PEN America Free Expression Essay Competition

graphic for PEN America's Free Expression Essay Competition



PEN America is inviting submissions for a new national student essay competition about the role of free expression in today’s world. If you’re in high school or college, PEN America wants to know what you think about the threats to this crucial right! Essays will be judged for their originality, clarity of thought, and relevance to free expression by experts at PEN America and prominent guest judges. Winning essays will be published on PEN America’s website, and promoted on our social media channels. We are very pleased to offer a total of $15,000 in prizes to the competition winners. 


For our first-ever Free Expression Essay Competition, PEN America invites students to write essays on any issue related to free expression in the U.S. or abroad, at a length of 1,500 words for the high school level and 2,500 words for the college level. 

High school-level submissions are generally open to students ages 15-17; and college-level submissions are generally open to students ages 18-23. Applicants must be residing in the United States and provide a U.S. mailing address. Please enter the competition level based on your age at the time of submission. Current enrollment in school is not required to enter. If you have any questions about your eligibility, please do not hesitate to contact us at [email protected] with ‘Essay Competition’ in the subject line.

We ask that you please submit your essay as a PDF or Word document through our online application portal on Submittable. On Submittable, you will be prompted to create a free account in order to access the entry submission form and upload your materials. 

The submission window has closed.

Statement on plagiarism: The PEN America Free Expression Essay Competition maintains a zero tolerance policy for submissions that have been plagiarized, including submissions that fail to incorporate proper citations. Those who submit an essay that is not entirely their own will be disqualified from the Free Expression Essay Competition without warning. PEN America reserves the right to investigate whether a submission has been plagiarized. Should your essay require citations, you may use any citation system you prefer (e.g. APA, Chicago, MLA, etc.), as long as your citation style is consistent throughout your essay.


For each competition level, we will honor 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. The top three college-level essayists will receive $4,000, $3,000, and $2,000 respectively; and the top three high school-level essayists will receive $3,000, $2,000, and $1,000 respectively.



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