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HSLDA Homeschool Contests

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.


What do judges look for in a winning piece of art?

  • The technical and artistic ability, but also the ability to work within the boundaries. We often receive several outstanding entries that do not fall within the given category. A winning entry must work within its theme in an artistic manner.
  • Originality and creativity! Winning entries usually have a special element that was used to set them apart and add something compelling to the piece—either the type of medium used, or the uniqueness of the angle, or an unusual use of color, or some additional element that enhances or enriches the subject.

What makes one artwork really stand out in the judging?

  • Artwork stands out if it portrays something that the viewer can relate to or might want to relate to (this, of course, does not limit your subject to people). The emotions evoked by the piece of art can make a big difference in whether it is remembered at the end of a round.
  • Just going for the obvious solution doesn’t work unless it’s done with exceptional artistry or from some unique approach. It needs to be done in a way that is more than mere reproduction of subject matter. It must give the viewer a new understanding, perception, or appreciation of the subject.
  • Be thoughtful in the choice of your subject. Give yourself some time to reflect and consider what you want to say about it and how you can go about best expressing it.

What might be an immediate turnoff for a judge?

  • If it does not stay within the confines of the category. Try to see the challenges rather than the restrictions of the categories. Find your unique perspective on the subject and work with it, exploring different angles, approaches, and media. Don’t be afraid to try something new.
  • If it resembles some other well-known artwork too closely. Of course you cannot help it if someone else had the same great idea first and you didn’t know it, but don’t purposefully mimic other pieces of art. Learn from them, but then use your imagination to come up with your own art.


What do judges look for in a winning poem?

  • A rich impression of the world. Poetry can take the simple and make it profound and it can make the reader see things and think of things in a way he never has before. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a poet is the richness with which he sees and communicates reality so it becomes extraordinary.
  • A rigorous attention to forms and language. Read other pieces of poetry in the required form before starting your poem. See how the great poets used the forms to their benefit rather than confinement. Practice expanding your vocabulary as well and learning new ways to say what you mean. Then once you have written it, read the poem out loud and listen. Does it flow and does it sound good to the ear? The judges will be looking for this as well.
  • An honest perspective of something or someone. You want to read it and think, this is real life, this is true. It should have something meaningful to say that will bring new perspective.

What makes one poem really stand out in the judging?

  • Judges like poems that uses the theme in a surprising or clever way; that adheres to the form required; and that maintains a clean presentation.
  • Judges also like poems that show a good amount of thought put into it. Don’t be content with the first ideas that you come up with. Write those ideas down, but keep working and searching for ways to make your poem better until you are satisfied that it is the best it could be.
  • A good poem will display an artistry with the language. This goes beyond just putting a bunch of words together that rhyme. And don’t just try to convey a thought that would work with a paragraph and stick it in poetic form. Pick words that are going to convey what you want to get across and convey it beautifully.

What might be an immediate turnoff for a judge?

  • If it does not follow the form or theme. A little flexibility within the form is often allowed in poetry but there must be a compelling, obvious reason for it. Part of the difficulty of poetry is adhering to the forms; but that is also part of its beauty and strength. If you break from the form, you risk having a judge discard your poem. Pay attention to how many syllables are in a line. Don’t try to finish a sentence in a line if it messes up the form. Try different ways of writing it until it says what you want in the correct form. Don’t be afraid to completely re-work the arrangement of your poem.
  • An overly didactic poem that focuses less on the beauty and construction of the poem and more on the theme. You need both form and content. Trying to get a point across is not bad, but if the point becomes more important than the beauty of the poem itself, the poem often suffers. Work on being artful, beautiful, and unique in your subject matter and the way you present it.
  • Obvious rhyming. Don’t just put down the first convenient rhyme that comes to mind. For example, in a poem about God, simply rhyming “love” with “above” will not get you many points. Stretch your mind and come up with some new ideas.
  • Unoriginal religious poetry. 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.


What do judges look for in a winning photo?

  • Originality and creativity! The entries that captivate are the ones that give a unique perspective, angle, and composition.
  • The quality of the photo: the focus, lighting, how it is cropped, etc. You may have to take many photos of the same subject to get that perfect one that has all the right elements.
  • Strong subject material and good composition. Does it have a clear, strong subject that stands out? You want judges to see right away what the photo is trying to show. A focal point that draws the eye in is also important.
  • Adherence to themes. It must stick with the theme close enough that judges don’t have to keep wondering how it relates.

What makes one photo really stand out in the judging?

  • Interesting compositions. Figure out what you want your photograph to say. Clear lines, symmetry, contrast, and bold colors draw the viewer, as do interesting angles, perspectives, and crops. Work on lighting and composition when attempting to shoot a scene and you can add a lot of energy to your photo.
  • The best photography captures a slice of reality in such a way that it leaves the viewer with a greater appreciation for that scene/subject. Remember, photography is a very powerful mode of communication. Never underestimate its power to affect audiences.
  • Don’t forget the entertainment value! Photographs that evoke emotions, or convey a certain mood or feeling often stand out.

What might be an immediate turnoff for a judge?

  • Washed-out flash lighting. Try to use natural lighting, or at least natural-looking lighting, so you don’t get the washed-out effect that often accompanies a flash. Practice using different kinds of lighting and experiment with when and when not to use your flash so the picture looks light and natural.
  • Snap shots of obvious material. Try to avoid the obvious in your choice of subject or, more importantly, in the angle, perspective, and composition. If you are photographing an obvious subject, then take it from a different angle or give it a powerful or interesting crop. Sometimes the subject material is strong enough in its own right, but more often it needs a strong composition as well. And if you can combine a unique subject with an interesting composition, even better!
  • If the photo is too posed or too contrived it may not make the final cut. The photo should capture truth and reality in a new way and not create a fiction or present a message that is too artificial to believe.
  • If the judge can find no possible way for the photo to fit the theme.
Poetry Contest Photo Contest Essay Contest Art Contest