing that comes to mind. A lot of the power of an essay is wrapped up in the subject itself, so put some work and thought into deciding your subject. Draw from your own experience to give the judges a refreshing new look at the world. Or, if you do choose a more typical or predictable subject, try to look at it from an unusual angle or in a distinctive way.

What might be an immediate turnoff for a judge?

  • More than a few typos and/or grammatical errors. Proofread, proofread, and then wait a day and proofread again. Read backwards if you need to (starting at the last sentence and reading each sentence from the back to front) so you catch each little error. If there are several strongly written essays, the one with the fewest errors will stand above the rest.
  • “Parroting” of other people’s ideas. Don’t just re-write an argument by some famous writer or speaker. Try to come up with your own ideas and your own examples. Make this essay your own.
  • Not sticking to the form. Essay writing should be creative, absorbing, and stylistic, but make sure you don't turn it into a poem or story.
  • Unoriginal religious writing. Sometimes students think that if they write about religious or biblical things, they will get extra points. Yet, the opposite is often true. When you write about God, it is often scrutinized even more because of the subject matter. Now this is not meant to discourage you from tackling such important topics, but if that is what you choose to write about, be extra careful to avoid the trite and obvious.