2023 David McCullough Essay Prize

David McCullough in front of a student-painted American flag at Trinity School..

David McCullough at Trinity School in Manhattan, October 15, 2019

The Gilder Lehrman Institute is pleased to announce the launch of the 2023 David McCullough Essay Prizes, recognizing outstanding high school student research essays with cash prizes of up to $10,000. This contest is named for David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and life member of the Gilder Lehrman Institute Board of Trustees, and honors his career telling America’s stories and examining its histories.

Students in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade in our National Academy of American History and Civics and our Student Advisory Council and awardees of the Richard Gilder History Prize for 2022–2023 are eligible and encouraged to participate. They are invited to submit an original essay, written independently or for a 2022–2023 class, that has been revised, expanded, and adapted to conform with the McCullough Prize specifications.

All participants will receive a certificate of participation suitable for framing. Prize winners will receive cash awards as follows:

  • 1st Prize: $10,000 (plus a $500 prize awarded to the school)
  • 2nd Prize: $5,000 (plus a $500 prize awarded to the school)
  • Nine 3rd Prizes: $1,000 each

To be considered for the David McCullough Essay Prizes, students, or their teachers or parents, can submit their entry by 8:00 p.m. ET on Friday, June 16, 2023. The entries will be reviewed by a panel of Gilder Lehrman master teachers who will choose the pool of finalists, from which a jury of eminent historians will choose the winners. Essays will be evaluated for their historical rigor, the clarity and correctness of their style, their use of evidence, and their qualities of empathy and imagination. Winners will be notified and announced no later than Friday, September 15, 2023.

Essay Requirements

  • Word Count: The essay should be approximately 1,500–2,500 words. (This word count does not include footnotes, endnotes, or citations.) Essays will be judged on the quality of argument and depth of research, so a longer essay is not necessarily a better one!
  • Font and Page Style: Papers should be submitted in 12-point, Times New Roman font with one-inch margins at the top, bottom, and sides. Essays should be free of teacher commentary or other notes.
  • Primary Sources: Essays must focus on a primary source document in American history from 1493 to 2000, with a copy of that document attached as an appendix. Top essays will focus on this and other primary source documents (letters, photographs, broadsides, etc.) as the basis for affirming their theses.
  • Secondary Sources: Top essays will use scholarly secondary sources beyond the textbook. Textbooks can be referenced only for general background information.
  • Organization: Top essays have an introduction, body, and conclusion and a clearly stated, well-developed thesis statement with supportive historical evidence. 
  • Essay Topics: Essays can be on any topic related to American history from the late 1400s to 2000. 
  • Citations: The best essays have clear, complete, and consistent citations. Students must document their sources and evidence using one of the following three formats: MLA, APA, or Chicago Manual of Style.
  • Bibliography: Each essay must include a bibliography listing all sources, dividing the bibliography between primary and secondary sources.
Submissions for this year’s contest are now open.

Past Winners

2020 Contest Winners

Read the twelve prize winners, selected from more than 200 rising 11th and 12th grade students' entries.


2021 Winners

Read the twelve prize winners, selected from more than seventy rising 11th and 12th grade students' entries.

2022 Contest Winners

Read the eleven prize winners, selected from more than seventy rising 11th and 12th grade students' entries.

Follow in the steps of these winners and submit your entry today!