After several toilsome months of research and writing, graduating seniors are ready to reap the awards for their senior essays. But out of hundreds of students who have completed their essays this past year, only a handful will be formally recognized and rewarded for their work.

As some seniors apply for awards this month, they are discovering vast disparities in the number and size of essay awards given among the academic departments. Despite feeling relief after completing their essays, some seniors complained about small awards in traditionally esteemed departments, especially in the face of a grim job market and relentless student loans.

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Political science, for instance, is one of the biggest academic departments, with 186 graduating seniors, but it has just $500 to distribute to five seniors this year.

“The prizes seem so small,” political science major Mindy Lu ’09 said. While she said she had been unaware of the awards before the interview, she said they seemed “pretty inadequate.”

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said the disparity between departments concerning senior essay awards is nothing new.

“The history of these prizes has nothing to do with fairness,” Miller said. The value of a prize is determined by its endowment and the interests of its individual donors, she explained.

Miller added that an older prize is likely to have more money than a newly created one; an established department such as Classics, for instance, offers more prizes than a newer department such as Ethics, Politics & Economics.

English, a historic department with 60 students in this year’s graduating class, is using alumni donations and outside endowments to reward $9,000 worth of senior essay awards this year. The department’s endowment is so large that the interest alone is enough to pay for this year’s awards.

“We are fortunate at Yale to have first-rate people looking over the investment of prize endowments,” said English professor Leslie Brisman, who runs the Prizes Committee for the English Department. “Despite the general economic downturn, the funds available to us have increased.”

While the University has been cutting its budget across the board, none of the 13 directors of undergraduate studies interviewed said they have decreased the amount for their senior awards. In fact, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies increased its awards from $100 to $500 this fall.

There are also departments such as Portuguese — with two declared students and no graduating seniors — that offer prizes which cannot be awarded this year because there are no seniors to claim them. Such smaller departments allow its students to win essay prizes with relatively little competition. Next year, the current two juniors in Portuguese can vie for the two $500 Albert Bildner awards — one for the senior essay and one for general excellence — uncontested.

When there are relatively few seniors competing for an award — as is the case for the seven seniors competing for the Sociology Department’s $5,000 prize — the incentive to apply for an award can be great.

“I’m more motivated to produce a good senior essay because I know that one of those prizes is within reach,” sociology major Sylvia Bingham ’09 said.

But even smaller prizes that may not be worth much, Political Science Director of Undergraduate Studies Susan Stokes said, can “come in handy.”

“Mainly, I think, students value the prizes for the recognition they confer for outstanding senior-essay projects,” she said.

Many political science students interviewed agreed that the monetary award is not the most important aspect of senior essay prizes.

“The recognition for a job well done should be what matters. The monetary award is just a bonus,” Jesse Dong ’09 said.

Matt Bressler ’09 said most people are more concerned with simply turning in a senior essay rather than winning an award for its quality.

And nearly all the seniors agreed: The satisfaction lies in finishing the product.

“If you’re not motivated by now, competition won’t help you write a better essay,” Darius Dale ’09 said.