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 over $10,000 in prizes to the competition winners.
 For our third 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.

Applicants must be residing in the United States and provide a U.S. mailing address. Please enter the competition level based on your school year at the time of submission. 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 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. 

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 and high-school level essayists will receive competitive cash prizes.
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.

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 ask prior applicants to wait three years before reapplying to the fund and 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

NOTE: The Screenwriters Emergency Financial Assistance Fund has reached capacity for the first round of available funding. We are not currently accepting new applications. Please check back regularly for updates on that program. If you have any questions, please write to 


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