Essay Prizes – Fast Track to an University Offer?

February 18, 2019 |   Coen Armstrong

In the increasingly cutthroat university world, entering (and hopefully winning) essay prizes can help you stand out.

Essay prizes serve two important, related functions.

First, they are a way to develop and demonstrate sustained interest in one particular topic: to read way beyond the confines of a school syllabus. This is particularly important for Oxbridge: the best personal statements show real academic depth, and writing a 2000-4000 word essay, synthesizing research, and forming an original thesis provides much more depth than just reading a book. Additionally, essay prizes are verifiableways for universities to gauge interest: they don’t really know if you read and studied the impressive book on your personal statement, or just skimmed the first few chapters. They also help you learn, and really dig deeply into a topic in a way a short homework essay cannot provide: you’ll probably be very comfortable speaking about your prize essay at interview as a result. 

Secondly, essay prizes can provide a verifiable record of achievement at a high level. The university admissions process compares you with people from all over the world; essay prizes are a way to test yourself against the competition early on. If you win an award, you can immediately put yourself on the radar. This is especially true of a few prizes run by specific Oxford or Cambridge colleges (see below: winners get invited to a meal with the examiners — who will often be your interviewers in a few months! If you do win one of these prizes, it really, really helps. 

This also applies to US applications. The Common Application has a section for your ‘awards and honours’, letting you list 5 honours. Essay prizes are great ways to fill them, especially because they are ‘national’ or ‘international’ awards (the awards section makes you choose whether your award was school, local, regional, national, or international). I think these are the most impressive demonstrations of academic ability for US universities.

The result is: enter essay prizes.

To help, I’ve attached a list of essay prizes below. Entering them will help, even if you don’t win anything, but especially if you do. I’d recommend picking a few to concentrate on: don’t spread yourself too thin.

For the UK, it’s probably best to do them in the subject you will apply for at university, or maybe in a related area. You might perhaps write a history essay on economic history if you want to study economics, for example, or similar.

For the US, it helps to try different options, maybe outside your A-level or IB subject choices, to show you have the breadth of academic interest a liberal arts education needs. However, it can also help to win awards in your declared major, to show your strength of academic ability and interest. In particular, if you are applying largely on the basis of your academic merits, it’s very important to back it up with essay prizes: everyone can get As in Philosophy, History or English, and many people (thousands applying) will be the best in their school; very few will have a national or international level prize on their resume.

Essay prizes

N.B. Links are given to the most recent iteration of the prize. Prizes may be discontinued, or (much more likely) be on a slightly different page for next year.

Carnegie Council International Essay Prize

  • On ethics, for more ‘journalistic writing’

  • Deadline usually 31 December

John Locke Institute Essay Prize

  • Prizes in Economics, Politics, Philosophy, History

  • Deadline usually late July

Trinity College Cambridge Essay Prizes

  • Prizes offered in English Literature, Philosophy, Linguistics, Politics, Law and History

  • Deadline late Summer

Peterhouse College Cambridge Essay Prizes

  • Prizes in Science, History and Law

  • Deadline usually in March

The Economist Open Futures Essay Competition

  • Essays on Borders, Ideas, Markets, Society and Progress

  • 1500 words

  • Deadline mid July

Corpus Christi Cambridge Essay Competition

  • Prizes offered in Biology, Economics, English, Geography, Languages and Linguistics, Politics and International Relations, Theology, Harmony, and Music Composition

  • Deadline March

LSE Economics Essay Challenge

  • 1200 word essay

  • Deadline usually late July

Institute of Economic Affairs Dorian Fisher Memorial Prize

  • 1200 word essay, 2x 500 word answers

  • Deadline usually late July

Royal Economic Society Young Economist of the Year

  • 1500 word essay

  • Deadline early July

Marshall Society Essay Competition(Cambridge Economics Society)

  • 1500 word essay

  • Deadline 31st July

Lloyd Davies Philosophy Essay Prize(Oriel College, Oxford)

  • Deadline mid June

  • 2500 word essay

Julia Wood History Essay Prize(St. Hugh’s College, Oxford)

Also runs the Mary Renault Classics Essay Prize and essays from the Julia Wood can be entered into both

To find out more about Ampla Education’s essay review and university application services, contact us at 


Coen studied at Eton College, where he was a King’s Scholar and Academic Prefect. With a PPE offer at Magdalen College Oxford and having been joint top of the TSA admissions test, he is at Stanford University double majoring in Mathematics and Symbolic Systems. He also debates a lot.


© Ampla Education  –  Unauthorised use of this material without permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full credit is given to Ampla Education.

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