Running an essay competition
Behind the MWI-TRADOC Recruiting Essay Competition
West Point’s Modern War Institute and the US Army Training and Doctrine Command just wrapped up an essay competition focused on recruiting. Essay competitions crowd-source ideas for tough problems and are often where new writers get their feet wet. They are also a great way to test out ideas in a low-threat setting, with the added bonus of providing a real opportunity to impact policy.
There are a ton of essay competitions out there. Army University Press sponsors the Dupuy Writing Competition each year with a cash prize of $1,000 for the winning paper. The Strategy Bridge sponsors an annual student writing competition with a top prize of $500. Across the Department of Defense, there are tons of writing competitions for nearly every niche.
This post focuses on how to run a one-off essay competition. While essay competitions that are run annually, like the Army University Press one mentioned above, likely have well-established processes and teams in place, producing a one-off competition might require a little more forethought and deliberation. The recommendations below draw on our experience running the 10th Special Forces Group-sponsored Polar Special Operations Forces and the TRADOC Recruiting Essay Competitions to offer some thoughts for those that might want to run their own.
Running an essay competition, while not difficult, takes both finesse and focus. Consider these points if you are thinking about running your own.
Why an Essay Competition: Before diving into an essay competition, consider the specific problem you aim to address. While essay competitions are ideal for exploring open-ended questions and sourcing innovative ideas, alternatives like focus groups or special journal issues might be more suitable for certain topics. The key is to match the format with the nature of the problem and the type of solutions you're seeking.
Finding a Sponsor: A successful essay competition often hinges on finding the right sponsor, ideally an organization aligned with the competition's theme. A sponsor may provide prizes like a cash reward or travel to a conference, for example. Sponsors also add credibility and visibility to the competition, and may help shape the competition by providing information about the problem-set or judging entries. Your expertise and reputation in the field can play a pivotal role in attracting sponsorship.
Securing an Outlet: Once you have a sponsor, the next step is to find a publishing outlet interested in your competition's topic. Often, the outlet and sponsor will differ, but many media outlets will sponsor their own essay competitions. For military-related themes, organizations like the Modern War Institute can be a valuable partner, offering a platform for the winners and ensuring the competition reaches the intended audience.
Recruiting a Team: Assembling a competent team is crucial. This team should include a manager to oversee the competition, reviewers for initial assessments, and senior reviewers for final judgments. When considering reviewers, ideally select for broad expertise in the initial assessments and then real principals for the senior group. Each role is essential for a smooth and fair competition process. If you came up with the idea for the competition, you’ll likely have the biggest stake in it, and so you may want to manage the process.
Collection plan: Set up a reliable and accessible system for receiving submissions, typically an email address or a submission portal. Ensure that this system is user-friendly and capable of handling the expected volume of entries.
Reviewing Plan: Develop a standardized process for reviewing submissions, such as using a Google Form. This approach allows for the easy tracking of submissions and the consistent evaluation of entries, focusing on both the quality of writing and the substance of ideas. Collecting demographic information can also provide insights into the participants.
Writing the Call for Submissions: Your call for submissions should clearly outline the competition's theme, submission guidelines, selection process, and any rewards. This document serves as the first point of contact with potential participants and sets the tone for the competition. You probably already have an ideal prompt or even a draft from your efforts to recruit a sponsor, outlet, and a team, but it’s important to make sure you go over it again with all contest stakeholders before you publish it.
The recruiting essay competition form
Managing Submissions: Establish a system for handling submissions, including setting up auto-responses, managing late entries, and anonymizing submissions for impartial review. A practical method is to rename submission files in a way that preserves anonymity while allowing easy tracking. If you collected demographic information from authors, you may want to delete that information from their submissions before sharing it with the judges to preserve anonymity.
Submission Review Process: Implement a system that ensures thorough and consistent evaluation. If your competition is a big success, you may get more submissions than you can reasonably expect all your judges to read. You may need to divide the submissions across multiple judges, but it’s good practice to ensure that each submissions gets read at least twice. That means you also need to standardize grading expectations. A Google Form, for example, can help maintain consistency and capture essential details for a comprehensive analysis of the submissions.
Identifying Top Essays: You may want to create a second round of review for the best essays, since these may require a detailed read from even more judges. You’ll want to establish a cut-off grade and number of finalist essays ahead of time, and provide opportunities for all judges to make sure their best essays made the cut. Develop a method to normalize scores from different reviewers to ensure fairness. A sensitivity analysis can help in shortlisting the top essays, reducing biases and discrepancies in grading.
Normalized scores from the recruiting essay competition helped identify the top ten
Final Selection by Senior Reviewers: The top submissions are then passed to senior reviewers, often comprising a committee or a high-ranking officer, who select the top three essays. This stage involves careful consideration of both the quality of writing and the relevance of ideas presented.
Notification Process: Timely and respectful communication with all participants, both winners and those not selected, is important. This step is crucial for maintaining goodwill and encouraging future participation.
Editing Winning Essays: While the winning essays will generally be of high quality, some editing might be needed to prepare them for publication. This stage ensures that the essays meet the publishing standards of the outlet.
Publishing a Summary Article: Summarize the key ideas and themes from the competition in an article. This summary not only highlights the winning essays but also provides a broader perspective on the range of ideas submitted. Additionally, prepare a report for the sponsor detailing the competition's outcomes and key insights.
Announcing Winners and Publishing: Publicly announce the winners and publish both their essays and the summary article. This step provides recognition to the winners and shares their insights with a wider audience.
Relax and Reflect: Finally, take a moment to relax and reflect on the competition. Consider the lessons learned and how they can be applied to future competitions or similar initiatives. At some point not too long after the competition, you should review any demographic data you collected about submissions and consider what it says about who is thinking about and working on the problem. If there are major discrepancies across key demographics–military/civilian, junior/senior, gender, race, career field, etc–you should consider why this was the case, whether there are any angles to the topic you may be missing, and whom you should communicate this to.
Running an essay competition can be a lot of work, but it is ultimately very rewarding. You’ll come away from it with a much better understanding of the problem you wanted to solve, plus better knowledge of the wide array of people who are already trying to tackle it. As you reflect on the answers you received, who submitted, and stakeholder reactions, you may even develop more ideas for your own future writing–or even another competition.