PEN America Free Expression Essay Competition FAQ

graphic for PEN America's Free Expression Essay Competition

Q: I’m not enrolled in school right now. Can I still enter the essay competition?

A: Yes – anybody between ages 15 and 23 can submit an essay, regardless of enrollment status. Whether you’re on a gap year or not pursuing school at this time, your opinion on the state of free expression matters. Your competition level will be determined by your age at the time of submission.

Q: What kinds of essays do you accept? Are there any guidelines or restrictions on format?

A: We accept essays that satisfy the competition’s word count and prompt, and that are original works of nonfiction. Your essay must present a coherent idea, and may be told from any perspective (first, second, or third person). The essay must be in English. We cannot accept multimedia submissions.

Q: Can I ask a friend, teacher, or professor to help write my essay?

A: No, your essay must be your original work. You can ask others for feedback before submitting, but by entering the competition, you agree that your submission is your own idea and creation.

Q: Do I need my parent’s/guardian’s permission to enter the competition?

A: If you are under 18 years of age, be sure to obtain your parent’s or legal guardian’s permission before you send any information about yourself (such as your name, email address, etc.) to PEN America or anyone else over the Internet.

Q: I am a homeschooled student. Am I allowed to enter?

A: Yes, as long as you are between the ages of 15-23. Please enter the competition level based on your age at the time of entry, and put “Homeschool” as the name of your school on the Submittable form.

Q: Who will judge the essays?

A: Your essay will be judged by PEN America staff, free expression advocates, educators, writers, and artists. The judging panel will represent a range of interests and expertise. Essays considered finalists for awards will be reviewed by a minimum of three judges. The judges’ decision will be final. Given the volume of entries anticipated, PEN America regrets that it will not be able to answer individual questions about the outcome.

Q: How will the essays be judged?

A: Your essay will be anonymously evaluated for its originality of thought; ability to effectively communicate your ideas; and demonstration of a well constructed argument, supported by examples and knowledge of your subject. The most successful essays will reveal a genuine interest in free expression and its potential to change the world.

Q: When will winners be announced?

A: Winners will be announced in May 2022.

Q: How will I receive my award?

A: If you are selected to win a prize, PEN America will contact you via the email address provided through your Submittable account. There are no restrictions on how you use your award. Winners may be required to verify their eligibility.

Winning essays will be published on PEN America’s website.