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Writing Contest Rules & Judging Criteria

Stage of Life writing contest prizesWriting Contest Prizes: 

Yes, we have prizes if you win the Stage of Life writing contest...but not that you're writing something important just to win, right?  Each month, one winner selected from the combined high school and college entries will get a prize package.  The prize package will vary from contest to contest.

Rules for the Monthly High School and College Writing Contest:

  • Essay must relate to the monthly theme and writing prompt.
  • Essay must be your original work.
  • Essay can be no longer than 500 words.
  • Essay must be non-fiction and follow the form of a diary, journal, blog, memoir, or essay.  That is to say...we want real stories about real life...from you.
  • Once entered (it's free), essay will become a part of Stage of Life's public facing content so no foul language or inappropriate material.  Those entries will be removed.
  • Registration to is required to enter the writing contest.  It's free and does two things:  a) allows Stage of Life to post your work and b) gives you access to the writing community here on Stage of Life.  This will allow you to enter all future writing contests.
  • Writing submission must come from a current high school (grade 9-12) student, recent graduate, or student enrolled in college or trade school.

Stage of Life Writing Contest - Judging CriteriaJudging Process:

Stage of Life is proud of the transparency it has created in developing one of the most respected international student writing contests.  Here's how our judging process works...
  • 1)  We have an Editor that reads every single essay in the high school and college sections of the website for each writing contest prompt.
  • 2)  That Editor flags the first round of essay finalists.
  • 3)  We then have a second Peer Editor that double checks the first Editor's picks and either adds or deletes essays to the finalist pool as needed to meet our essay criteria for finalists (see below).
  • 4)  We then take this revised pool of writing contest finalists and have the entire Stage of Life Editorial team (26+ of us) read and vote on who the winner(s) should be.  Our Editorial team contains one of the most talented mix of minds working on any writing contest.  The Stage of Life Editorial team consists of both peers (high school and college students) as well as professors, artists, published authors, national bloggers, lawyers, CEOs, high school Language Arts teachers, Journalism professionals, Master Degree holders, etc.  This board base of 26 thinkers helps flag that single essay winner or winners each month.
  • 5)  Usually one (or two) of the essay finalists takes a majority of the votes and wins.  We announce the winner after the 15th of every month.  If there are finalists outside of the winner who garner a strong percentage of editorial votes, they are named runners-up.

Good Student EssaysGood Student Essays - Criteria:

Students selected as finalists are chosen for a variety of reasons.  Typically, their writing contest submissions excels in several of the writing components below...
  • Original voice
  • Unique style
  • Fresh point of view
  • Creativity
  • Descriptive language
  • Good diction
  • "Realness"
    • "Realness?"  Yes...realness. The reason that journalists and organizations ranging from to Mint Education have featured our teen essays in the national media is because our student bloggers write from the heart.  Real students sharing real stories about their lives.  Couple this with our position as one of the only national, non-partisan, digital literacy platforms in the world and you'll find Stage of Life an open environment to share your ideas.
  • Interesting ideas
  • Valuable content and/or research incorporated into the essay
  • Clear presentment of the topic
  • Peer impact
  • Spelling/Grammar/Mechanics/Word Count
  • Strong writing and analysis skills outlined by the Language Arts Common Core State Standards

Stage of Life teen blogging contest

Some essays have all of these components.  Some do not, but they are strong enough for us to flag them as a finalist.  We have 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 to help determine our finalists, but while that would save us time, it would erase the human element of reading and touching each of these essays coming through the contest and looking at them through that lens of "writing to make a difference."

When reading hundreds of essays each month, it's not hard to find those finalists.  Exceptional writing is easy to find, even by an everyday reader.  It's naming the winner from our selection of exceptional finalists that proves the most challenging for our Editorial Board.

Enter the contest now by visiting the
high school or college writing contest pages and submitting your essay!

How We Pick Essay Finalists

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.

Best Regards,

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...

Eric Thiegs - CEO, Stage of Life1) 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...
--Original voice
--Unique style
--Fresh point of view
--Descriptive language
--Good diction
--Sharing an uncommon viewpoint
--Interesting ideas
--Valuable content and/or research
--Clear presentment of the topic
--Spelling/Grammar/Mechanics/Word Count

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. 

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