If you’re a young, opinionated, and politically aware high school student who resonates strongly with democratic values and wants to further them, then you should consider applying for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Youth Scholarships. VFW, through essay competitions, disburses approximately $2 million in scholarships annually. We believe participating in — and potentially winning — these competitions would reflect strongly on your profile, especially if you plan on studying political science or a related field, plan on pursuing a career in policy, or intend on attending military college.
What is the VFW?
VFW is a U.S. non-profit organization dedicated to caring for overseas veterans of all branches of military service. The organization has spearheaded legal battles to ensure medical aid for veterans and educational support for their families. They have championed the causes of veterans who served in the Vietnam War and for those who suffer from Gulf War Syndrome. The VFW’s core values include promoting patriotism, honoring military service, caring for veterans and their families, and serving communities.
What is the VFW scholarship all about?
The VFW’s flagship scholarship for high school students is its annual Voice of Democracy audio essay competition that encourages students to express themselves through a “democratic and patriotic-themed” recording. The VFW commander-in-chief chooses the essay topic. The essay recording must be in English, between three and five minutes long, and you cannot sing, dance, or use sound effects. The content of your essay, your background, and the clothes you wear must not identify you in any way.
If you win, VFW invites you to present your essay at the annual VFW Parade of Winners award ceremony, held in Washington D.C.
If you want an example of winning essays, check out “Why is the Veteran Important” by Scotland Stewart. Scotland, a sophomore at Franklin County High School in Winchester, Tennessee, won the award last year.
What is the scholarship amount?
The first-place winner receives $35,000. Additionally, the first-place winners from each VFW Department (there is one department in each U.S. state and VFW Departments in Japan and Germany) receive at least $1,000. In 2022-23, VFW recognized 53 recipients of the Voice of Democracy scholarship, with the second and third-place winners receiving $21,000 and $15,000 respectively. In total, VFW disburses over $1 million through the competition.
Is it prestigious?
Definitely! VFW is among the U.S.’ oldest, largest, and most recognizable organizations that care for veterans. The scholarship can benefit you greatly, especially if you choose a career path that is focused on international relations, policy, or similar subjects. Additionally, the total scholarship amount offered is significant ($1 million) and, as mentioned above, the winners receive large grants. The Voice of Democracy competition is competitive: it receives around 25,000 applications annually.
How much does it cost to apply?
Nothing! All you have to do is submit your application.
What is the eligibility criteria?
To apply, you must meet the following criteria:
Must be in high school between grades 9 and 12.
Must be aged 19 or younger
Must be a U.S. citizen or have permanent residence in the U.S.
When is the essay submission deadline?
VFW is currently accepting submissions. The deadline is October 31, 2023, so hurry if you want to be a part of this year’s cohort! You must download and save your essay onto a device such as a flash drive and present it at your local VFW Post.
The 2024 deadline will likely fall on a similar date.
What must I include in my submission?
To participate, you have to record an original, 3-5 minute patriotic and democratic-themed essay. For 2023-24, the essay topic is "What Are the Greatest Attributes of Our Democracy?" The recording and a typed transcript must be submitted to your local VFW Post, along with the completed entry form.
How is the essay judged?
Judges will evaluate your submission on a 100-point scale, broken down into three categories:
Originality. Here, judges will evaluate your imagination and the human interest element of your essay. It is worth 30 points.
Content: Judges evaluate how clearly you develop and express ideas in your essay and your ability to seamlessly transition between points and express yourself. It is worth 35 points
Delivery: Judges evaluate how well you speak while narrating the essay, worth 35 points
What are the pros and cons of taking part in the essay competition?
The scholarship is quite prestigious Winning the Voice of Democracy competition can add great value to your college application, depending on the college and subject you decide to study. For example, being a Voice of Democracy winner would be extremely valuable if you decided to go to military college, or pursue a major in public policy, international relations, etc.
A substantial scholarship amount You receive $35,000 for coming first in the essay competition, which is among the highest military scholarships available in the U.S. Placing second and third would get you $21,000 and $15,000 respectively.
Your family does not need to have a background in military service While there are many military scholarships available, a significant amount of them require a member of your family (usually a parent) to have served in the U.S. military
Minimal paperwork required to apply All you need to submit is a video recording of your essay, a typed version, and a filled entry form
The scholarship may have limited value if you choose a non-related field of study Beyond the military and policy-related fields, being a Voice of Democracy winner may not significantly benefit your college application. In that case, you can check out this list of essay competitions for high school and college students. Nonetheless, the Voice of Democracy scholarship would still add to your portfolio and demonstrate critical and independent thinking, and the ability to express your ideas clearly.
The submission process does not consider diversity and inclusion principles Contrary to most scholarships, which give weightage to a candidate’s lived experiences and the challenges they’ve faced, VFW does not encourage any attempt to express yourself and focuses solely on the content of your essay
The competition has a restrictive judging criteria By giving higher weightage to delivery, the selection criteria could discriminate against students for whom English is not a first language or who have a particular accent
The scholarship is competitive The competition receives 25,000 submissions annually and awards 53 scholarships of varying amounts. The selectivity and competitiveness is both a pro and a con, since while it adds prestige if you win, the chance of being successful is much lower!
Our Review of the VFW Scholarship - Should You Participate?
We like the scholarship for its high payout (up to $35,000), its hassle-free application process, and its accessibility relative to other military-linked scholarships. Winning the competition would demonstrate critical thinking and the ability to communicate clearly. Given its competitiveness, the prestige associated with winning would be significant. That being said, its value could be limited in a non-policy-related field and we find that the criteria by which the essay is judged could factor against applicants who come from underrepresented backgrounds and who face significant socio-economic hurdles, or who have not developed strong oratory skills.
What else does VFW offer for students?
In case you know someone in middle school who might be interested in VFW scholarships, then the Patriot’s Pen essay competition could be for them! VFW offers this essay competition exclusively to middle school students, encouraging them to write an essay that examines the U.S.’s past and contrasts it with modern American society. The essay must be between 300 and 400 words and the final topic is determined by the VFW commander-in-chief.
The competition’s winner receives $5,000 and the minimum scholarship granted is $500. The prize-giving is similar to the Voice of Democracy scholarship, i.e., VFW hands out a total of 53 scholarships. The competition is competitive and prestigious: the total scholarship amount is up to $1 million and nearly 69,000 students enter the contest annually.
Leighton Peters, a grade 7 student from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, won the first-place prize of $5,000 for her essay on the theme, “My Pledge to Our Veterans.”
The Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you are interested in doing university-level research, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.
Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students.
Kieran Lobo is a freelance writer from India, who currently teaches English in Spain.
Image Source: Voice of Democracy logo