1. If I have to pay a fee to enter, forget about it.
After shelling out hundreds of dollars (after 8 years I wonder how much it actually it) to be told "no" over and over, as soon as I see an entry fee, I stop reading. Now, I understand that sometimes this money goes to offset the cost of production of the event for which the call was put out. But, I wonder if it just as easily gets pocketed. Or if you are paying so the winner can get some prize money?
Personally, the prize money is often not enough to worry about. Don't get me wrong - its nice. $250, $500 is nice. But, aren't 3-5 great performances over the course of a year just as valuable? Especially right now when our music is so disposable, I think performances are much more important for young composers.
Also, kind of related - if I have to send you my life story and proof that I wrote the piece with a photo of me penning the double bar line while standing on a clock, holding a calendar and a copy of that day's newspaper - forget it. You are supposedly "evaluating" my music. I shouldn't spend an hour putting together a packet of materials that will never be used for anything else.
2. Don't put out calls for weird instrumentation/don't write a piece for a call
"We are trying to develop repertoire for the piccolo, banjo, countertenor, tuba, and toy piano ensemble." And you are trying to do it for free with little intention of playing these works again. For performers, if you are really passionate about it, commission some composers that you know. They will do a good job and will be passionate about the project because they know you. Which brings me to the other point - don't write a piece for people you've never heard of on the outside chance that you might win a competition. For the amount of effort you put into your music, there is no time for this. And I've done it before. Where do you think those pieces ended up?
I actually won a call that I had to go back through my sent emails to find out when I entered the competition because I had no memory whatsoever of doing it. This helps you focus on what is important, writing music. BECAUSE...
4. Competitions ultimately don't matter.
They are completely subjective, assess your artwork that you've labored over in a matter of seconds, and are often judged by people whole aesthetics run contrary to yours -OR- whose aesthetics you could care less about. You shouldn't find worth from these. Its true, they can sometimes lead to other opportunities and they look nice on your resume.
But, they don't make you a composer and they don't mean you are a good/great composer. It took me a long time to learn this.
For another REALLY GREAT article on a related subject go here: Rachel Yoder