For students looking to showcase their academic abilities, essay competitions from Oxford and Cambridge are a great way for students to bolster the personal statement. Some competitions even offer fantastic prizes such as scholarships to summer programmes or money.

To help you along the ways we’ve collated a selection of essay competitions to enter, that are hosted by Oxford or Cambridge.

Robinson College – Cambridge (Subject: Course-Wide)

2021’s competition will be announced in June. The competition is open to all students currently in Year 12 (Lower Sixth, or equivalent) at a UK School. Designed showcase their writing skills, the competition give students the experience the type of work that they might be expected to do at Cambridge

Here were the essay questions from 2020:

Discuss, with reference to any academic discipline, any area of interest raised by one of the following quotations/ questions:

1. “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” (Benjamin Franklin) Do you agree?

2. Does the theory of evolution by natural selection tell us anything interesting about how we should live?

3. Watch the following TED talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story. TED Global. (2009) Available online via: What are novels for? Answer in light of the TED talk and any one or two text(s) you have read recently. 

4. “A true war story is never moral. […] If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever.” (Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, 1990). Write about any piece of war literature or art about war in light of O’Brien’s claim. 

5. There is no such thing as ‘untranslatable’. Discuss.

Girton College – Cambridge (Subject: Humanities)

2021’s competition date has not yet been announced. Typically the college is looking for a competitor’s ability to connect different areas of knowledge, to think about details and to communicate clearly.

The prize fund, consisted of £200 cash and £200-worth of books from Cambridge University.

Fitzwiliam College – Cambridge (Subject: Archaeology)

2021’s competition date is scheduled to be announced in February. The prize fund was £400 with a first prize of £300 and highly commended applicants being awarded a £25 book voucher.

Past questions: What are the challenges in reconstructing cultural identities from the archaeological record? How does reconstructing diet help us understand past societies?

Oriel College – Oxford (Subject: Philosophy)

2021’s competition date is still to be announced. The competition aims to encourage students to consider applying to study Philosophy, either at Oxford or at another university, by giving them some experience of the type of work involved.

Past questions: Is anything special about the present moment? Can one be mistaken about one’s own state of mind? Which is more important in determining the wrongness of a person’s action: the person’s intentions or the action’s effects?

Trinity College – Cambridge (Subject: Philosophy)

2021’s competition has been announced, the deadline is 31st May. The aim of the competition is to encourage students to pursue their interest in Philosophy. The competition carries a First Prize of £600 and a Second Prize of £400.

Current question: What do we owe to each other? Does social media make us less lonely, or more? Must we want to be happy?

2021’s competition has been announced, the deadline 10 March. However, the Medicine Prize has a later deadline of 5 May. Each essay has slightly different rules so see the website for more information.

The college also runs the annual ‘Woolf Essay Prize’ with questions inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

St. Hughs College – Oxford (Subject: History)

2021’s competition has been announced, the deadline is July. The choice of historical subject is left to candidates and essays should be between two thousand and four thousand words. The Prize, worth up to £500.

Trinity College – Cambridge (Subject: History)

2021’s competition will been announced on 1st March. The aims of the Robson Prize are twofold: firstly, to encourage ambitious and talented Year 12 or Lower Sixth students considering applying to university to read History or a related discipline; and secondly, to recognise the achievements both of high-calibre students and of those who teach them. The competition carries a First Prize of £600.


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