1. Read the Essay Contest Rules
The very first thing that you should do to help yourself win essay contests is to read the rules thoroughly. Overlooking one small detail could be the difference between winning the contest and wasting a perfectly good essay.
Pay special attention to the entry and closing dates, the entry frequency, and the essay requirements like word count, theme, and any other details the sponsor requires.
It might help you to print out the sweepstakes rules and highlight the most important elements, or to write down notes and keep them close at hand.
2. Brainstorm Your Essay Ideas
Many people want to jump right in to writing their essay contest entries, but it's a better idea to brainstorm several different ideas. Oftentimes, your first impulse isn't your best. Consider different ways that you can make the contest theme personal, come at it from a different angle, or stand out from all of the other contest entries.
Write all of your ideas down, and don't judge them yet. The more ideas you can come up with, the better.
3. Select the Essay Idea that Best Fits the Theme and Sponsor
Once you've finished brainstorming, look over all of your ideas to pick the one you want to develop for your essay contest entry.
When you're deciding, be sure to think about what might appeal to the essay contest's sponsor. Do you have a way of working the sponsor's products into your essay? Does your subject matter fit the sponsor's company image? An essay that might be perfect for a Budweiser contest might fall completely flat when Disney is the sponsor.
4. Lead Your Essay with a Good Hook
When it's time to start writing your essay contest entry, remember that the first sentence is the most important of all. If you can start with a powerful, intriguing, moving, or hilarious first sentence, you'll hook your readers' interest and stick in their memory when it is time to pick winners.
One of my favorite examples of how a good hook can influence judges is the story of how 200 Bananas Made a Woman Queen for a Day.
5. Write Your First Draft EssayNow is the time to get all of your thoughts down. At this stage, it's not necessary for everything to be perfectly polished, you're just setting down the bones of your final essay contest entry. Try to hit the points you most want to communicate. If your essay is running longer than the word count limit, don't worry about it at this stage.
6. Keep an Eye Out for "Red Mittens"In her fantastic book, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Terry Ryan talked about how her mother used "Red Mittens" to help her be even more successful with contest entries.
To quote from the book:
"The purpose of the Red Mitten was almost self-explanatory -- it made an entry stand out from the rest. In a basket of mittens, a red one will be noticed."
Among the Red Mitten tricks that Evelyn Ryan used were rhyme, alliteration, inner rhyme, puns, and coined words.
While Evelyn Ryan mostly entered jingle and ad-type contests, the Red Mitten theory can be used to make any essay contest entry stand out. Your Red Mitten might be a clever play on words, a dash of humor, or a heart-tugging poignancy that sticks in the judges' minds.
7. Revise Your Essay for Flow and Organization
Once you have written the first draft of your essay contest entry, look over it to ensure that it flows smoothly. Is your point well-made and clear? Does the essay flow smoothly from one point to another? Do the transitions make sense? Does it sound good when you read it aloud?
This is also the time when you should cut out extraneous words and make sure that you've come in under the word count limit.
In Stephen King's book, On Writing, the author talks about a rejection notice he once received that read: "Formula for success: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%." In other words, the first draft can always use some trimming to make the best parts shine.
For more information, read Tips to Proofread Your Writing by About.com's Guide to Grammar.
8. Put Your Contest Entry Aside
Now that you have a fairly polished first draft of your essay contest entry, put it aside and don't look at it for a little while. If you have time before the contest ends, put your essay away for at least a week. Let your mind mull over the idea subconsciously for a little while.
I can't tell you the number of times I've sent in an entry and then thought of something that I should have added to make it perfect. Letting your entry simmer in your mind for a while gives you the time to come up with these great ideas before it's too late.
9. Revise Your Essay Contest Entry Again
Now is the time to put the final polish on your essay contest entry. Have you said everything you wanted to say? Have you made your point? Does the essay still sound good when you read it aloud? Can you tighten up the prose by making any additional cuts in the word count?
If possible, this is a good time to enlist the help of friends or family members. Read your essay aloud to them and check their reactions. Did they smile in the right parts? Did it make sense to them?
This is also a good time to ask a friend to double-check your spelling and grammar. Even your computer's spell check programs make mistakes sometimes, so it's helpful to have another person read it over.
10. Read the Essay Contest Rules (Yes, Again!)
If you've been following these directions, you've already read through the contest rules carefully. But now that you've written your draft and had some time to think things over, it's a good idea to double-check to make sure you haven't overlooked anything.
Make a check list of all of the essay requirements, and go through it point-by-point with your finished essay in front of you to make sure you've hit them all.
And now, you're done! Submit the essay to your contest, and keep your fingers crossed for the results!