Caden Heiser-Cerrato ’26 spent high school steeped in stories. He founded a creative writing club, hosted flash fiction contests, and wrote pages upon pages of stories and poems. He loved writing — but passion was not his only motivation.
One story of his — which went on to win a national award for flash fiction — begins as a dispassionate description of household events, but turns by the end into a heart-wrenching account of a child dealing with the aftermath of his parents’ divorce. In writing it, Heiser-Cerrato says he was inspired by the struggles of friends who had experienced divorce.
He also wrote it to enter into national creative writing competitions.
In other disciplines, high schoolers compete in elite programs that can serve as pipelines to top colleges. Students interested in STEM fields often strive to qualify for the International Science and Engineering Fair, while those hoping to go into law and politics can apply for the U.S. Senate Youth Program or compete in the national championships for speech and debate.
For students like Heiser-Cerrato, a number of creative writing contests now serve as a similar path to elite college admissions.
Heiser-Cerrato, who won multiple national awards for his prose and poetry, submitted creative writing portfolios to Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania, and he’s sure his creative writing is what propelled him to Harvard.
“It was my main hook,” he says.
Competitions like YoungArts and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards have skyrocketed in selectivity and prestige over the past few decades, becoming a quantifiable way for colleges to identify rising literary stars. The winners of top competitions disproportionately go on to attend elite universities.
However, selecting the nation’s top storytellers is more complicated than selecting its top scientists. Competitions can’t score poems in the same objective way they score students in a Math Olympiad. Instead, who wins these competitions often comes down to taste. Several former high school creative writers say that specific styles and topic areas disproportionately win national writing competitions. Top competitions, they say, incentivize writers to dredge up traumatic experiences or commodify their cultural backgrounds.
By propelling winners to elite colleges and empowering them to pursue writing, these competitions can change the course of students’ lives. But the pressure to win can also stunt young writers’ growth and complicate their relationship with their craft and themselves.
Creative writing contests aim to promote self expression and foster a new generation of artists. But does turning creative writing into a competition for admissions erode its artistic purpose?
Heiser-Cerrato went to a “sports high school” where it was difficult for him to receive the mentorship he needed to improve his writing or find a creative community. With so few fellow writers at his high school, he had no way to judge his talent beyond the confines of his English classes.
Creative writing competitions were founded for students like Heiser-Cerrato. Even a century ago, Maurice Robinson — the founder of Scholastic — was surprised at the gap that existed in recognizing students interested in the arts. In 1923, he hosted the first national Scholastic Art and Writing Competition.
By the 2000s, Scholastic no longer had a monopoly on creative writing competitions. YoungArts was founded in 1981, and the Foyle Young Poets Competition held its inaugural competition in 1998. After the Adroit Journal and Bennington College launched their annual creative writing competitions in the 2010s, competing in multiple creative writing competitions became common practice for aspiring poets and novelists.
When students started finding out about competitions through the internet, competitions like Scholastic doubled in size. The Covid-19 pandemic drove submissions to competitions like Foyle Young Poets up even more. Last year, the Scholastic awards received more than 300,000 entries, up from the 200,000 some entries received in 2005.
Collectively, these contests now receive more than 315,000 creative writing entries a year in categories like poetry, prose, and even spoken word. Students submit individual works of writing, or in some cases portfolios, to be judged by selection panels often consisting of professors and past winners. They are assessed on criteria like “originality, technical skill, and personal voice or vision.”
The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards boasts an impressive list of alumni who have gone on to win the highest literary prizes in their fields. Past winners include lauded writers Stephen King, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, and Amanda S. Gorman ’20.
Hoping to perhaps join this illustrious group, Heiser-Cerrato began applying to competitions his sophomore year. Spurred on by his high school English teacher — who incorporated contest submissions into assignments — Heiser-Cerrato felt the concrete nature of competition deadlines helped hold him accountable.
“When you’re trying to do something creative and you have no feedback loop or deadline, you can get very off track and not develop,” he says. “I never would have done that if there wasn’t a contest to submit to, because then there was no opportunity to get feedback.”
While Heiser-Cerrato went on to win some of Scholastic’s top honors — a National Silver Medal and Silver Medal with Distinction for his senior portfolio — even some who fare less well appreciate the feedback competitions provide.
“I think a lot of people are very cautious to give negative feedback to younger writers,” says Colby A. Meeks ’25, a former poetry editor of the Harvard Advocate. “I think getting rejections from certain contests and losing certain competitions did help me grow as a writer insofar as tempering an ego that I think young writers can very easily get from English teachers.”
Heiser-Cerrato views his experience with the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program — a program that pairs high schoolers with established writers — as “pretty instrumental to my growth.” After applying during his senior year, Heiser-Cerrato met bi-weekly with his mentor, discussing works of other authors and workshopping two stories of his own.
Similarly, when Darius Atefat-Peckham ’23, then a student at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, won a National Silver Medal in the Scholastic competition, he became eligible to apply to the National Students Poet Program. From a pool of finalists submitting more than 23,000 works, Atefat-Peckham was selected as one of five National Student Poets.
“It led me to probably the most important experiences of my life. As a National Student Poet, I got to travel the Midwest and teach workshops to high schoolers and middle schoolers,” he says. “That pretty much set me on my trajectory for wanting to be a teacher someday, wanting to apply myself in the ways that I would need in order to get to a prestigious institution.”
When Daniel T. Liu ’27 opened his Harvard application portal, he knew exactly why he’d gotten in.
“My application to college was almost solely based on writing,” Liu says.
In high school, along with serving on the editorial staff of multiple literary magazines and attending creative writing summer camps, Liu won dozens of contests — including becoming a YoungArts winner and a 2022 Foyle Young Poet of the Year.
“I actually read my admissions file, and they did mention camps that they know, summer camps like Iowa and Kenyon, which are big teen writing summer programs,” says Liu. “They pointed that out.”
According to The Crimson’s analysis of publicly available data and interviews with multiple students, there is a clear link between high school creative writing contest success and enrollment at highly selective colleges.
From 2019 to 2022, among students with publicly available educational history who won Scholastic’s Gold Medal Portfolio — the competition’s highest award — just over 50 percent enrolled in Ivy League universities or Stanford. Fifteen percent more received writing scholarships or enrolled at creative writing focused colleges.
From 2015 to 2020, 55 percent of the students who won first, second, or third place in the Bennington Young Writers Awards for fiction or poetry enrolled in Ivy League universities or Stanford.
As Atefat-Peckham reflects back on his college application, he knows his creative writing successes were essential in complementing his standardized test scores. While he was proud of his ACT score, he did not believe it would have been enough to distinguish him from other qualified applicants.
Since 2018, three recipients of YoungArts’ top-paying scholarship — the $50,000 Lin Arison Excellence in Writing Award — have matriculated to Harvard. Other winners attended Brown, Swarthmore, and Wesleyan. Recent recipients include Stella Lei ’26, Rhodes Scholar-Elect Isabella B. Cho ’24, and Liu.
Creative writing competitions’ prominence in the college admissions process comes during the most competitive college application environment ever. Harvard’s Class of 2025 received a record-high number 57,435 applicants, leading to the lowest admissions rate in College history.
Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24, a YoungArts winner and Rhodes Scholar-elect, described YoungArts as “super cool” in allowing her to meet other artists. She also recognized the importance of her participation for college applications.
“I can’t lie: If you think that you’re going to apply to Harvard, it’s very helpful to have some kind of national accolade,” she says.
In 2021, an anonymously written document accusing student poet Rona Wang of plagiarism made waves in the competitive creative writing community. Wang — who had won awards from MIT and the University of Chicago, was affiliated with Simon & Schuster, and had published a book of short stories — was accused of copying ten works written by other student poets.
According to Liu, this behavior isn’t unprecedented. Several years ago, Liu explains, an “infamous” scandal erupted in the high school creative writing world when a student plagiarized Isabella Cho’s poetry and entered it into competitions.
Liu says more students are beginning to apply to writing competitions out of a desire to have awards on their resume, rather than because of a genuine interest in creative writing.
While creative writing contests can provide valuable opportunities for feedback and mentorship, several students look back on their time in the competitive creative writing circuit with ambivalence. The pressure to write in service of a contest — writing to win, not just to create — can pressure writers to commodify their identities and cash in on their painful experiences, turning a creative outlet into a path to admissions or quest for outside validation.
Liu says he regrets that creative writing competitions are becoming a pipeline to elite college admissions. He’s worried competitions like Scholastic and YoungArts are becoming too similar to programs like the International Science and Engineering Fair.
“Math, science, all these competitions, they all have some aspect of prestige to them,” says Liu. “What makes it so difficult in that regard is that writing isn’t math. It requires a level of personal dedication to that craft.”
“It kind of sucks because a lot of artistic practice should come out of personal will,” says Liu. “To compete in art is paradoxical, right?”
Sara Saylor, who won a gold portfolio prize for her writing, told the New York Times in 2005 that “the awards came to mean too much to me after a while.”
“Whenever Scholastic admissions time rolled around, we began to get very competitive and more concerned about winning the contest than we should have,” she says.
Indeed, students at elite creative high schools like the Interlochen Center for the Arts are pushed by teachers to enter competitions. Hannah W. Duane ’25, who attended the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts as part of the creative writing department, was required to submit to three creative writing competitions every six weeks.
(These competitions are dominated by schools like Duane’s. In 2019, 23 Interlochen students received national Scholastic awards for their creative writing — a distinction typically awarded to less than 1 percent of entries.)
Though Liu wasn’t required to submit to contests, he felt a different kind of obligation. Liu says writing competitions pushed him to write almost exclusively about his heritage, keeping him from exploring other narratives.
“From the start, I applied with a lot of cultural pieces, like pieces about my family history,” says Liu. “Those were the ones that won. And so it built me into a cycle where I was only writing about these areas — heritage.”
Liu’s experience wasn’t uncommon. When looking at other winning pieces, he noticed a similar trend.
“The competitions — Scholastic, YoungArts, those two big ones — definitely prioritize writing about your heritage,” says Liu. “Part of the reason behind that is for a lot of the students, that’s a very unique aspect of them.”
“In a hyper-competitive environment, what you can write better than anyone else is what’s gonna make you stand out,” he adds.
In an emailed statement, YoungArts Vice President Lauren Slone wrote that YoungArts winners in writing “must demonstrate a sense of inventiveness, show attention to the complexities and technical aspects of language, and have a clear, original, and distinct point of view.”
Chris Wisniewski ’01, Executive Director of the nonprofit that oversees Scholastic, wrote in an email that the competition has been “welcoming to works across many styles, subjects, and points of view” and does not give “implicit or explicit guidance” to jurors or competitors about the content or style of winning pieces. He added that “on the national level, each piece of writing undergoes at least three separate readings from jurors to diversify the views on its adherence to the program’s original and sole criteria.”
Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen ’25, who received a Scholastic Gold Key and won the New York Times’s Found Poem Contest, notes another way young writers try to distinguish themselves.
“Students feel compelled to embellish or to write about really painful things,” says Doan-Nguyen, a Crimson News Editor. “It does tend to be really heavy hitting topics that make the page.”
According to him and multiple others, the creative writing circuit pushes students to expose deeply personal, sometimes traumatic experiences for academic points. (Students make similar claims about the college admissions process.)
Doan-Nguyen was hesitant to publicly open up about vulnerable experiences, so he shied away from writing about traumatic memories of his own. But he fears this reluctance held him back.
“Maybe that’s why I did not win more contests,” he says. “I was always too afraid to be so vulnerable and raw.”
Duane recalls the competitions being dominated by sobering personal narratives: often stories about authors’ experiences with racism, abuse, or sexual assault. However, her school worked to insulate its students from the pressure to sensationalize.
“The constant refrain we would hear is, ‘Writing is not your therapy. Get that elsewhere,’” she says.
Liu says writing contests not only changed his content — they also pushed him and other competitors to write in the specific style of past winners. He says many successful pieces were reminiscent of the poet and novelist Ocean Vuong.
Writers would cut their lines off at odd places “to give the illusion of mystery when there’s no real thought behind it besides, ‘Hey, it should look like this because it looks pretty like this,’” says Liu. He also recalls writers, especially young poets, using “a lot of language of violence.” Liu worries this overreliance on stylistic imitation can stunt young writers’ growth.
He questions whether the existence of creative writing competitions is helping young writers at all.
“If writing is supposed to be a practice of self-reflection, you’re not doing those things when you plagiarize. You’re not doing those things when you submit just a draft of someone else’s style,” says Liu. “It doesn’t align with what it should be as an artistic practice.”
Since coming to Harvard, Heiser-Cerrato has begun writing for a very different purpose. He joined the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.
With the structure and pressure of creative writing competitions behind them, he and other past winners are taking their writing in new directions.
“My high school writing was very sentimental and very focused on trying to be profound,” Heiser-Cerrato says. “But here, I’ve been more interested in the entertainment side of things.”
When writing for competitions, Heiser-Cerrato says it was difficult for him to define his goals. But for the Lampoon, he says he just wants to make others laugh. There, Heiser-Cerrato has finally found the sense of community he lacked in high school.
Meeks joined the Harvard Advocate, where he critiques poetry instead of writing it. In high school, Meeks appreciated competitions as an avenue through which to receive feedback on his writing. Now, he works to give those who submit work to the Advocate similar guidance.
“Often, submitting to a literary magazine feels like you’re sending something into a void,” Meeks says. “And I really wanted as much as possible, as much as it was manageable timewise, to make sure that people were getting some feedback.”
Like Meeks, Wikstrom and Doan-Nguyen are also members of campus publications. Wikstrom is the former editorial chair of The Crimson, and Doan-Nguyen is a Crimson News and Magazine Editor.
Wikstrom, who was the Vice Youth Poet Laureate of Oakland in high school for her spoken word poetry, says she loved spoken word poetry in high school because of its capacity to spark action. At Harvard, she saw The Crimson’s Editorial Board as another way to speak out about important issues.
“It’s a really interesting middle ground for creative writing, because you do have the commitment to factual accuracy,” she says. “But you also have more leeway than perhaps news to be injecting your personal voice. And also that urgency of, ‘I feel very strongly about this. And other people should feel strongly about this, too.’”
Unlike Heiser-Cerrato, Atefat-Peckham wasn’t drawn to any existing organization on campus. Though he attended Interlochen and succeeded in highly selective contests while in high school, Atefat-Peckham disagreed with the cutthroat, commodifying incentive structure and believed campus literary organizations like the Advocate and Lampoon were too selective.
When Atefat-Peckham returned to campus after the pandemic, he helped form the Harvard Creative Writing Collective, a non-competitive home for creative writing on campus.
Liu is a member of the Creative Writing Collective and the Advocate. But most of his writing at Harvard has been independent. Instead of writing for competitions, Liu says he’s transitioned to writing for himself.
And though Doan-Nguyen is not sure what he wants to do after college, he — along with Liu, Meeks, Heiser-Cerrato, Wikstrom, and Duane — is sure writing will play a role in it.
“It’s a big part of my life and always has been, and I think it’s made me see so much about the work that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise if I didn’t put my pen to paper,” says Doan-Nguyen.
“I know that no matter what I end up doing, whether that’s going to law school or journalism or just doing nonprofit work, I will always be writing. Writing and writing and writing.”
Correction: February 13, 2024
A previous version of this article included a misleading quote attributed to Ryan Doan-Nguyen.
— Magazine writer Cam N. Srivastava can be reached at email@example.com.
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