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The Ultimate Guide to the John Locke Essay Competition

Humanities and social sciences students often lack the opportunities to compete at the global level and demonstrate their expertise. Competitions like ISEF, Science Talent Search, and MIT Think are generally reserved for students in fields like biology, physics, and chemistry.

At Lumiere, many of our talented non-STEM students, who have a flair for writing are looking for ways to flex their skills. In this piece, we’ll go over one such competition - the John Locke Essay Competition. If you’re interested in learning more about how we guide students to win essay contests like this, check out our main page.

What is the John Locke Essay Competition?

The essay competition is one of the various programs conducted by the John Locke Institute (JLI) every year apart from their summer and gap year courses. To understand the philosophy behind this competition, it’ll help if we take a quick detour to know more about the institute that conducts it.

Founded in 2011, JLI is an educational organization that runs summer and gap year courses in the humanities and social sciences for high school students. These courses are primarily taught by academics from Oxford and Princeton along with some other universities. The organization was founded by Martin Cox. Our Lumiere founder, Stephen, has met Martin and had a very positive experience. Martin clearly cares about academic rigor.

The institute's core belief is that the ability to evaluate the merit of information and develop articulate sound judgments is more important than merely consuming information. The essay competition is an extension of the institute - pushing students to reason through complex questions in seven subject areas namely Philosophy, Politics, Economics, History, Psychology, Theology, and Law​.

The organization also seems to have a strong record of admissions of alumni to the top colleges in the US and UK. For instance, between 2011 and 2022, over half of John Locke alumni have gone on to one of eight colleges: Chicago, Columbia, Georgetown, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale.

How prestigious is the John Locke Contest?

The John Locke Contest is a rigorous and selective writing competition in the social sciences and humanities. While it is not as selective as the Concord Review and has a much broader range of students who can receive prizes, it is still considered a highly competitive program.

Winning a John Locke essay contest will have clear benefits for you in your application process to universities and would reflect well on your application. On the other hand, a shortlist or a commendation might not have a huge impact given that it is awarded to many students (more on this later).

What is the eligibility for the contest?

Students, of any country, who are 18 years old or younger before the date of submission can submit. They also have a junior category for students who are fourteen years old, or younger, on the date of the submission deadline.

Who SHOULD consider this competition?

We recommend this competition for students who are interested in social sciences and humanities, in particular philosophy, politics, and economics. It is also a good fit for students who enjoy writing, want to dive deep into critical reasoning, and have some flair in their writing approach (more on that below).

While STEM students can of course compete, they will have to approach the topics through a social science lens. For example, in 2021, one of the prompts in the division of philosophy was, ‘Are there subjects about which we should not even ask questions?’ Here, students of biology can comfortably write about topics revolving around cloning, gene alteration, etc, however, they will have to make sure that they are able to ground this in the theoretical background of scientific ethics and ethical philosophy in general.

Additional logistics

  • Each essay should address only one of the questions in your chosen subject category, and must not exceed 2000 words (not counting diagrams, tables of data, footnotes, bibliography, or authorship declaration).

  • If you are using an in-text-based referencing format, such as APA, your in-text citations are included in the word limit.

  • You can submit as many essays as you want in any and all categories. (We recommend aiming for only one given how time-consuming it can be to come up with a single good-quality submission)

Important dates

Prompts for the 2023 competition will be released in January 2023. Your submission will be due around 6 months later in June. Shortlisted candidates will be notified in mid-July which will be followed by the final award ceremony in September.

How much does it cost to take part?

It’s free!

What do you win?

A scholarship that will offset the cost of attending a course at the JLI. The amount will vary between $2000 and $10,000 based on whether you are a grand prize winner (best essay across all categories) or a subject category winner. (JLI programs are steeply-priced and even getting a prize in your category would not cover the entire cost of your program. While the website does not mention the cost of the upcoming summer program, a different website mentions it to be 3,000 GBP or 3600 USD)

If you were shortlisted, most probably, you will also receive a commendation certificate and an invitation to attend an academic ceremony at Oxford. However, even here, you will have to foot the bill for attending the conference, which can be a significant one if you are an international student.

How do you submit your entry?

You submit your entry through the website portal that will show up once the prompts for the next competition are up in January! You have to submit your essay in pdf format where the title of the pdf attachment should read SURNAME, First Name, Category, and Question Number (e.g. POPHAM, Alexander, Psychology, Q2).

What are the essay prompts like?

We have three insights here.

Firstly, true to the spirit of the enlightenment thinker it is named after, most of the prompts have a philosophical bent and cover ethical, social, and political themes. In line with JLI’s general philosophy, they force you to think hard and deeply about the topics they cover. Consider a few examples to understand this better:

  • “Are you more moral than most people you know? How do you know? Should you strive to be more moral? Why or why not?” - Philosophy, 2021

  • “What are the most important economic effects - good and bad - of forced redistribution? How should this inform government policy?” - Economics, 2020

  • “Why did the Jesus of Nazareth reserve his strongest condemnation for the self-righteous?” - Theology, 2021

  • “Should we judge those from the past by the standards of today? How will historians in the future judge us?” - History, 2021

Secondly, at Lumiere, our analysis is that most of these prompts are ‘deceptively rigorous’ because the complexity of the topic reveals itself gradually. The topics do not give you a lot to work with and it is only when you delve deeper into one that you realize the extent to which you need to research/read more. In some of the topics, you are compelled to define the limits of the prompt yourself and in turn, the scope of your essay. This can be a challenging exercise. Allow me to illustrate this with an example of the 2019 philosophy prompt.

“Aristotelian virtue ethics achieved something of a resurgence in the twentieth century. Was this progress or retrogression?”

Here you are supposed to develop your own method for determining what exactly constitutes progress in ethical thought. This in turn involves familiarizing yourself with existing benchmarks of measurement and developing your own method if required. This is a significant intellectual exercise.

Finally, a lot of the topics are on issues of contemporary relevance and especially on issues that are contentious. For instance, in 2019, one of the prompts for economics was about the benefits and costs of immigration whereas the 2020 essay prompt for theology was about whether Islam is a religion of peace. As we explain later, your ‘opinion’ here can be as ‘outrageous’ as you want it to be as long as you are able to back it up with reasonable arguments. Remember, the JLI website clearly declares itself to be, ‘not a safe space, but a courteous one’.

How competitive is the JLI Essay Competition?

In 2021, the competition received 4000 entries from 101 countries. Given that there is only one prize winner from each category, this makes this a very competitive opportunity. However, because categories have a different number of applicants, some categories are more competitive than others. One strategy to win could be to focus on fields with fewer submissions like Theology.

There are also a relatively significant number of students who receive commendations called “high commendation.” In the psychology field, for example, about 80 students received a commendation in 2022. At the same time, keep in mind that the number of students shortlisted and invited to Oxford for an academic conference is fairly high and varies by subject. For instance, Theology had around 50 people shortlisted in 2021 whereas Economics had 238. We, at Lumiere, estimate that approximately 10% of entries of each category make it to the shortlisting stage.

How will your essay be judged?

The essays will be judged on your understanding of the discipline, quality of argumentation and evidence, and writing style. Let’s look at excerpts from various winning essays to see what this looks like in practice.

  1. Level of knowledge and understanding of the relevant material: Differentiating your essay from casual musing requires you to demonstrate knowledge of your discipline. One way to do that is by establishing familiarity with relevant literature and integrating it well into their essay. The winning essay of the 2020 Psychology Prize is a good example of how to do this: “People not only interpret facts in a self-serving way when it comes to their health and well-being; research also demonstrates that we engage in motivated reasoning if the facts challenge our personal beliefs, and essentially, our moral valuation and present understanding of the world. For example, Ditto and Liu showed a link between people’s assessment of facts and their moral convictions” By talking about motivated reasoning in the broader literature, the author can show they are well-versed in the important developments in the field.

  2. Competent use of evidence: In your essay, there are different ways to use evidence effectively. One such way involves backing your argument with results from previous studies. The 2020 Third Place essay in economics shows us what this looks like in practice: “Moreover, this can even be extended to PTSD, where an investigation carried out by Italian doctor G. P. Fichera, led to the conclusion that 13% of the sampling units were likely to have this condition. Initiating economic analysis here, this illustrates that the cost of embarking on this unlawful activity, given the monumental repercussions if caught, is not equal to the costs to society...” The study by G.P. Fichera is used to strengthen the author’s claim on the social costs of crime and give it more weight.

  3. Structure, writing style, and persuasive force: A good argument that is persuasive rarely involves merely backing your claim with good evidence and reasoning. Delivering it in an impactful way is also very important. Let’s see how the winner of the 2020 Law Prize does this: “Slavery still exists, but now it applies to women and its name in prostitution”, wrote Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. Hugo’s portrayal of Fantine under the archetype of a fallen woman forced into prostitution by the most unfortunate of circumstances cannot be more jarringly different from the empowerment-seeking sex workers seen today, highlighting the wide-ranging nuances associated with commercial sex and its implications on the women in the trade. Yet, would Hugo have supported a law prohibiting the selling of sex for the protection of Fantine’s rights?” The use of Victor Hugo in the first line of the essay gives it a literary flair and enhances the impact of the delivery of the argument. Similarly, the rhetorical question, in the end, adds to the literary dimension of the argument. Weaving literary and argumentative skills in a single essay is commendable and something that the institute also recognizes.

  4. Quality of argumentation: Finally, the quality of your argument depends on capturing the various elements mentioned above seamlessly. The third place in theology (2020) does this elegantly while describing bin-Laden’s faulty and selective use of religious verses to commit violence: “He engages in the decontextualization and truncation of Qur'anic verses to manipulate and convince, which dissociates the fatwas from bonafide Islam. For example, in his 1996 fatwa, he quotes the Sword verse but deliberately omits the aforementioned half of the Ayat that calls for mercy. bin-Laden’s intention is not interpretive veracity, but the indoctrination of his followers.” The author’s claim is that bin-Laden lacks religious integrity and thus should not be taken seriously, especially given the content of his messages. To strengthen his argument, he uses actual incidents to dissect this display of faulty reasoning.

These excerpts are great examples of the kind of work you should keep in mind when writing your own draft.

6 Winning Tips from Lumiere

  1. Focus on your essay structure and flow: If logic and argumentation are your guns in this competition, a smooth flow is your bullet. What does a smooth flow mean? It means that the reader should be able to follow your chain of reasoning with ease. This is especially true for essays that explore abstract themes. Let’s see this in detail with the example of a winning philosophy essay. “However, if society were the moral standard, an individual is subjected to circumstantial moral luck concerning whether the rules of the society are good or evil (e.g., 2019 Geneva vs. 1939 Munich). On the other hand, contracts cannot be the standard because people are ignorant of their being under a moral contractual obligation, when, unlike law, it is impossible to be under a contract without being aware. Thus, given the shortcomings of other alternatives, human virtue is the ideal moral norm.” To establish human virtue as the ideal norm, the author points out limitations in society and contracts, leaving out human virtue as the ideal one. Even if you are not familiar with philosophy, you might still be able to follow the reasoning here. This is a great example of the kind of clarity and logical coherence that you should strive for.

  2. Ground your arguments in a solid theoretical framework: Your essay requires you to have well-developed arguments. However, these arguments need to be grounded in academic theory to give them substance and differentiate them from casual opinions. Let me illustrate this with an example of the essay that won second place in the politics category in 2020. “Normatively, the moral authority of governments can be justified on a purely associative basis: citizens have an inherent obligation to obey the state they were born into. As Dworkin argued, “Political association, like family or friendship and other forms of association more local and intimate, is itself pregnant of obligation” (Dworkin). Similar to a family unit where children owe duties to their parents by virtue of being born into that family regardless of their consent, citizens acquire obligations to obey political authority by virtue of being born into a state.” Here, the author is trying to make a point about the nature of political obligation. However, the core of his argument is not the strength of his own reasoning, but the ability to back his reasoning with prior literature. By quoting Dworkin, he includes important scholars of western political thought to give more weight to his arguments. It also displays thorough research on the part of the author to acquire the necessary intellectual tools to write this paper.

  3. The methodology is more important than the conclusion: The 2020 history winners came to opposite conclusions in their essays on whether a strong state hampers or encourages economic growth. While one of them argued that political strength hinders growth when compared to laissez-faire, the other argues that the state is a prerequisite for economic growth. This reflects JLI’s commitment to your reasoning and substantiation instead of the ultimate opinion. The lesson: Don’t be afraid to be bold! Just make sure you are able to back it up.

  4. Establish your framework well: A paragraph (or two) that is able to succinctly describe your methodology, core arguments, and the reasoning behind them displays academic sophistication. A case in point is the introduction of 2019’s Philosophy winner: “To answer the question, we need to construct a method that measures progress in philosophy. I seek to achieve this by asserting that, in philosophy, a certain degree of falsification is achievable. Utilizing philosophical inquiry and thought experiments, we can rationally assess the logical validity of theories and assign “true” and “false” status to philosophical thoughts. With this in mind, I propose to employ the fourth process of the Popperian model of progress…Utilizing these two conditions, I contend that Aristotelian virtue ethics was progress from Kantian ethics and utilitarianism.” Having a framework like this early on gives you a blueprint for what is in the essay and makes it easier for the reader to follow the reasoning. It also helps you as a writer since distilling down your core argument into a paragraph ensures that the first principles of your essay are well established.

  5. Read essays of previous winners: Do this and you will start seeing some patterns in the winning essays. In economics, this might be the ability to present a multidimensional argument and substantiating it with data-backed research. In theology, this might be your critical analysis of religious texts.

  6. Find a mentor: Philosophical logic and argumentation are rarely taught at the high school level. Guidance from an external mentor can fill this academic void by pointing out logical inconsistencies in your arguments and giving critical feedback on your essay. Another important benefit of having a mentor is that it will help you in understanding the heavy literature that is often a key part of the writing/research process in this competition. As we have already seen above, having a strong theoretical framework is crucial in this competition. A mentor can make this process smoother.

Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’re looking for a mentor to do an essay contest like John Locke or want to build your own independent research paper, then consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. Last year over 2100 students applied for about 500 spots in the program. You can find the application form here.

You can see our admission results here for our students.

Manas is a publication strategy associate at Lumiere Education. He studied public policy and interactive media at NYU and has experience in education consulting.



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Eric Cartman
Eric Cartman
Jun 12, 2023

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