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Hints and tips for entering an Oxford essay competition

If you want to know more about entering the essay competitions set by Oxford University, then this article will help you. In it, you will find out:

If writing essays gets you down and you keep wondering what the point is, here is something that might inspire you to write the very best essay that you can. The different colleges at Oxford University offer an array of prizes for the winning essays that enter their competitions. However, there is much more to this than the cash; essentially, it is the prestige that being the winner of an Oxford essay competition brings. It will not matter where you might flaunt that accolade, if it was bestowed upon you, it would be sure to impress.


Incidentally, sometimes students are put off entering these competitions because in the past Oxford University has been deemed as elite. The colleges have these competitions to attract students in schools from all over the United Kingdom. In other words, they want to get to know you and they want you to get to know them. These competitions are a wonderful opportunity to make that happen so whatever you do, read this article and then have a go. You never know what may happen.

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  • St John’s College, Oxford runs a Classics and Ancient History competition. It has been running for eight years. The deadline for entries is usually in February so you need to keep your eye open for when the new essay titles are published and the deadline date is given. It is open to all students in the United Kingdom that are in the lower sixth which is Year 12. You do not have to be studying Classics or Ancient History. The judges are particularly keen on independent research. Each student can only send in one entry and that must be an essay of up to 2,000 words. The first prize is £100 book token and this will be awarded to the best entry in each category. There is also an added £75 book token for the writer of best overall essay. An example of an essay title is: “How do gods and fate help the development of the epic plot? Discuss with examples from Greek and/ or Latin literature.”
  • Corpus Christi College, Oxford runs a competition for a Science essay. The deadline date tends to be in May. There are three different categories which include: Biomedical Sciences, Chemistry and Medicine. This competition is open to Year 11 and 12. The essays must be no longer than 1,000 words. There is one entry per person allowed. An example of an essay title from the Medicine category is “Do we understand how memories are formed and lost?”
  • Keble College, Oxford runs a Theology and Religion competition. It is open to students in the United Kingdom that are within two years of entering university. Essays must be up to 1.500 words long. One entry per student is allowed and no more than three entries per school. The first prize is £300 and there are also prizes for the runners up. The judges are looking for a good all round essay that includes evidence of good research, critical reasoning and awareness of structure. A sample essay question is: “Should Christians be vegans?”
  • Oxford Q Step Centre, University of Oxford runs a Political Essay competition. Unlike the other competitions mentioned in this article, this one is not aimed at students in schools but at first year students in their end of course assessment at Oxford University. The prize is £200. The judges are looking for evidence of skilled and original research using quantitative methods. A winning essay question was: “Does consensus democracy improve economic outcomes?”

It must be realised that the above competitions are just a sample of Oxford essay competitions to demonstrate how they work. There are more than this that you can enter so it is useful to spend an hour doing some research to see if anything appeals to you.

  • If you are interested in entering a competition but when you find it you have a very short period of time before the deadline is due, don’t send in a rushed piece just for the sake of entering. In all probability, you will be wasting your time. Many of the entrants will have polished their essay until they are sick of the sight of it. In other words, standards will be high so make sure you give it your best shot.
  • If you see a competition that has an essay question that is similar to an essay that you have already written don’t be tempted to try to wing it with that essay. There is more than one reason not to do that. Firstly, many of the competitions have it written in the rules that the essay should not be part of your school work. Secondly, if your essay almost answers the question, it definitely will not win. Thirdly, if you try to massage your essay so that it answers the question this will probably contaminate your research and your essay will not convince the judges of your academic standing.
  • Don’t think that it really doesn’t matter if you go over the word count by fifty words; it does. Moreover, you will probably be disqualified so all your hard work will be for nothing.
  • Make sure that your entry is in for the deadline. Two hours after will probably disqualify you. Although your tutor may allow a couple of hours or days overtime when writing an essay, these competitions will not. The reason for this is that it is not fair to the other entrants that have probably stayed in all week to get their essay in on time.
  • This may seem obvious but sometimes when we desperately want to get an essay in so that we can collapse with relief because it is done, we forget to properly check for spelling and grammatical errors. Don’t let yourself down by not reading it through carefully a final time.
  • Most of the competitions have a cover sheet that you have to complete. Make sure that you don’t forget to do this. In some cases, that would result in disqualification. Can you imagine how you would feel if you had spent time researching and writing your essay only to be left out of the competition?

If the competition states that the judges are particularly excited by a piece of original research or that they must see evidence of quantitative research, you have to give them what they want. Make sure that your research methods are properly explained and also justify why you have used them. Don’t assume knowledge on the part of the judges because even if they are world experts in your field, they will expect a clear but concise account of why you have used mixed methods or why you have chosen to use quantitative research. If you don’t add this to your essay, they will most likely assume that you are not aware of why you chose a particular method. This will mean that you will not even be on the shortlist and your time and hard work will have been wasted.

Ensure that the way that you have conducted your research is clear too. This is different from explaining the methods that you have used; this is demonstrating what you did. The judges need to be clear as to how you have arrived at your conclusions or your answers to your essay question.

Make it clear which primary and secondary sources you have used. This is what is going to back up your argument. It also keeps you free from accusations of plagiarism if the sources are duly stated.

When you are discussing your sources, make sure you analyse and criticise their theories. Fundamentally, you are trying to demonstrate that you can determine the strengths and flaws in their arguments. Don’t fall into the common trap of merely describing someone else’s argument, that will not get you the best grades or win you any competitions. If you can see logical flaws in what they are stating – go for the jugular vein of their writing – that is what will make the judges sit up and notice your entry. Incidentally, the trick here is to make sure that your argument is well backed up and purely academic.

Do read your essay through to make sure that the structure is tight. If the judges sense that you are going off on a tangent, you will not win. You may have a wonderful writing voice and your research might be original but if your argument is diverted in sections, you will lose marks. Judges love to read an essay that flows and is logical. If they can follow a clear argument through on the first reading, they will smile.

Do take the time to print up and thoroughly read winning essays from past years. This really is a gift because it will point you in the direction of what the judges are really looking for. This is not suggesting that you should try to write an essay that is like one of the winning entries but more that if you notice that there is a trend for entries to win that talk a lot about research methods that have been used, you can see that this is what appeals to the judges.

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