Are Professional Competitions Worth It? Here's How To Decide

Professional competitions can solve the experience paradox, but not every competition is worth your time. Here's a few grading points.

There is a certain beauty to the system that makes competitions successful. You pay an entry fee and, after the organizer takes its cut, have your work judged by peers and potentially win a boost in credibility and market share as a result. This formula is so tried-and-true that many fields now host an overwhelming number of competitions. Entering them all would be a waste of time and money. So how do you choose which competitions to enter and which to ignore?

To find out, I reached out to writers, designers, and chefs who have made it through the competition circuit to offer some reflections on what made certain competitions worth their time.

Why To Enter A Competition

It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day struggles of running a company, and lose sight of the things that are actually rewarding and pride-producing. Professional competitions can be a potential solution to the experience paradox--a chance to get your creative work judged, seen, and installed on your CV, without having to work an unwanted job for the privilege. 

Enter competitions to help focus your work.

The right competitions, entered with the right motivation, can give you a better understanding of your own definition of success, and what you want to get out of the work you produce. The blog of the professional development arm of London’s Royal College of Art, FuelRCA, wrote about the narrowing and focusing effects of art competitions, with applications far outside the canvas: "Entering competitions makes you think very clearly about your work, what you want to be seen, and perhaps clarify what your practice is about and how you want it to develop."

Poet Andy Humphrey, a veteran of contest entries and judging, blogged about the value of poetry competitions for new writers. Not for the chance to win, not for the money, but to hone one’s skills at delivering product that is exactly to the standards of what is being asked:

(Competitions) demand work that is neatly laid-out, legible, well constructed, free of typographical errors, and suited to the requirements of the competition. If you are new writer, who has never submitted material to an editor or agent before, I heartily recommend entering a small competition.

Competitions can also help boost morale. It reminds everyone that they are doing good work that is worthy of recognition--especially if its for a staff favorite that didn't turn out to be a best-seller.

Which Competitions To Enter

Guess how much value comes out of a competition that costs zero dollars to enter? Besides the slim monetary rewards, you’re narrowing your odds by competing against everybody who has more time than money. And free competitions often have fewer rules than those that take their entrants’ needs more seriously.

Helen Yendall has entered her share of writing competitions, and she heartily endorses paying at least $5. It forces you to focus on what competition prizes or results matter most to your career aims. What's more, having your work picked as a winner in a no-cost, low-reward competition can sometimes mean you can’t use that work in better, more rewarding competitions from then on (always read the rules carefully). Paying good money means you’ll be much more likely to follow submission rules and hit your deadlines.

Only enter competitions with an entry fee and clear rules.

If you're using the competition to advance your career, or the stature of a small business, look for a competition hitting the sweet spot between amateur and professional requirements. That's the strategy used by Andrew Higgins, a fairly successful contestant on Musikpitch, who said in an email that, “The most recent ‘win’ I had required instrumentation, singing, narration, use of (three) alternate voices, a lyrical narrative, etc. Many commercial outfits would look at the complexity and resources involved and not see it as generating sufficient margin, whilst other amateurs or semi-professionals wouldn’t have the resources and creative ability to deliver on all those fronts.”

One more suggestion from a software developer: enter contests in specific markets--education, health, government--to learn how buyers and veterans in that specific industry think. The knowledge gained, even if you lose the competition, may help you land a job or a contract in the future.

When To Enter Competitions

Competitions are valuable in an inverse bell curve over the course of a career, says Herbert Berger, chef at London’s Michelin-starred 1 Lombard Street. For young chefs, it's about getting their name noticed and learning how competitions work (which can include getting to know who is influential in the industry). For established heads-of-kitchens, competitions are a way to increase stature.

Enter competitions when you’re new, or at the top of your game.

Even if the immediate result isn’t a prize, a commission, or an email from a headhunter, you’re building contacts, adding a line to your CV, and boosting your own morale, proving that your creative time is worth something. And putting in time in competitions in the early days of a new career generates clips and portfolio material that stands above the stuff you make in your free time, because you made this stuff under a deadline, under precise demands. It’s why clips tend to take precedence over impressive resumes in news hiring: clips prove that another editor managed to put up with you on a deadline, which is greatly encouraging to someone who puts up with people on deadline for a living.

What To Get Out Of Competitions, Even If You Lose

There’s often an assumption that the safe, the solid, the familiar is what will win at competition. Writer Helen Yendall disagrees, writing in an email that in most established, pay-to-enter writing competitions it's just the opposite. “Those that win are the stories or poems that take risks, that shock or surprise or amaze, or make the judges laugh.” They win because they stand out, Yendall says, “which may be well-written but are also forgettable.”

Find out exactly what makes your entry remarkable, forgettable, or somehow unacceptable. Look for contests that offer judges’ critiques, and even pay extra, if you can, to receive them. Set aside time to examine the top applications in the contest, maybe as much as you spend on your own.

Get feedback, above all else.

Sotware firm SOFTPRO GmbH entered Samsung’s Galaxy Note S Pen App Challenge, which sought apps utilizing the tablet/phone-hybrid Note’s stylus pen. SOFTPRO won the Popular Choice Award, but told the Digital Innovation Gazette that they gained real value from taking a look at other applications in the field, seeing whether their app pitch was appropriate, and inviting public social media feedback on a project that wasn’t a public release, and so a bit safer to hold up to scrutiny.

There are so many different varieties of competitions that it is impossible to offer advice on every permutation. My hope is that this serves as the most basic guide to get you started thinking about how and why to enter. And my advice about competitions boils down to an old adage: it's not about winning or losing, but how you play the game.

[Image: AISPIX by Image Source via Shutterstock]

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