Live Deliberately Essay Contest

The Walden Woods Project is pleased to announce our 2023-2024 Live Deliberately Essay Contest Prompt:

“We, too, are out, obeying the same law with all nature. Not less important are the observers of the birds than the birds themselves.” – March 20, 1858, Journal, vol. X, Henry David Thoreau

Think about the role we play in nature in order to become more responsible stewards of Earth. We are often asked to consider how humans contribute to climate change, yet Thoreau’s quotation encourages us to see ourselves as part and parcel of the natural world, rather than removed from it. In 750 words or fewer, reflect on an experience that caused you to think differently about your relationship to nature, nature’s influence on you, and/or your influence on nature.

Essay Contest Information and Timeline

Each year, the Live Deliberately Essay Contest invites youth around the world, ages 14-18*, to consider a selected Henry David Thoreau quotation and accompanying prompt. Contestants are asked to write a thoughtful essay that uses personal experience and observation to demonstrate how that year’s quotation and prompt relate to their own lives and to the world around them. Like Thoreau, these young people use the power of their words to convey vivid stories, personal conviction and human compassion. The essay contest is typically open from mid-November to mid-February and the winners are announced in late April.

The contest has two age groups: 14-16 and 17-18*. One winner will be identified in each age group and will receive a $500 cash prize, plus an annotated edition of Walden, autographed by the book’s editor, Jeffrey S. Cramer, our Curator of Collections at  The Walden Woods Project’s Library. Essays may also be selected to receive Honorable Mention in each age group, which will be awarded with an autographed annotated edition of Walden.

For information about past contest winners and to read their essays, click here.

Download the Essay Contest Flyer for your students!

 *19-year-olds who are seniors in high school or the equivalent through homeschool or other program at the closing date of the contest (February 19, 2024) are also eligible to apply in the 16-18 age group. College students are not eligible.  



  • Submission: Essays should be submitted using the online form only. Please do not email or mail entries. Each participant can submit one entry for consideration (per year).  The youth or his/her/their adult sponsor (see below) can submit the essay.   
  • Deadline:The 2023-2024 Essay Contest Deadline is February 19, 2024. Entries received after 10:00AM EST. on that day will not be considered.   
  • Length: Essays should be no longer than 750 words. This is a maximum word count; if your response to the prompt can be clearly and powerfully communicated in fewer than 750 words, that is great.   
  • Eligibility: The contest is open to youth around the world. Youth must be at least 14 years and no older than 18* years of age when the contest closes on February 19, 2024. Past winners are not eligible to participate. *19-year-olds who are seniors in high school or the equivalent through homeschool or other program at the closing date of the contest are also eligible to apply in the 16-18 age group. College students are not eligible.  
  • Adult Sponsor: Each contestant who is 17 years of age or younger (on February 19, 2024) must have a teacher, club advisor, parent, or other adult sponsor.  The sponsor MUST review the contestant’s work prior to submission to ensure that it meets essay guidelines. By entering the sponsor’s information on the submission form, the contestant attests that his/her/their sponsor has reviewed the essay.   
  • Language: Essays should be written in English and represent the youth’s original work.  Youth are welcome to initially write the essay in their native language (if not English) but it must be translated into English for submission.   
  • Original Work: A teacher/sponsor can provide pre-writing activities and appropriate review, editing, and translation support, but the ideas, content, structure and style of the actual essay MUST come from the youth alone.   
  • Plagiarism and AI: Essays will be run through plagiarism and AI software. If either is detected, the essay will be disqualified.  
  • Titling Documents for Submission: To help us organize and manage the significant number of files that are submitted, please use the following guidelines when titling your document prior to submission. Essays that are not saved with this naming format will NOT BE ELIGIBLE for the contest.   
  • Name the file “LastnameFirstinitial2024”. For example, if your name is Sarah Walker your submission would be titled “WalkerS2024”.   
  • Please submit word files only! Files in other formats will not be eligible. 
  • Winners: A panel of reviewers selected by The Walden Woods Project will judge entries and will typically award one winner and a limited number of honorable mentions for each of the two age categories: 14-16 yrs and 17-18 yrs. The essay contest advisory board makes the final decisions and has the authority to offer awards in different configurations from the one just mentioned, including a potential determination of having no winner in a particular age group.  Winning essays and those receiving honorable mention will be featured on our website, alongside a brief profile and picture of the author.   
  • Prizes: The winner for each age group will receive a $500 cash prize, a certificate of recognition from The Walden Woods Project and a copy of Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, autographed by the book’s editor, Jeffrey S. Cramer, our Curator of Collections at The Walden Woods Project’s Library. The cash prize will come in the form of a check (in the US) or wire (outside of US). If the check expires or is lost, a $29 cancellation fee will be deducted from the total when the check is re-issued. Contestants who receive Honorable Mention will receive a certificate of recognition and an autographed copy of Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition.    

Evaluation Criteria:

Essays will be evaluated using the following criteria

  • Addresses PromptThe essay effectively takes into account, either literally or metaphorically, the entirety of the prompt. Please do not submit an essay that is being used as your “college essay.” If an essay does not make an earnest attempt to address the contest’s prompt, it will not be considered for review.  
  • Focus—The thesis/main message is clear and supported throughout. The essay does not stray from the main message.  
  • Organization & Structure—The essay is organized and well-structured. Author demonstrates command of grammar, spelling and mechanics.  
  • Voice/Originality—The essay uses a highly engaging and personal style. The author finds fresh or interesting ways to convey ideas. The author approaches the topic from a unique perspective.  
  • Evidence of Personal Reflection—The essay demonstrates that the author has genuinely explored the topic/question and how it relates to his/her/their own life. The essay reflects a depth in reflection.  


The Live Deliberately Essay Contest is guided by the talented members of the Essay Contest Advisory Board:

  • Abdullateef Abdul, lawyer, writer and former Live Deliberately Essay Contest winner
  • Julie Bastedo, high school English teacher in Orchard Park, NY, and Approaching Walden Alumna
  • Jeffrey Cramer, The Walden Woods Project’s Curator of Collections and resident Thoreau scholar
  • Lindsay Dent, high school English teacher in Atlanta, GA, and Approaching Walden Alumna
  • Zoë Pollak, The Walden Woods Project’s Curatorial & Education Assistant
  • Ellen Resnek, Classrooms Without Borders Educational Programs and Outreach Manager in Pittsburgh, PA, and Approaching Walden Alumna
  • Sarah Walker, The Walden Woods Project’s Education Director
  • Christie Wyman, elementary school teacher in Weston, MA, and Approaching Walden Alumna

Additionally, our contest is made possible by dozens of thoughtful volunteer reviewers each year.  If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer REVIEWER, please fill out this form.