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Demystified: Essay competitions

Entering an essay competition may not be the first thing you think of whilst in medical school. You come home exhausted from lectures, or being used as a doorstop on placement and all you want to do is stare mindlessly at Netflix.

But essay competitions are surprisingly fun and easy - with the added reward of a possible cash prize and a bump on your CV. Medical students are open to a wide range of essay competitions and not only are they not as competitive as one might initially think, they also give you the opportunity to improve upon your writing, research and critical analysis skills. If you enjoy writing or are interested in a certain area of medicine, or perhaps just want to bulk up your CV a bit, you might want to enter an essay competition.

You can find a list of websites which hold annual essay competitions for UK medical students here. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Almost every medical society will offer essay competitions: Google is your friend.

How do I decide which competition to enter?

1. There are typically two types of essay competitions you can enter.

The first type require you to ‘discuss,’ ‘explore’ or ‘argue’ a statement. This requires you to first read through the literature to gain knowledge and understanding of the topic, and then to use your critical analysis skills to argue your point for or against the statement.

The second type of essay prize is more clinical in nature. These essays may ask you to write about your experiences in certain specialties or to offer a suggestion about how you think a certain specialty could be improved, or perhaps may change in the next decade. These essays tend to require more original and creative thought and some students may find these easier.

2. How much time you are willing to spend researching and writing your essay?

Most people make this judgement based on the value of the essay prize. For example, you might be willing to spend more time writing an essay for a competition that offers a prize of £1000 compared to one that offers £300. Remember, whichever prize you win, they will both look good on your CV.

The other main factor which will determine how much time you spend upon your essay will be the word count. This will give you a general idea of the amount of depth and research that will be expected from you. On the other hand, some people may struggle with smaller word counts as it can be difficult to condense your writing and still make it good.

How do I start planning my essay?

So, you’ve found an essay competition which you want to enter and are ready to go. Before you start, you should consider making a rough outline of what your essay will cover and how it will start and finish. This may be difficult if you are writing about a topic which you first need to research, in which case you may wish to go back to your framework and build upon it as your research expands. It is always best to start with a basic framework which you can then build upon.

As with any essay, it is best to start with a Introduction, Main Body and Conclusion.

Your introduction should contain a brief synopsis of what your essay is planning to cover, or perhaps a question which it aims to answer. A short, succinct and thought-provoking introduction is always best; this is how you grip your readers’ interest. Some people prefer to write their introduction once they have finished the rest of their essay. You can expand upon what your main body will contain once you do some reading. Your conclusion, as with your introduction, needs to be short and concise. It should condense the main points of your essay into a way that is easy for the reader to read and understand. You could end on a question or suggestion of where you think this topic should go next, or what you think the future holds.

Once you have this basic Introduction -> Main Body -> Conclusion framework, you may wish to jot down some ideas that instantly come into your head when you read the essay title. Essay titles as a whole tend to be stimulating and emotive; they ask for an argument or a point of view from the writer. Undoubtedly when you first read the essay title, hundreds of thoughts will race through your mind about what you could write about and how you feel about this topic. Write them all down on a blank piece of paper. This will help you later both when you start researching your essay and when you start writing it. An example of this framework with ideas pre-research can be found at the end.

Lastly, remember to read the essay title. If it asks you to discuss certain topics, then only discuss those. If it asks you to argue, use your skills or critical analysis to argue your point across. Do not go into unchartered territories and lose your foundation.

How do I research my essay?

Every person is different when it comes to writing essays. This brief outline is just a way to get you started if you are struggling or haven’t written an essay in a long time. Do what works best for you.

Many people write their essays using this approach:

  • Basic Framework & Ideas (click here for a detailed example.)

  • Research

  • Edit/clarify direction of essay based on research

  • Condense research accordingly into set topics for Main Body

  • Write, argue and analyse

1. Research

Before you write an essay you need to know what you’re writing about. This is particularly relevant if you are offering an an opinion, argument or commentary. Your Essay Title will cover a specific topic. e.g. instead of the Management of Mood Disorders, it may specifically ask you about ECT. If it does open up a very general and wide-ranging topic, it is best to choose one specific area rather than try to cover everything: depth over breadth. This will also help to condense your research. It is easy to begin researching one thing and then end up in a completely different direction. It’s helpful to continually look back at your essay title throughout your research to keep you grounded.

Firstly, choose the area of interest which you will be researching. This may be given by the essay title (e.g. specifically around ECT) or one that you need to think of if the essay is particularly broad. Try to think of something that genuinely interests you; this will make your writing come across as more passionate and you will find it easier to research your essay and later write it.

Secondly, you want to get an idea of the recent debate around your area of interest. What do academics think about this? Have there been any recent controversies? Some people find it helpful to start by looking into systematic or literature reviews to get a general idea before diving deeper.

For most clinical and scientific essays, the databases listed below should help you find what you need. You should be able to gain access through an OpenAthens account provided by your medical school. If not, you can go to the librarian in one of your university libraries and ask about getting access to these databases.

Examples of Databases for Research

1. Cochrane Library (good for systematic reviews)

5. PsychINFO (good for Psychiatry/Psychology essays)

Once you’ve searched your topic in a couple of the databases, you will find numerous articles appear. One of the important skills that essay writing teaches you is how to sift through research to find what you need. You can do this by narrowing your search skills e.g. only for certain topics, or by sifting through abstracts and identifying the articles that are relevant from the ones which are not. At times you may come across a journal article which offers a new perspective or information which you wish to learn more about or are particularly interested in. In this case, references from that particular article can be very useful.

You’ve now found some articles related to your topic. You’ve read these articles and have found some themes emerging. You are beginning to get your own ideas about what your essay should be about and the direction it will take. Perhaps reading one of the articles has made you particularly passionate about a certain point of view. Start making a list of these themes and your thoughts around them. Also make sure you keep a note of the articles in a separate document; this will help with references later.

2. Edit/clarify direction of essay based on research

You’ve got some information together and hopefully are beginning to get an idea of what your essay will look like. Now, have a read through all the information you’ve gathered and you will begin to see the direction that your essay is taking. You can almost see your essay growing in front of your eyes. Hopefully you’ll feel a bit more confident now in writing your essay.

Remember that basic framework you created at the beginning? You might find it helpful to add into the Main Body what themes you intend to cover. For example, for the essay about ECT:

Main Body - What is ECT? Cover history & clinicians accounts based on books.

- Why is ECT so stigmatised? Talk about Media (give examples of One Flew over the Cuckoo Nest), lack of public knowledge - mention survey around public’s attitudes to ECT.

- Why do we still use ECT? Covers statistics, effectiveness compared to other treatment options.

- Past or Future? ECT as one of the best treatments in Psychiatry.

3. Start writing your essay.

Some people find it helpful to write for each theme separately using the research they have collated, and then bring all these themes together to flow nicely into an essay. This way you are breaking your essay down into manageable chunks.

Remember, don’t just copy and paste the information you have gathered from research articles. Not only is this plagiarism, it is also unlikely to get you that essay prize. Instead, think about the research you have read - what are some of the arguments against what you’re writing? Can you think of the flaws in your own arguments? Where has this research come from? Is it backed up with evidence or is it just someone’s opinion? What makes this person’s opinion more important than anyone else’s? This type of critical analysis is what makes a good essay.

To wrap this guide up: what makes a good essay?
  1. Answers the question/title - does not go off tangent.

  2. Wide range of research using literature/systematic reviews, original research and academic commentaries - clear understanding of the topic.

  3. Offers an opinion or argument i.e. not just descriptive.

  4. Critical analysis: Suggests how current research is flawed, problems with current ways of thinking etc.

  5. Creative/Original thought: Offers a new perspective, not just based on research. Offers insight into what the future may look like, what needs to change.

For a list of essay competitions targeted towards medical students, click here.

For our example framework (and initial ideas) of an essay, click here.


Article by Dr Gunjan Sharma; prizewinner of: 1. Royal Society of Medicine Student & Trainee Prize, Psychiatry Section 2016-2017 2. Medical Student Prize of the Faculty of Spiritual Psychiatry of the Royal College of Psychiatrists 2016 3. Medical Student Essay Prize of the Faculty of Forensic Psychiatry of the Royal College of Psychiatrists 2016 4. Careif Suicide Prevention Essay Prize 2014


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