PEN America is inviting submissions for a 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 $6,500 in prizes to the competition winners.
For our second year of the 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 1,000 words for both the high school and college competition levels.
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 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. All submissions must be received on or before March 1st at 11:59pm ET.
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.
From school board meetings to statehouses, and foreign newsrooms to digital spaces -- there are threats to free expression in societies around the world. PEN America wants to know: what do you think about free expression? Why is it important? How can it change the world?
Submit an original essay answering the questions above for a chance to be recognized by experts in the field, rewarded with a prize and share your views to educate others. You might consider the following areas of focus:

  • What does “free expression” mean to you?
  • Why does free expression matter in a democracy?
  • Why is it important to have free speech for all, regardless of lines of difference?
  • How does hate impede free expression? And how can free expression fight hate?
  • What do you think about free expression online? Is it the same or different from other public arenas for discourse?
  • Are bans on certain books in schools or libraries a free expression issue? Are there different considerations for school libraries and public libraries? Should there be limits on content for students? What harm might book bans in schools or libraries do?
  • Is there a way to reconcile limits on information with free expression protections? Are there reasonable limits society should impose to curb efforts to confuse and misinform the public?
  • How safe is freedom of the press in the U.S. today? What are some current threats to this right?
  • What Supreme Court ruling related to free expression in the U.S. is most vital to safeguarding the future of our democracy?
  • Why is free expression protected as an international human right? What efforts are needed to defend it?

For each competition level, we will honor 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. The top three college-level essayists will receive $2,000, $1,500, and $1,000 respectively; and the top three high school-level essayists will receive $1,500, $1,000, and $500 respectively.
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 2023.
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.

PEN America’s Emerging Voices Fellowship will select 12 emerging writers for a five-month mentorship program.

The Emerging Voices Fellowship provides a virtual five-month immersive mentorship program for early-career writers from communities that are traditionally underrepresented in the publishing world. The program is committed to cultivating the careers of Black writers, and serves writers who identify as Indigenous, persons of color, LGBTQ+, immigrants, writers with disabilities, and those living outside of urban centers. Through curated one-on-one mentorship and introductions to editors, agents, and publishers, in addition to workshops on editing, marketing, and creating a platform, the five-month fellowship nurtures creative community, provides a professional skill-set, and demystifies the path to publication—with the ultimate goal of diversifying the publishing and media industries. Twelve fellows will be chosen in 2022, each awarded an honorarium of $1,500.

Please read the following closely, as our application requirements may have changed and aspects of our program adjusted for 2023. Learn more information on benefits and components of the program:

Fellowship Timeline:
The five months of the fellowship are designed for fellows to connect with mentors and the cohort and refine their writing project while learning new skills and building relationships with publishing industry instructors, PEN America staff, and the literary community.

January 1-31:      2023 Emerging Voices Fellowship Application period
May:                  Fellows announced
June-October:   2023 Emerging Voices Fellowship period


  • Applicants must be 21 years of age or older at time of application.
  • Applicants do not need to be a U.S. permanent resident and/or citizen but must be residing in the United States at the time of applying for, and during the duration of, the fellowship.
  • Applicants must be available to participate actively in all dimensions of fellowship programming, including mandatory virtual workshops, virtual gatherings and virtual public programs.
  • Applicants cannot be enrolled in a degree-granting program at the time of the fellowship's start date (June 2023). Doctoral candidates who have completed all coursework are considered eligible.
  • Applicants cannot be a recipient of an advanced degree in fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry.
  • Applicants cannot have one or more books published through major or independent publishers, university presses, or established presses, nor have a book under contract to a publisher at the time of application. Chapbooks or work published in literary journals are acceptable.
  • Former Emerging Voices Fellows are not eligible to reapply.

Selection Criteria and Process:

Given the highly competitive nature of the selection process for this fellowship, we advise using care in your project application. Though the application will be assessed as a whole, fellows will be selected primarily based on the strength of the writing sample by a committee of established writers and publishing professionals, former fellows, and PEN America staff. We encourage you to submit writing that best showcases your work.

Closely review all required materials listed below. Please be mindful of the specific application requests. Failure to follow instructions carefully will result in disqualification. Late applications will not be accepted, without exception. We suggest you submit early to avoid technical issues. Applicants may only submit in one genre to the 2023 fellowship.

The selection decisions of PEN America will be final and not subject to review. We regret that due to the volume of applications, we will not be able to provide any individualized feedback at any point during or after the application process. General questions about the application process sent to will be answered at the discretion of PEN America.

Applications close at 8:59pm PT / 11:59pm ET on January 31, 2023. Fellows will be announced in May.

PEN America does not discriminate based upon age, color, national origin, physical or mental disability, race, religion, creed, gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, status as a veteran, or any other characteristic protected by federal, state or local law.

The U.S. Writers Aid Initiative is intended to assist fiction and nonfiction authors, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, translators, and journalists in addressing short-term financial emergencies. To be eligible, applicants must be professional writers based in the United States, and be able to demonstrate that this one-time grant will be meaningful in helping address a short-term emergency situation. The fund is limited, and not every application can be supported. Grant decisions are made on a quarterly basis by a volunteer committee of literary peers in consultation with PEN America staff, using the  following guidelines to evaluate professional credentials:

  • Publication of one or more books. (Writers who are only self-published or published by a press that charges for publication are not eligible.)
  • Multiple essays, short stories, or poems appearing in literary anthologies or literary journals (either online or in print) in the last two years.
  • A full-length play, performed in a theater by a professional theater company. Productions in academic settings qualify if the author is not a student at the time of the production.
  • Production of a motion picture project or a segment of television.
  • Employment as a full-time professional journalist, columnist, or critic, or a record of consistent publication on a freelance basis in a range of outlets during the last two years.
  • Contracted forthcoming books, essays, short stories, poems, or articles for which the name of the publisher can be provided.
  • Other qualifications that support the applicant’s professional identity as a writer.

The U.S. Writers Aid Initiative is not intended to subsidize writing-related expenses, such as residencies, sabbaticals, computers, printing, shipping, travel, or publicity services.  Applications received on or before the following quarterly deadlines will be reviewed before the last day of that month. (For example, an application received on or before January 1, 2023 will be reviewed before January 30, 2023.)

Application deadlines for 2023, subject to change:

  • January 1, 2023
  • April 1, 2023
  • July 1, 2023
  • October 1, 2023

Writers currently enrolled in degree-granting programs are also not eligible. Writers do not have to be Members of PEN America to receive a grant, but all recipients of emergency funding will be given a complimentary one-year PEN America membership.

Please review all eligibility criteria before applying. We encourage applicants to be specific and thorough in presenting their case for support so that a proper evaluation of the application can be made. All complete applications will be reviewed, and all applicants will be notified of a grant decision. Not all applications will be supported, and the Committee’s decision is final. 

Questions may be addressed to  

PEN America