For the A Better American Scholarship program, we’ve read hundreds of scholarship essays and have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Therefore, we decided to write this guide to help students win any scholarship award.
The tips and tricks we offer here are framed in terms of academic scholarships for students, but they’re applicable to any piece of writing asking someone for something, including funding proposals in the civil sector, to writing cover letters for jobs, even to grants for writers
Here’s your 7 step guide to writing the best essay you can.
The crucial first step: identifying your audience
As with any written undertaking, one of the first things you need to think about in writing a scholarship essay is who you’re writing for. Don’t be fooled here: your professors are not your audience.
Instead, the eyes reached by your scholarship essay will usually belong either to a panel of experts in a particular field or subject or a group of generally educated, non-specialist members of the organization offering the scholarship.
Understanding your audience is fundamental to writing a successful scholarship essay. Ask yourself questions like these:
(a) Who is on the committee, and what is their background?
Are they educated non-specialists, or are they all PhD’s in your specific academic subfield? Do they represent universities, industry, private philanthropists, or other organizations? Are they native English speakers, and if so from what country?
(b) What are their goals?
A scholarship committee from Amnesty International will have a different agenda than one overseen by the US State Department. Is the scholarship offered by an organization committed to fighting climate change, or promoting traditional values among today’s youth, or simply promoting awesomeness.
Written communication doesn’t take place in a vacuum; you’re writing for someone to read it.
You don’t talk to your mom about your Biology class the same way you would discuss it with a fellow Bio major, and the way you discuss it with scholarship essay reviewers should also be tailored to them and what they’re searching for.
The hardest part: answering the question
It seems like the most basic component of an essay, but somehow it inevitably turns out to be the most difficult for many of us.
Take this sample college admission essay topic from The Common Application:
“Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
If this question sets your head buzzing with thoughts of how you always wanted to go to medical school just like Dad until you discovered your passion for social work, hold on.
The story of how you blossomed personally from Daddy’s protégé to social problem-solver is undoubtedly a great one, but it’s not what’s being asked for here. There are two simple questions posed: what made you challenge a belief or idea, and would you do it again?
If you have trouble sifting the main question out of its supporting context, try some of these approaches to getting a strong grasp on your essay question:
Locate the question marks
In the example above, the declarative statement that comes first is asking you to think about something and frame your argument within it, but it’s not the question. Keep in mind, not every “question” will take the form of a question – sometimes it’ll be prompted by declarative phrases like “discuss” or “compare and contrast”.
Rephrase the question(s) in your own simple terms. The second sentence of this example question has five words, and you can simplify it down to just one: “why”. The second sentence can also be boiled down to: “would you do it again?”
Mark it up
Highlight, underline, strike through. Do what you need to keep your eyes on the scholarship prize. In this example, you might strike a light line through the entire first sentence, highlight the second two, and underline the phrases “what prompted you” and “same decision again”.
Your most powerful weapon: the introduction
Once you understand your audience and have identified the guiding light of your question, it’s time to start crafting your essay. Your introduction looks like your biggest hurdle, but it’s actually a powerful weapon.
Even your first line could set you apart from the crowd of cookie cutter applications. It’s the most effective way to signal to your essay reader right away that you’ve come to rescue them from the monotony of reading dozens of indistinguishable essays, that you’ve got a fresh take on the topic that they might even enjoy reading.
Here are some concrete components of your secret weapon:
Don’t state the obvious
“I’m writing to express my interest in and qualifications for the University College Excellence Scholarship” is an awesome way to squash your chances of winning that scholarship. The reader already knows why you’ve written the essay, and while one sentence doesn’t seem like too much to waste on redundant detail, that’s the twentieth time they’ve read that exact sentence today.
Just as bad is the classic “I will first discuss my motivations, then my qualifications, and finally what this scholarship would mean to me personally and professionally.” You just used 21 words and all you’ve said is “duh”.
Answer the question
In the last step you “answered” the question for yourself, but now you’re answering it for the reader. You should be able to answer the main question in one strong, general declarative statement here.
For example, if the question is “what kind of research would you do with this grant,” your introductory paragraph should include a sentence that sounds something like, “With the University Summer Research Grant, I will spend three months in Washington, D. C. conducting archival research on the role of four prominent national newspapers during McCarthyism and the Red Scare.”
Tell, don’t show
The introduction should comprise a few concise sentences that establish and frame an argument that you will support with the rest of your essay.
This is not the place for details about how spending your weekends teaching reading skills to underserved inner-city kids and volunteering at the local adult education center has shown you that many people in our society lack opportunities to succeed. What it should tell is that your extensive background in volunteering with the economically disadvantaged has given you the appropriate mindset to tackle a social problem that the grant will fund.
Remember, you’ll do the “showing” in the body of the essay.
While you probably won’t win a scholarship on the merits of your introduction alone, you can easily lose it here. Focus on pragmatically telling the reader what they need to know about the impending essay and finding the right level of detail for a succinct introduction of your ideas or arguments.
Delivering your message: the writing process
A good understanding of your audience and a strong introduction are only prerequisites to a good scholarship essay, but they’re not enough to win you the money. It’s ultimately the content of your essay, what you say, and how you say it that will determine your success.
The body of your essay is not the place to narrate your CV or show off how broad your vocabulary is. It’s where you answer the question being asked in a detailed, argumentative way.
For some essays, that question will be a broad one: what are your goals? How will this scholarship affect your professional career? If given this opportunity, how will you change the world?
Others will be tailored very specifically to a goal: if applying for a scholarship or grant to carry out research, you’ll be asked to describe your project plan in detail; if applying for an international exchange, you may need to painstakingly detail how your being selected would serve the organization’s goals of increased intercultural communication.
This is the most divergent area of the scholarship essay writing process, because every funding opportunity will look different and ask different things.
Still, here are some universal tips to go by:
Show, don’t tell
Ah, yes, that one sounds more familiar. Never in a scholarship essay (or really any other kind of essay) should you make claims like “I am an excellent time manager and am highly qualified to work with diverse groups of people.” Anyone can say that.
Instead, try something like “During my sophomore year of college I spent each weekend organizing the multicultural movie night at the student union center. This forced me to adhere to a strict schedule while working with a team of students from all departments, years, and cultural backgrounds across the university.”
Listen to George Orwell
While he may have been a bit too absolute in laying down the laws of good writing, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” might be the closest thing we have to a cure-all for bad writing in the modern day.
Orwell’s focus is on getting rid of bloated language with lots of big words and replacing it with pragmatic language comprising accessible, concrete words. Your essay readers would rather read that you are “media savvy and sensitive to PR trends” than that you are “exceedingly competent and knowledgeable on the subject of public relations”.
Be clear and concise
A centerpiece of your writing strategy should be finding the shortest, most direct and logical route to conveying your ideas. Get to the point.
Write assertively and in the active voice
Don’t “be motivated by” something; instead tell the readers that you find your inspiration in it, that you commit yourself to it. Using the active voice puts you and your actions at the center of an essay, making you an active agent rather than a passive recipient of your fate.
State your accomplishments tactfully
Don’t just restate information from your résumé, but instead say why your accomplishments matter. Your academic achievement is useless unless you can convince your essay readers that it has given you transferable skills relevant to the task at hand.
Don’t translate the line on your resume that says “Student Body President, Fall 2013 – Spring 2015” to “I was Student Body President for five semesters.” Instead, tell your readers why that matters: “During my tenure as Student Body President at State University, I learned how to bring multiple stakeholders together around a table and facilitate a compromise.”
The job’s not over: revising and editing
For most of us this is the phase that tests our discipline. After hours, days, weeks, or even months of pouring all you’ve got into a scholarship application, it’s time to tear up your essay. Remember, editing your own work is hard, but entirely possible if you know what to do. It’s the testing ground where many writers fall victim to despair and give up.
Here are some tips on how to get through the editing process with your mind and essay in tact:
Reread your essay prompt and essay together
Think of them as a Q&A session. Does your essay address and answer every part of the question, or does it sound more like a politician standing behind a podium? If your essay talks around rather than about your question, then it needs rewriting.
Reread each individual sentence
Ask yourself some questions about every statement you’ve made. Does this make sense? Does it logically follow the sentence that comes before it and logically precede the sentence that comes after it? Does it relate to the topic of the paragraph and the overall argument of the paper?
Read it out loud
Your final product should read like it was written by a knowledgeable and educated person, not a robot. Reading aloud can help you identify awkward sentence structures and unnatural phrasings that should be edited or removed.
The final touches: proofreading
Did you think proofreading was covered by editing and revision? Proofreading is a different step entirely, and not one you should gloss over as you near the finish line.
Most scholarships receive a lot of very well qualified applicants. This means that the final decision between two 4.0 GPAs and beautifully crafted essays might be made based on a few typos. Take some steps to avoid letting careless mistakes steal your excellent essay’s spotlight:
Trick your brain
Your literate brain is efficient and hates wasting time, so it does a lot of autocorrecting for you. Even if thre are mssing or incorect lettrs in a sentence, your eyes and brain don’t want to waste time nitpicking, because they still understand.
To counter this, try reading it over it at a different location (like a coffee shop), which allows the brain to think it’s reading something new. Or print it out in a different font – a smart trick that will help you see your work with fresh eyes.
Get a second set of eyes
After three proofreads you may feel like your essay is good to go, but by now your eyes have gotten numb to the words and letters on the page and can no longer be trusted.
When it comes to catching grammar mistakes and typos, an editor can make the world of difference. It doesn’t have to be a dissertation editing service, or cost money either. Get a trusted friend or family member to read over and edit it.
They might find a “form” accidentally transposed into a “from” where you missed it, or perhaps a common your/you’re or there/their/they’re mistake. Writing is an art, but when it comes to correct grammar it’s a technical skill too.
Know your on- and off-campus resources
If you’re on the hunt for scholarships to start college, your high school guidance counselors are your best resources, and Language Arts or English teachers make for great essay readers. Also check sites like Fastweb to search scholarships and get advice on applying for them.
If you’re already in university, then there’s very likely a broad support structure in place that you might not even be aware of.
Here are the two key ones that most North American universities offer, as well as an online resource available and applicable to all:
Offices of National Scholarships/Fellowships
Most four-year institutions have an office somewhere on campus that’s there to support you at least in applying for the well-known scholarships (like Rhodes, Truman, Fulbright, and Boren).
Some will support you in everything from applying to small academic research grants from your department to writing admissions essays for graduate school. The best universities will have a whole office staffed to coach you through the entire process, from identifying opportunities to how to claim the scholarship funds on your taxes.
University Writing Center
This will usually be located in an English or Rhetoric department. Your university writing center is most likely staffed by graduate students specializing in writing and other communications disciplines.
They’re not there to proofread or check how you formatted your citations, but they are there to help you write with better, more concise and efficient language that best showcases your accomplishments and qualifications.
Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)
The OWL is the be-all-end-all of online academic writing resources. For everything from formatting citations to how to construct logical arguments, make this your go-to guide.
Bonus: Become a better writer through the process
When we see an opportunity to win a thousand bucks for our studies, most of us don’t think of it as a writing exercise, but that may actually be the greatest value in the whole process. While the statistical odds of winning the award are stacked against you in most cases, you’ll almost certainly end up a better writer than when you started.
Remember, the skills you’re learning in applying for competitive scholarships – persuasive writing, succinct expression of ideas, rhetorical appeals, logical argumentation – are applicable far and wide.
Professional grant writers are an obvious example, but good scholarship essay writers also go on to become successful online marketers, journalists, and bloggers, as well as just about any other profession that requires efficient, goal-oriented communication.
Writing the Scholarship Essay: by Kay Peterson, Ph.D.
The personal essay.
It’s the hardest part of your scholarship application. But it’s also the part of the application where the ‘real you’ can shine through. Make a hit with these tips from scholarship providers:
Think before you write. Brainstorm to generate some good ideas and then create an outline to help you get going. Be original. The judges may be asked to review hundreds of essays. It’s your job to make your essay stand out from the rest. So be creative in your answers. Show, don’t tell. Use stories, examples and anecdotes to individualize your essay and demonstrate the point you want to make. By using specifics, you’ll avoid vagueness and generalities and make a stronger impression. Develop a theme. Don’t simply list all your achievements. Decide on a theme you want to convey that sums up the impression you want to make. Write about experiences that develop that theme. Know your audience. Personal essays are not ‘one size fits all.’ Write a new essay for each application-one that fits the interests and requirements of that scholarship organization. You’re asking to be selected as the representative for that group. The essay is your chance to show how you are the ideal representative. Submit an essay that is neat and readable. Make sure your essay is neatly typed, and that there is a lot of ‘white space’ on the page. Double-space the essay, and provide adequate margins (1″-1 1/2″) on all sides. Make sure your essay is well written. Proofread carefully, check spelling and grammar and share your essay with friends or teachers. Another pair of eyes can catch errors you might miss.
Special thanks to the scholarship specialists who contributed these tips:
TROA Scholarship Fund
Kathy Borunda, Corporate Development
Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Foundation
The American Legion
Patti Cohen, Program Manager
Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation
AFSA Scholarship Programs
Thomas Murphy, Executive Director
Konieg Education Foundation
Lisa Portenga, Scholarship Coordinator
The Fremont Area Foundation
Practice Session: Common Essay Questions — by Roxana Hadad
The essay — It’s the most important part of your scholarship application, and it can be the hardest. But the essay shouldn’t keep you from applying. Take a look at some of the most commonly asked essay questions and use them to prepare for your scholarship applications. Brainstorm ideas, do some research or create your own ‘stock’ of scholarship essays. When the time comes, you’ll be ready to write your way to scholarship success!
Your Field of Specialization and Academic Plans
Some scholarship applications will ask you to write about your major or field of study. These questions are used to determine how well you know your area of specialization and why you’re interested in it.
- How will your study of _______ contribute to your immediate or long range career plans?
- Why do you want to be a _______?
- Explain the importance of (your major) in today’s society.
- What do you think the industry of _______ will be like in the next 10 years?
- What are the most important issues your field is facing today?
Current Events and Social Issues
To test your skills at problem-solving and check how up-to-date you are on current issues, many scholarship applications include questions about problems and issues facing society.
- What do you consider to be the single most important societal problem? Why?
- If you had the authority to change your school in a positive way, what specific changes would you make?
- Pick a controversial problem on college campuses and suggest a solution.
- What do you see as the greatest threat to the environment today?
Scholarships exist to reward and encourage achievement. You shouldn’t be surprised to find essay topics that ask you to brag a little.
- Describe how you have demonstrated leadership ability both in and out of school.
- Discuss a special attribute or accomplishment that sets you apart.
- Describe your most meaningful achievements and how they relate to your field of study and your future goals.
- Why are you a good candidate to receive this award
Background and Influences
Who you are is closely tied to where you’ve been and who you’ve known. To learn more about you, some scholarship committees will ask you to write about your background and major influences.
- Pick an experience from your own life and explain how it has influenced your development.
- Who in your life has been your biggest influence and why?
- How has your family background affected the way you see the world?
- How has your education contributed to who you are today?
Future Plans and Goals
Scholarship sponsors look for applicants with vision and motivation, so they might ask about your goals and aspirations.
- Briefly describe your long- and short-term goals.
- Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
- Why do you want to get a college education?
Many scholarship providers have a charitable goal: They want to provide money for students who are going to have trouble paying for college. In addition to asking for information about your financial situation, these committees may want a more detailed and personal account of your financial need.
- From a financial standpoint, what impact would this scholarship have on your education?
- State any special personal or family circumstances affecting your need for financial assistance.
- How have you been financing your college education?
Some essay questions don’t seem directly related to your education, but committees use them to test your creativity and get a more well-rounded sense of your personality.
- Choose a person or persons you admire and explain why.
- Choose a book or books and that have affected you deeply and explain why.
While you can’t predict every essay question, knowing some of the most common ones can give you a leg up on applications. Start brainstorming now, and you may find yourself a winner!
Essay Feedback: Creating Your Structure — by Kay Peterson, Ph.D.
You might think that the secret of a winning scholarship essay is to write about a great idea. But that’s only half the job. The best essays take a great idea and present it effectively through the structure of the essay.
To see how important structure is, let’s look at an essay by Emily H. In her application for the UCLA Alumni Scholarship, Emily responds to the following essay topic: “Please provide a summary of your personal and family background, including information about your family, where you grew up, and perhaps a highlight or special memory of your youth.”
Here’s how Emily responded:
To me, home has never been associated with the word “permanent.” I seem to use it more often with the word “different” because I’ve lived in a variety of places ranging from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Los Angeles, California. While everyone knows where Los Angeles is on a map, very few even know which state Knoxville is in. Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to live in the east and west and to view life from two disparate points.
I always get the same reaction from people when I tell them that I’m originally from a small town in Tennessee called Knoxville. Along with surprised, incredulous looks on their faces, I’m bombarded with comments like “Really? You don’t sound or look as if you’re from Tennessee.” These reactions are nearly all the same because everyone sees me as a typical Californian who loves the sunny weather, the beach and the city. They don’t know that I lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, before I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then moved again to Knoxville, Tennessee. The idea of my living anywhere in the vicinity of the South or any place besides California is inconceivable to many because I’ve adapted so well to the surroundings in which I currently find myself. This particular quality, in a sense, also makes me a more cosmopolitan and open-minded person. Having already seen this much of the world has encouraged me to visit other places like Paris or London and the rest of the world. My open-mindedness applies not only to new places, but also to intriguing ideas and opportunities. This attitude towards life prepares me for the vast array of opportunities that still lie ahead in the future. From my experiences of moving place to place, I have also come to acknowledge the deep bond I share with my family. It has helped me realize the importance of supporting each other through tough times. Moving from Tennessee to California meant saying good-bye to the house we had lived in for six years, longtime friends and the calm, idyllic lifestyle of the country that we had grown to love and savor. But knowing that we had each other to depend on made the transition easier. It also strengthened the bond we all shared and placed more value on the time we spent with each other, whether it was at home eating dinner or going on a family trip. Now when I think of the word “home,” I see the bluish-gray house I live in now. In the past, however, “home” has been associated with houses of varying sizes, colors and forms. The only thing that has remained unchanging and permanent is my family. I have acknowledged this constancy, knowing well enough that it is, and always will be, a part of me and a unique part of my life.
Los Angeles is one of many places in which I’ve lived. This fact by itself has had a tremendous impact on me.
This kind of essay topic can be difficult because it is very general. Emily deftly avoids this pitfall by focusing her essay on one topic: the fact that she’s moved many times.
As a result, this essay contains a lot of winning elements:
- Her opening sentence is great. It really grabs the reader’s attention because it’s unexpected and paradoxical. We want to learn more about her.
- Her story is unique; she doesn’t rely on clichés.
- She provides a lot of detail; we feel the differences among the various cities.
- She’s focused the account so we learn just enough, not too much.
- She tells us why these events are important. Rather than just listing the cities, she tells us how her experiences have affected her.
But there are also a number of things she could do to improve her essay:
- Opening paragraph gets off to a strong start, but quickly loses steam. The last sentence is too vague.
- The second paragraph is far too long, and covers too many ideas.
- The transitions among the various ideas are underdeveloped. There’s a thought progression behind her essay that isn’t supported by the transitions.
- Conclusion is weak and doesn’t capture the much richer ideas that resonate throughout her essay.
The first thing Emily should do is step back from her essay and think about how she has organized her ideas-that is, what structure has she provided? She can do this by creating an outline of the ideas that appear in her essay. It should look something like this:
a. Emily has lived in a lot of places
b. Emily has viewed life from two disparate points.
2. Body (one paragraph)
a. People don’t guess that Emily is not originally from California.
b. That’s because she has adapted so well to her current environment.
c. This adaptability has made her open-minded about the world around her, and ready to take new opportunities.
d. She’s also learned to recognize and value the bond with her family, which gives her a sense of permanence throughout all the changes.
3. Conclusion: Los Angeles is one of the places she has lived.
As we can see, Emily’s essay is jam-packed with good ideas. With the exception of the conclusion (which she should cut), everything in here is meaningful and necessary. What she needs to do now is identify the most important idea for the whole essay and then rearrange the points so that they support that idea.
What is the overriding idea? I identified a number of fruitful ideas that involve these various points:
- Constant change has been challenging, but learning how to deal with change has made Emily ready for more challenges in the future.
- Constant change has had a paradoxical effect on Emily: It’s taught her both how to be adaptable and how determine what is truly permanent (i.e. her family).
- Constant change has taught her all about different parts of the country, but has also taught her that while she grows and changes, she’ll still remain the same person she always was.
Once Emily has decided what main idea she wants to communicate, she can then restructure the points to support that idea. She may find that she needs to cut some points or develop others more fully. The key is to make it clear how those points relate to the central idea and to use meaningful transitions that point the way to the next idea.
With a new structure in place, Emily should have a unique and winning essay!
**OTHER WINNING TIPS**
Once you have determined which scholarships you will apply for, write to them and ask for their scholarship application and requirements. The letter can be a general request for information “form” letter that can be photocopied, but you should be specific about the name of the scholarship you are inquiring about on the envelope.
Write to each source as far in advance of their scholarship deadline as possible and don’t forget to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope(SASE) — it not only expedites their reply, but some organizations won’t respond without one.
Remember, on the outside of the envelope, list the name of the specific scholarship you are inquiring about. That way, the person opening the mail will know where to direct your inquiry.
Here is an example of what your letter might look like:
XYZ Corporation (Ian Scott Smith Scholarship)
1234 56th Street, Suite 890
Metropolis, FL 00000-0000
Dear Scholarship Coordinator:
I am a (college) student (give academic year) and will be applying for admission to (a graduate) program for academic year 20__ – __.
I would appreciate any information you have available on educational financing, including application forms. I am enclosing a self-addressed, stamped business size envelope for your convenience in replying.
Daniel J. Cassidy
2280 Airport Boulevard
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Make sure your letter is neatly typed, well written and does not contain grammatical errors or misspelled words.
When filling out scholarship application forms, be complete, concise and creative. People who read these applications want to know the real you, not just your name. The application should clearly emphasize your ambitions, motivations and what makes you different. Be original!
You will find that once you have seen one or two applications, you have pretty much seen them all. Usually they are one or two pages asking where you are going to school, what you are going to major in and why you think you deserve the scholarship. Some scholarship sources require that you join their organization. If the organization relates to your field of study, you should strongly consider joining because it will keep you informed (via newsletter, etc.) about developments in that field.
Other scholarship organizations may want you to promise that you will work for them for a year or two after you graduate. The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund offers a scholarship for up to $20,000 for journalism, broadcasting, and communications students with the understanding that the student will intern for them for two years. This could even yield a permanent job for the student.
Your application should be typewritten and neat. I had a complaint from one foundation about a student who had an excellent background and qualifications but used a crayon to fill out the application.
Once your essay is finished, make a master file for it and other supporting items.
Photocopy your essay and attach it to the application.
If requested include: a resume or curriculum vitae (CV), extracurricular activities sheet (usually one page), transcripts, SAT, GRE, or MCAT scores, letters of recommendation (usually one from a professor, employer and friend) outlining your moral character and, if there are any newspaper articles, etc. about you, it is a good idea to include them as well.
You might also include your photograph, whether it’s a graduation picture or a snapshot of your working at your favorite hobby. This helps the selection committee feel a little closer to you. Instead of just seeing a name, they will have a face to match it.
Mail your applications in early, at least a month before the deadline.
**Dr. Peterson has won numerous college and graduate scholarships, including the Jacob Javits Fellowship, the University of California Regents Scholarship and the National Merit Scholarship.