essay competitions for year 12Today we’re sharing our guide to essay competitions in the UK for Year 12 English students.

I must confess that essay competitions were not a thing when I applied to uni. But then when I applied to uni, all that was required was a decent pass in all my A-Levels and a part-time job in McDonalds. The story for today’s teens is not so simple.

Today I’m sharing a guide to independent essay competitions run by colleges and other organisations. This is a chance for students to share work they’ve already done, or create a fresh essay on a topic set by the organisers.

While you’re here, don’t miss our other guides for Year 12 students:


Why essay competitions are useful

Essay competitions for Year 12 students are a great way to build up your UCAS application. They’re a great example of a super-curricular activity. They show universities that you have a genuine interest in a subject, and expending your learning beyond the classroom.

This is important if you are applying for a competitive course like English, or a competitive university like Oxford or Cambridge. There are essay competitions in LOADS of subject areas. As of 2022, most university English courses are looking for A-Level grades of A/A/B or higher. Some universities ask for as high as A*/A*/A grades. Chances are that most students applying to study English will have predicted high grades. How do you stand out?

We’ve focused on English here because that’s what my teen is researching. But if you want to study something else, look around for more relevant essay competitions for Year 12.

The below essay competitions for Year 12 (and sometimes other years) could help. Not only by showing your commitment. If you win a prize, then you could mention this in an application. Some essay competition prizes include attendance at a university open day, providing a valuable way to stand out to admissions teams.

Complete Guide to Essay Competitions for English Lit Students

Below you’ll find a list of Year 12 essay writing competitions that are aimed at, or suitable for, English students. Some of these competitions won’t now open until the 2024/25 academic year. Others are still open for entry in 2023. I’ve indicated a month of closing for each competition. I’ve also provided a brief description of each competition and details of prizes. Click through to find out more.

uni of glasgow tour

Girton College Humanities Writing Competition

Girton College, Cambridge, runs an annual competition for humanities essays, which is suitable for students wanting to apply for English at university.

The essay prompt is usually an exhibit from the college’s museum collection, and students are invited to submit an essay inspired by that item. Winners receive prizes of up to £200. Worth noting that only 3 students per school can enter this competition. The submission deadline is usually MARCH. Details of the next essay competition will be posted in the autumn term.

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PG Wodehouse Society Essay Competitions

If you’re a fan of the books of PG Wodehouse then a fun essay competition to enter might be this one. Each year the PG Wodehouse Society runs an essay competition for students under 19. The essay should be about PGW’s writing, and can be creative or critical. There’s an impressive roster of judges, including Stephen Fry. And if you win, there’s a £1,000 prize. Not bad! The deadline is usually September.

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New College of Humanities Essay Challenge

NCH London also runs an annual essay competition for Year 12 students, which is open worldwide. The contest includes various categories that may be of interest to future English students. Entry is open to students in Year 12, and the essay prompts will be published on September 5 or thereabouts. Students need to submit a 1,500 word essay by January. The overall winner of this competition gets a £1,000 prize. There’s also £500 or £200 for the runners up.

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essay competitions for english students

Newnham College Essay Competitions

The Newnham competition has been in the news recently because it has changed its rules so that students from independent schools may NOT enter this competition. Newnham is a Cambridge college, and as such, they’re trying to distance themselves from the idea that they favour students from privileged backgrounds. Fair enough.

The Newnham competition offers a number of essay prizes, that are open to female students in Year 12. The college provides webinars and guides outlining how to submit and create your essay. Entries are submitted each March, and there is a maximum of four entries permitted in each subject, per school.

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The Mary Renault Prize

St Hughes College Oxford runs two essay competitions each year. The first focuses on history, the second on classics. The classics essay is worth considering if you’re aiming for an English degree. The competition welcomes entries from students not currently studying Latin/Greek at A-Level, and your essay can focus on classical literature. There are 2 prizes available, worth up to £500. Entries must be 2,000-2,400 words and submitted by late July.

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Queens College Year 12 Essay Contest

Queens College Cambridge runs an annual English essay competition for Year 12 students, demanding a 2500 word essay for a change to win a £500 prize! Entries close in March and the winner is announced in May. In addition to the cash prize, the winner is invited to the college open day and several previous winners went on to study at Cambridge.

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The John Locke Institute International Essay Competition

While not strictly aimed at English students, this global contest is very well known and the breadth of topics means you can take a literary approach to another discipline. Students can submit essays across seven different subjects. They are Philosophy, Politics, Economics, History, Psychology, Theology and Law. There are three questions set for each topic, and you can choose your favourite. Entries close in June, so be quick if you want to enter!

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Ashbourne College English Literature Essay Competition

Ashbourne College hosts an annual competition for English Literature essays that is open worldwide to students aged 14-18. To enter, students must submit any essay on a literary work in English, that is not a text they have learned about during their formal studies at school or college. Prizes are available up to £500 and younger winners are able to apply for the scholarship programme run by the college. Entries close in June.

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The Betty Haigh Prize

Many sixth form students of literature will study Shakespeare and this essay competition is the perfect place to showcase your best work.

To enter the competition, students need to write a 1500 word essay that compares a scene in a Shakespeare tragedy to a film or TV adaptation, OR write a standalone essay exploring how a TV or film adaptation of a Shakespeare drama has thrown new light on the original text. Entries close in September, and winners generally receive book vouchers as prizes.

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2022 essay competitions

Gould Prize for English Literature

One of the best essay competitions for english students is the Gould Prize, which is awarded annually by Trinity College, Cambridge.

Candidates are invited each year to submit an essay of between 1,500 and 2,500 words on a topic to be chosen from the list of questions. Entries must be submitted by August 1, with a first prize of £600 to be split between the student and their school or college. This year there are six questions to choose from, covering novels, poetry and drama.

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Robinson College Essay Prize

You don’t enter the Robinson College essay competition because of the prizes – you’ll get a £50 book token if you win. But you’ll get lots of kudos AND an invite to a celebratory award lunch at the college, where you can meet the dean. Similar to the Gould prize, the Robinson College prize poses a series of challenging questions and invites students to answer them from their own perspective. Questions are carefully selected so they’re applicable to literature but also philosophy, history, law and science. Questions are live now and entries must be submitted by the end of July.

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Lancaster Writing Award

This essay competition, run by Lancaster University, invites students in Year 12 and Year 13 to submit essays in categories that include criticism, fiction, poetry and script or screen writing. You can enter in as many categories as you like, and you’re welcome to submit something you’ve worked on at school or college. This makes entering this particular essay competition especially easy if you’re short on time, and ideal if you don’t want to write a conventional literary criticism essay. One of my very favourite things about this essay competition is that the lead judge is TERRY EAGLETON, which is a pretty big deal if you’re a student of literature (I think). Entries close at the end of February and prizes include £100 book vouchers and the chance for your essay to be published.

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There you have it! 12 of the best essay competitions for Year 12 students, that you can apply for in 2022. Missed something from our guide? Let me know in the comments!