Questions about our Judging Policy?
We received a letter from a member who was curious about the judging process behind our teen writing contests. As part of our transparency in how we judge, rate and eventually pick finalists for the student writing contest, we're sharing the below letter and our responses.
The member addressed the email to our CEO, Eric Thiegs...
Dear Mr. Thiegs,
First of all, I would like compliment and applaud you on your website. I think it's is a rich, thriving community, almost a safe haven and asylum for those who wish to express themselves and share their scintillating and heart-warming personal stories.
I was curious though, how exactly are the winning essays and semi-finalists chosen for the teen writing contests? After meticulous observation, I have read many brilliant essays that have very complex thoughts, advanced language, and simmering with creativity and style while fully responding to the prompt in a well-written manner which were not chosen as finalists.
I do understand much of the selection for finalists has to be subjective, but I would just like to know what type of writing is highly valued in these contest. Very straight-forward stories written in a cursory manner? Or creatively crafted stories written in advanced language?
Again, I deeply respect the online community that you have taken the time to concoct. I hope that you can clear some things up!
Thanks for reading this and I'm looking forward to your response.
A Teenage Stage of Life Member
Our comment to this letter prompted two responses - one from Mr. Thiegs and one from our Senior Essay Editor. Here are their responses...
1) Mr. Thiegs wrote:
Thank you very much for your note.
Regarding your feedback about the writing contest...
1) Yes, we do have an Editor that reads every single post in the high school and college sections of the site
2) That Editor flags the finalists
3) We then take the finalists and have the entire Editorial team (26 of us) vote on who the winner(s) should be.
4) Usually one or two of the finalists takes a majority of the 26 votes and wins. If there are essays that garner a strong percentage of editorial votes, they are named runners-up.
So that's how the process works for choosing a winner.
However, to your point, selecting the finalists from the larger pool of essays is a daunting task and because we are human, I am certain that there are strong essays that could have been missed or accidentally not considered as a finalist (even though they should have been).
Students selected as finalists are chosen for a variety of reasons...
--Fresh point of view
--Sharing an uncommon viewpoint
--Valuable content and/or research
--Clear presentment of the topic
Some essays have all of these components. Some just one or two but they are strong enough for us to flag them as a finalist. I have actually been approached by a company that offered to score and rank the Stage of Life essays through a software program that assess things like word count, spelling, and basic composition form, but while that would save us in time, it would erase the human element of reading and touching each of these essays.
But there again lies the crux of the issue...that human judging element isn't always perfect and is, for good or bad, subjective to the staff we have in place.
However, your message is being heard loud and clear on this end.
My Next Steps...
a) I've shared your email below with our Editor who reads all of the student essays
b) I've asked her to be aware of the concerns you've raised and to, in particular, double check those essays that she's flagging as finalists.
c) As an improvement based on your letter, we're also now going to add a EXTRA step in our judging cycle that will include a second Peer Editor to review the first round batch of finalists to ensure they are up to par with the excellent student writing we expect from Stage of Life finalists and/or to see if we've missed any essays that should be consider semi-finalists.
d) To be transparent about our judging process and to show how we are committed to the continuation of the integrity of the Stage of Life writing contest, I will be posting these guidelines (and your letter) on Stage of Life for future educators, teachers, media and students to read.
I always take to heart any feedback we get from our members. I think maintaining the integrity in building a writing initiative of this scope is my #1 priority, so while I may not have the answer you originally wanted to hear, I hope you can sense the importance of your message to me, my team and Stage of Life.
Our goal is to have one of, if not the, premier writing contests for teens and college students.
2) Our lead High School Contest Editor, Michelle, wrote:
Finalists, not winners, are often selected on two main things: the prompt and the number of submitters.
For instance, in the May 2012 writing contest about Teen Pregnancy, the answers as to why the pregnancy rates were lower was obvious enough, and we had over half of the submitters talk about contraceptives and sex ed. So the finalists we selected were based on creativity and uniqueness of topic, not necessarily strong writing.
However, in a contest like the June 2012 prompt about Nature, we saw a lot of creative and personal stories. So in June, we looked more at strong writing and uniqueness of topic/lesson.
This does not mean, however, that just because you write well you are selected as a finalist. And strong writing doesn't mean using language that you wouldn't use in everyday conversation.
Although somewhat subjective and arbitrary, we're always looking for stories that "pop" - or stand out. This was especially true in the Feb. 2012 Definition of Love contest, where many of the entries simply re-stated the same idea that love was "all you needed." The finalists for that contest were those who would share a personal and unique story about their experience with love.
So to answer the question...aside from how well the essays are written, we are looking for original voices and unique, personal perspectives...after all...this is Stage of Life, where our mission to change the world, one story at a time.
We share these letters so that the teachers, professors, parents, and students participating in our national writing contests understand how we judge the essays. We are passionate about providing a world-class essay contest for high school students and college students, and we look forward to your questions or comments at any time.