Creative Writing Prize Winners

The Creative Writing Program awards a number of prizes annually to University of Pennsylvania students. See below for our most recent prize winners; previous winners are listed at the bottom of this page. Details on our 2022 prizes and how to submit work will be available on our website in early 2022.

Congratulations to the 2021 recipients of the Creative Writing Prizes:

The Peregrine Prize from the Academy of American Poets
Awarded to the best original poetry by a graduate student

Winner: Mir Masud-Elias

Contest judge Rachel Zolf writes: Masud-Elias’s poems “witness, record, survive” in a remarkable range of forms on the page. Traumatic pasts burst into the present space of the poem “like cutouts punched through with the anonymous charity of bullets,” reorienting the future and the reader’s consciousness at one and the same time.

The College Alumni Society Poetry Prize
Awarded to the best original poetry by an undergraduate student

Winner: Sofia Sears

Contest judge Rachel Zolf writes: Sears has a remarkable facility with imagery, diction, the line, and “ point of light-stunned pressure—.” The reader viscerally feels the poet’s uncanny thoughts leaking through their body and carving into the white page, working “language as beloved blade beneath the pillow.” Sears is a real, rare talent to watch and listen to.

Second Place: Daniel Cooper

Contest judge Rachel Zolf writes: Cooper’s poems are like tiny uncut diamonds refracting weird and surprising language moments with each turn toward the light. The body and its beautiful betrayals dwell in Cooper’s tight lines, gathering toward poems replete with love. Poems that are easy to love, indeed.

Third Place: Pamela de la Cruz

Contest judge Rachel Zolf writes: The images in de la Cruz’s poems will haunt me for a long while. I love their work with the period as violent caesura. I want to read more from this writer’s beautiful mind.

Honorable mentions: Walden Green, Erin O’Malley

Contest judge Rachel Zolf writes: Both of these writers work with the body and its excesses in fascinating ways. Look forward to hearing more words come spilling out of them.

About the judge: Rachel Zolf has published six books of poetry, including a selected poetry entitled Social Poesis. No One’s Witness: A Monstrous Poetics is forthcoming with Duke University Press in fall 2021. They have won a Pew Fellowship in the Arts and a Trillium Book Award for Poetry, among other honors. Films Zolf has written and/or directed have shown internationally at venues including White Cube Bermondsey, the Wexner Center for the Arts, and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. They are Artist in Residence at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.


The Phi Kappa Sigma Fiction Prize
Awarded to the best original short story by an undergraduate student

A note from contest judge Weike Wang: Judging a fiction award is always hard.  For this year’s PKS fiction prize, I judged our submissions based on the strength of the prose itself and the story’s follow through. I was looking for voices that showed coherency, clarity, and a unique lens without overexertion.

Winner: Jessica Bao, “Chang’e”

Contest judge Weike Wang writes: The story follows Connie in the moments after the score release for the most important exam that she will ever take in her life. In the hands of a different writer, the score itself would have been the climax or ending, yet here it is event one from which the rest of the narrative unfurls. In a few concentrated pages, we are given a glimpse into Connie’s world, both online and at home. We are allowed in but also held at arm’s length. Bao shows restraint and an ability to orient us quickly without weighing us with bulk. She is a promising stylist who is able to balance complex relationships, tensions, and the unknown alongside fate.

Second Place: Emma Blum, “Pastoral”

Contest judge Weike Wang writes: I was moved by the first scene—that of a girl decapitating a chicken. Annie lives with her father and two brothers. Mom is gone, and Annie’s youth is under threat. The men in this setting are not malicious per se, but they intrude, follow, and make their demands known. Yet Annie is never without her agency or indelible presence. Blum writes with simple elegance and takes on character ambiguities in a refreshing and smart way. Here is a story that was gripping, and had a complete arc from first scene to last. 

Third Place: Michelle Paolicelli, “At the Apsis”

Contest judge Weike Wang writes: In these pages, I found a coherent and compelling voice that captured the teeming mind of a young adult. Melissa is still adjusting to high school but is an avid science whiz and admirer of the cosmos. She is trying to make sense of the adults around her—her mother with the new boyfriend, her teachers, other parents, and the celebrity astronomers whom she has long followed. How can these adults ever compare to the celestial beauty of planets? To the mysteries of the universe? I was drawn into the story by the ease of the writing and Paolicelli’s distinct eye for details. 

Honorable Mentions: Dylan Cook, Pearl Liu, Jack Kiyonaga

About the judge: Weike Wang is the author of Chemistry (Knopf, 2017), and her work has appeared in Glimmer Train and The New Yorker, among other publications. She is the recipient of the 2018 Pen Hemingway, a Whiting award, and a National Book Foundation 5 under 35.  She holds a BA from Harvard University, an SD from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, and an MFA from Boston University.


The Judy Lee Award for Dramatic Writing
Awarded to a graduate or undergraduate student for the best script (stage, screen, television, or radio)

Winner: Sofia Sears, “I Know the End”

Contest judge Brooke O'Harra writes: This one-act play packs a punch. The work has an explosive and dynamic quality. The performance piece calls attention to what Sears names as the violences and transcendences of girlhood. Set in LA and considered through archetypes culled and formed from the writer's own Latinx roots, this work is powerful and exciting. One can imagine this work alive on a stage. The language is beautiful and full. The writer is also very clear about they imagine this play/performance to be performed.   

Second Place: Kate Kearns, “Difficult Discussion #42”

Contest judge Brooke O'Harra writes: Well-constructed one-act theater script that imagines a future where the government assigns difficult discussion practices for families. The writer employs humor, undermines tropes and delivers a thoughtful unexpected ending. It is a playful and astute way of addressing how people talk about sex when they are engaging in sex. The script is a thoughtful take on consent conversations.  

Third Place (tie): Edmund Cai, “Rust”

Contest judge Brooke O'Harra writes: This screenplay is a futuristic drama/thriller. The strengths of the work are in the tempo, the dialogue and the world building. The “viewer” is introduced to an unfamiliar future through two characters—one who is trying to save or change the future and one who has no memory. This helps ease the viewer into this unknown world. This is of the sci-fi genre. The judge would watch this show. 

Third Place (tie): Keely Douglas, “May I Write Words”

Contest judge Brooke O'Harra writes: In this one-act play Douglas writes a queer coming-out story.  The dialogue is tight and the story moves quickly. This play also has a nice ending that circles back around to the beginning. It mostly focuses on the love of family but how hard truths don't get told to the people you love most.  

About the judge: Brooke O'Harra is a director, artist and performer. Cofounder of the Theater of a Two-headed Calf, O’Harra developed and directed all 14 of Two-headed Calf’s productions, including the OBIE Award-winning Drum of the Waves of Horikawa (2007 HERE), Trifles (Ontological Hysteric Incubator 2010), and the opera project You, My Mother (2012 La Mama ETC, 2013, River to River Festival). O’Harra conceived, directed, scripted, and performed in the Dyke Division’s live serial Room for Cream (fur seasons; 28 episodes) at La Mama, ETC 2008-10, and at the New Museum 2017. Brooke and the Dyke Division were also featured in The New Museum’s 40th Anniversary show “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon.” For several years she has been creating and performing a nine-part directing/performance project, I am Bleeding All Over the Place: Studies in directing or nine encounters between me and you. Brooke is also the cocreator of a collaborative performance with artist Sharon Hayes called Time Passes, an 8-hour performance that uses the book-on-tape recording of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as its spine. 


The Lilian and Benjamin Levy Award
Awarded to the best review by an undergraduate student of a current play, film, music release, book, or performance

Winner: Jessica Bao, “Me and You and Everyone We Know: The Weirdest ‘Rom-Com’ You Will Watch This Year”

Contest judge Anthony DeCurtis writes: Jessica Bao takes the occasion of writing about Miranda July's first major studio production to discuss the various taboo issues the film addresses. In clear, engaging, unpretentious prose, she works through the movie's themes with insight and sensitivity. No trigger warnings are needed, as Bao makes clear that life is messier, more complex and often lovelier than such easy characterizations would suggest. It's a message worthy of her subject.

Second Place: Lauren Reiss, “Titus Andronicus in the Text, the East, and the West”

Contest judge Anthony DeCurtis writes: Lauren Reiss coolly explores presentations of Shakespeare’s most blood-curdling play across media and cultures. Her deft analysis reveals how even the most extreme of the Bard’s plays proves endlessly mutable, retaining its powerful essence while artist after artist, and society after society, discovers meaning in them that suits their variable places, times and methods.

Third Place: Beatrice Forman, “The Nickel Boys: A Novel for the Revolution”

Contest judge Anthony DeCurtis writes: As Colson Whitehead did himself, Beatrice Forman considers his harrowing novel The Nickel Boys squarely within the context of current events. The result is a piece whose understanding of the book is charged with conviction. For Forman, the history limned in the novel is lived and immediate—and, consequently, her writing pulses with animating energy. 

About the judge: Anthony DeCurtis is the author of Lou Reed: A Life and coauthor of Clive Davis’s autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life, a New York Times bestseller. He is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a member of the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is a Grammy Award winner and he holds a PhD in American literature. He has taught at Penn since 2002.

The Gibson Peacock Prize for Creative Nonfiction
Awarded to the best creative nonfiction piece by an undergraduate student

Winner: Andrew Basile, “The Narcissism of the Personal Essay”

Contest judge Marion Kant writes: A remarkable piece that delves into the use of “I.” This “I” is initially a necessary means to examine a state of being but then gains a life of its own: it dictates and unhinges the owner of the “I” who loses control over it. The “I” takes on a male identity, becomes aggressive and colonizes the owner who longs for and needs to find a different way of life. A very well crafted piece that employs a remarkable precision of language that then unleashes a terrifying power of imagination.

Second Place: Wanqi Fang, “Anatomy”

Contest judge Marion Kant writes: It is incredibly difficult to write about the human body, about its anatomy, its physicality, its mechanics and the way it functions, or should function. This essay engages with the beauty of a hand, the texture of skin, and the author succeeds in conveying her fascination with her own obsession and her attempt to capture this beauty on paper, both by drawing as well as writing. The author manages to find ever new ways to write about the tendons and muscles of the hand, and of capturing what makes a body human. It is an unusual choice that departs from the many essays about feelings and feelings about feelings.

Third Place: Jillian Pesce, “CS 200 Spring 2021: Problem Set 4, DUE 11:59 pm March 8th” 

Contest judge Marion Kant writes: A computation exercise in gender equality—or rather inequality—that manages to record and, up to a certain point, entertain (in a sardonic way) and capture the disturbing, touching and also distressing aspects of the constant onslaught of misogyny. It is precise, it follows a distinct format, that of a scientific investigation, and turns it into a literary form. It is successful in transcending the individual experiences as it lays them out as systematic, unthinking remarks as well as conscious insults and denigrations that are intent on undermining the self-confidence of young women.

Honorable Mention: Jessica Bao, “Conflict of Interest”

Contest judge Marion Kant writes: This is the exploration of how to deal with bias, extreme bias, and preconceived ideas in journalism. The writer describes the process of gathering and examining evidence, wanting to be even-handed and fair in a report on the Hong Kong protests—and the difficulty of it all. How does someone who writes for a magazine or newspaper maintain integrity of her own position yet also afford integrity to the opposite side? The problem of open-mindedness, of the depiction and assessment of Chinese politics, is at stake, and the author realizes how difficult and how dangerous it could become, for herself as well as for her interviewees, to reveal which side she and they take. She realizes that she cannot write the article and that “freedom of speech” is an evasive concept. She is not free and goes as far as to question whether she can ever become a real writer.

Honorable Mention: Urooba Abid, “The worst view in the world”

Contest judge Marion Kant writes: An account of traveling to Israel and the Palestinian town of Bethlehem by a Muslim student whose family emigrated to the US only recently. The awareness of fear and anger at the abusive treatment of Palestinians and Muslims more generally in Israel, but also the feeling of displacement and disengagement within the Muslim world is well captured. Can American Muslims hide their identity abroad, are they more or less “Muslim” at home or elsewhere? The essay is driven by discomfort and sadness.

About the judge: Marion Kant is a musicologist and dance historian (PhD, Humboldt University: Romantic Ballet: an Inquiry into Gender). From the age of 14 she danced with the Komische Oper under the choreographer Jean Weidt. There she also worked as a dramaturge. She has taught at the Regieinstitut Berlin, Hochschule fuer Musik/Theater Leipzig, the University of Surrey in Guildford, Cambridge University, King's College London, and now at the University of Pennsylvania. She has written extensively on romantic ballet in the 19th century, education through dance in the 19th and 20th centuries, concepts of modern dance in the early 20th century, and dance in exile.


The Parker Prize for Journalistic Writing
Awarded to the best newspaper or magazine article, feature story, exposé or other piece of investigative journalism by an undergraduate student 

Winner: Kylie Cooper, “Searching for the light at the end of the tunnel”

Contest judge Lise Funderburg writes: In this colorful temp-check feature story, Kylie Cooper makes a timely choice to report on the 2020 post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 virus spike and how it affects rail travel. She opens with a richly detailed scene of Amtrak’s 30th Street Station waiting room, artfully focusing and then refocusing the lens of observation until she lands—and lands her reader—in the middle of the pandemic. It would be easy for even a seasoned reporter to be overwhelmed by such an immense subject, but Cooper makes wise choices for establishing the scope of her piece, fluidly folding together well-reported traveler interviews with health statistics, industry responses, and the financial hit that Amtrak has taken.

Second Place: Rachel Winicov, “My Friend BPD: How a Disease Ruins Friendships, Especially in Young People”

Contest judge Lise Funderburg writes: Health writing can so easily be bogged down by science or made mushy by over-reliance on anecdote, but Rachel Winicov succumbs to neither pitfall in her feature story on Borderline Personality Disorder. In this ambitious, well-structured piece, Rachel opens with an arresting anecdote and then fluidly widens the lens to give readers a larger scientific and psychological context for understanding a particular ramification of the disorder, including the implications of the pandemic. Interviews with mental health professionals and people who have the disorder enrich the piece, as does a survey of current treatment modalities. Rachel’s inclusion of her own experience adds another, welcome dimension that amplifies but does not overwhelm.

Third Place: Beatrice Forman, “For Safe Injection Sites, COVID-19 Offers a New Beginning”

Contest judge Lise Funderburg writes: For a reported feature on the relationship between social service providers and their communities, Beatrice Forman takes on Philadelphia’s highly controversial issue of safe injections sites, an issue that has become more complicated in the time of COVID-19. Beatrice provides context for her story by looking at local and national addition trends, as well as a longstanding aversion of people with addiction when it comes to engaging with institutions. The choice to focus on community responses to the issue, and the considered questions raised about whether communities are adequately considered, make this a provocative think piece.

About the judge: Lise Funderburg teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania and leads writing workshops around the world. She the author of the bestselling memoir Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home, a contemplation of life, death, race, and barbecue. She also authored the groundbreaking oral history Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity, recently released in a 20th anniversary edition. Lise’s latest book is Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents, a collection of 25 original essays she commissioned and edited. Lise's essays have appeared in The New York Times, Chattahoochee Review, Cleaver, Broad Street, National Geographic, TIME, and Brevity, among other publications.


Past Contest Winners

2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001