Marine Corps Essay Contest

Deadline: 1 January to 30 April

The annual Chase Prize Essay Contest invites articles that challenge conventional wisdom by proposing change to a current Marine Corps directive, policy, custom, or practice. To qualify, entries must propose and argue for a new and better way of “doing business” in the Marine Corps. Authors must have strength in their convictions and be prepared for criticism from those who would defend the status quo. That is why the prizes are called Boldness and Daring Awards.


Prizes include $3,000 and an engraved plaque for first place, $1,500 and an engraved plaque for second place, and $500 for honorable mention. All entries are eligible for publication.

The contest is named for the late MajGen Harold W. Chase who believed that the Marine Corps’ strength and its usefulness to the country stemmed in large measure from its intellectual openness and from its ability to accept change. The Chase Contest was established in keeping with this philosophy. The monetary prizes are funded by support from Observer Media Group as well as continued support from the Chase family.


  • The contest is open to all Marines on active duty and to members of the Selected Marine Corps Reserve.
  • Manuscripts should be typewritten, double-spaced, and range in length from 1,500–2,000 words.
  • The text should be in Microsoft Word format and include a cover page with the title of the essay, author’s name and mailing address, and identification of the essay as a Chase Contest Entry.
  • The author’s name should not appear anywhere but on that cover page, but repeat the title on the first page of the essay.
  • Multiple entries are allowed; however, only one entry will receive an award. 
  • The Marine Corps Gazette Editorial Panel will evaluate and select the winning essay.
  • All entrants will be notified about the outcome of their entry.

Entries may be submitted via e-mail to [email protected].

You think you know something about leadership? Write about it. Is there a Marine Corps order, directive, or policy with which you take umbrage and think you have a better way of doing business? Write about it. These are just two of the topics of writing contests sponsored by the Marine Corps Gazette. If having your ideas published in the Gazette is not enough of an incentive for you to write, here is another: The winners of Gazette writing contests or Gazette-supported writing awards receive cash awards ranging from $500 to $5,000. Are you interested now?

While the Gazette has both writing contests and writing awards, the writing awards are separate and have different criteria than the contests.1 This article will focus on the three writing contests that are held throughout the year. In order to provide some transparency, I will also discuss how the Editorial Advisory Panel determines contest winners and how top articles are chosen by one panel member. I will then provide some hints (which are actually personal pet peeves in disguise) for writing your award-winning article.2

First I would like to provide a quick overview of the contests’ judges, the Gazette’s Editorial Advisory Panel. The Editorial Advisory Panel exists to provide the magazine’s editorial staff advice on the publication of controversial articles, as well as to assist with judging the writing contests and awards. The panel currently consists of 12 Marines from both enlisted and officer ranks. Most panel members are currently on active duty, but there are retired and Reserve Marines on the panel as well. The panel members’ combined time in service easily surpasses 200 years.

The Contests

The three annual contests are the Chase Prize Essay Contest, LtCol Earl “Pete” Ellis Essay Contest, and Gen Robert E. Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest. A quick synopsis of each contest can be found in Table 1. The Chase Prize Essay Contest is named after MajGen Harold Chase, who “firmly believed that the strength and usefulness of the Marine Corps depends, first and foremost, upon the frank, open exchange of ideas among leaders of all ranks.”3 Awards for this contest are known as the “Boldness and Daring Awards,” as they go to the essay that best challenges a Marine Corps directive, policy, custom, or practice. Authors are advised to have the courage of their convictions and be prepared to defend their ideas against those who would keep the status quo. The Gazette typically receives between 30 to 40 entries for this contest.

Table 1.

The newest contest is the LtCol Earl “Pete” Ellis Essay Contest. The topic of this contest changes from year to year and the purpose is to stimulate strategic thinking.4 Members of the Amphibious Capabilities Working Group join the Editorial Advisory Panel in choosing the contest’s winner. Note that this is the only contest open to anyone, civilian or military, and that the winner receives the largest amount of money of all of the contests. For the 2013 contest the Gazette received more than 35 entries.

Lastly, the Gen Robert E. Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest awards the essay that is most original in its approach to the various aspects of leadership, asking, “What does leadership mean to you and what are the ways and methods of being an effective leader of Marines?”5 For the 2012 contest the Gazette received nearly 100 entries. While enlisted Marines are always encouraged to enter any of the writing contests, this seems to be the one that many actively participate in.

Choosing the Winners

So how is a winning entry picked? Entries are sent in to the Gazette where the staff processes and, after the deadline, forwards them on to the panel members without the authors’ names. Along with all of the entries comes guidance on how to select the top entries. The guidance is based on which contest is underway and includes some standard criteria such as: Does the essay meet the intent of the contest? Is the entry original in thought? Would it be worth reading in 5 to 10 years? The panel is instructed to pick the top seven articles, but not to rank them. The panel is also asked to recommend whether each article should be published.

About 1 month after the deadline, the panel members meet aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico to select the winners. Those unable to physically attend are given the opportunity to telephone in and be part of the discussion. Prior to the meeting, each member sends in their top seven selections and the staff determines which are the overall top seven based on the members’ selections. Discussion commences on the top seven entries and at the end the members vote on their top three picks. The editor will usually ask if there are any entries that a panel member feels strongly about that should be included with the top entries. More discussion then ensues about the finalists. Once the discussion is complete, each panel member ranks their choices first, second, or third. The winner is based on the number of votes each entry receives. At that point the staff reveals the winning authors.

So how does each panel member choose his top articles? With 12 different panel members, there are probably 12 methods of choosing. Some members use a more systematic method of choosing their top picks than others. Surprisingly, when the discussion occurs, we all seem to focus on many of the same entries.

While there are many methods, this is what I do: After looking at an article’s title, I go to the end and give the notes section a quick review, as I am interested in seeing where and what the author is citing and how he is backing up his thoughts and assertions. Then, as I read, I primarily ask myself if the work meets the criteria for the contest. This is the first and most fundamental element of each paper, and I am not alone in focusing on this. After talking to multiple other panel members, one consistent theme emerged: Does the entry meet the contest’s criteria? A great example to illustrate this is the Chase contest, where authors are supposed to be bold and daring with their ideas. Is the idea in the essay bold? Is it daring? If it is not, the other criteria matter little.

After reading each article and considering the guidance, I group each article into one of four tiers. Tier 3 consists of those articles that do not meet the guidance or the contest’s theme. Now, this does not mean that an article is not worthy of publication, as some are. Tier 2 articles are those that are good, meet the contest’s theme, but may fall short in some areas. Many of these I typically recommend for publication as well. Tier 1 articles are exceptionally well written and clearly meet both the intent of the contest as well as all of the guidance. I also have a special tier for those articles that clearly are front runners and stand out above the rest. I call these the “Tier 1–plus” articles. Generally there are only a handful of these per contest.

When determining my top 7 articles, I start with the Tier 1–plus articles first. After that I look at my Tier 1 articles, and typically there are enough of those to fill out my roster. Normally I will have to take a second look at the Tier 1 articles and attempt to rack and stack them. Arguably at that point it is a very subjective process since they are all quality papers. Even if I disagree with an author’s viewpoint or argument, I always attempt to suppress my personal feelings and examine it from his point of view and the quality of his argument. Several times I have selected articles for my top seven because the argument was well written and logical, despite disagreeing with the author.

Dos and Don’ts6

The following are some guidelines to consider when writing your award-winning essay:

• Do

read the contest guidelines. No really. Better yet, conform to them. When the contest dictates a certain length paper, such as 1,500 to 2,000 words, follow those guidelines. Going over or under the prescribed length by 10 percent is one thing, but when I have to go through 100 articles in 1 month and a paper is 4,000 words (and poorly written), it tends to be classified as a Tier 3 article very quickly.

• Do not

rehash your master’s thesis or other required professional military education school paper. There are some very intelligent writers submitting some expertly written material, but it is fairly apparent when a writer has rehashed and edited down a paper. Typically the subject of the paper does not match neatly with the subject of the contest. It is almost as if the author is attempting to shoehorn his thesis to meet the contest criteria. One panel member said it best: “I expect more from these essays for both publication and top ranking. I appreciate the person cranking an essay out on his/her own time without the coercive effect of PME.” These entries also tend to have a bibliography attached to them. To me, that is a clear signal simply because so few entries have bibliographies.

• Do

cite material as necessary. If an author takes a fact, idea, or quotation from somewhere or someone else, that work should be cited. Careers have ended for academic plagiarism, yet it is so easy to avoid. Cite your work. Also, quality counts more than quantity. Does an article need dozens of citations for it to be good? No, and I am not the only one who believes this. Another panel member remarked, “If you need more than 20 footnotes in a 2000-word essay, are you really just doing a 10th grade book report from Encyclopedia Britannica? Original thought, please. Or use your research as the basis for your own thought.”

• Do

have someone read your article. Seriously. Having participated in the judging of various contests over the past 20 years, I have been shocked by the number of entries that have clearly not been read by someone else. I have found that this typically occurs in the Hogaboom Leadership contest. The guidance given to the panel by the Gazette staff is to disregard grammar and spelling issues since the staff will fix these prior to publication. Not to dissuade anyone from entering, but if you are submitting an article for a professional magazine, let alone a writing contest, the entry should be top notch. Again, another panel member said, “Proper spelling and grammar (especially for the junior Marines) DOES MATTER!! Nothing is more distracting from good content than blatant misspells and grammar mistakes.”

• Do not

blindly follow the Gazette writers’ guidelines recommendation to “write as you speak.” I personally do not fully agree with this guideline. Some people should simply not write as they speak. Writing well is an art and requires practice. With some entries, you can tell that the author is writing exactly as he speaks, which does not translate well to the written word. This goes back to having someone read your paper prior to submission.

• Do

be succinct in your writing. Clarify and condense your thoughts. Before you start writing, make an outline and ensure that the article follows a logical sequence. I was taught many years ago to tell readers what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. I look for the article’s thesis, which should be toward the beginning. The bulk of the article should then support that thesis and perhaps give a conclusion entailing a summary and any recommendations. The majority of articles follow this formula to some degree. A few, though, basically rant on and often have paragraphs that go down “rabbit holes” not supporting the main argument. Another panel member told me, “Spend less time introducing your argument and get on with it. Get to your thesis/argument. Most essays I have read could be cut by 20 percent-plus and still clearly communicate the argument.” If thoughts and paragraphs do not support the thesis, they should not be in the paper. The remedy for this is to critically edit your paper, or better yet, have someone else read it.

Why and What You Should Write

The primary intent of this article was to provide a little insight on the writing contests and what goes on behind the scenes. A secondary function was to showcase what the panel, or at least one member of it, looks for in award-winning entries. The panel would be overjoyed to have 10 to 20 Tier 1–plus-type entries from which to choose from in each contest. Having great authors write great articles on important topics improves the debate and moves it forward.

While there is no true formula to winning any of the contests, some writers are clearly better at figuring out what the panel wants to see. LtCol Mike Grice won contest after contest while on active duty. LtCol Jeffery Tlapa seems to have taken over that mantel. In 2013 alone, LtCol Tlapa won the Chase and the Ellis contests, receiving $8,000 dollars for writing approximately 5,000 words. Not a bad way to supplement your income. Do not be dissuaded from writing, thinking writers such as he will always win. Again, the panel has no clue as to the identities of the authors and there is fierce debate over the merits of those last few finalists.

The contests themselves are definitely not about the money (or at least they should not be); the prize money is merely an incentive to write. Advancing thoughts and ideas for the betterment of the Marine Corps should be the primary driver. LtCol Grice entered the contests, but was also a prolific author on a variety of topics outside of the contests as well. I enjoy reading LtCol Tlapa’s work and hope he will continue to write outside of the contests. The Marine Corps needs more writers like LtCols Grice and Tlapa, and they are out there. These are interesting times in innumerable ways and we need our best minds devising innovative solutions and moving issues forward in publications such as the Gazette.

One last remark on the contests: Most people I have approached and encouraged to write an article typically ask me, “What should I write about?” Write about something that you are passionate about. Your passion will come through in your writing. If you still have some writer’s block, take a look at the topics of the contests. Use the topics to generate ideas for your articles. If the deadline for that particular contest has passed, that simply means you have months to prepare for the next one. Good luck and I look forward to reading your work in future contests.


Maj Burgess is an artilleryman by trade and is currently the Assistant Fire Support Coordinator, 75th Ranger Regiment. He was previously an instructor at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One and has taught non-resident Expeditionary Warfare School for several years.


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