Eight Steps Towards a Better Scholarship Essay
Writing a scholarship essay can be very difficult – especially if you want to do it well. Your essay will need to wow the reader, and speak directly to the goals of that organization, as well as the objectives of that award. If done properly, you will very rarely be able to submit the same application to multiple awards – it is not a one-size-fits-all; most essays will need to be tweaked or completely altered to show the reader that you are deserving of the award above and beyond any of the other participant who also applied.
Read on to find eight steps to help you write a better scholarship essay so that you can get the money you need to fund your international education.
Step 1: Read the Essay Prompt Thoroughly
Many schools and other organizations that give out scholarships will give you a "prompt" or a question which the essay is supposed to address. Read the question or prompt carefully and try to "read between the lines." For example, the prompt you are to answer might be, "Describe a book that made a lasting impression on you and your life and why?" Ask yourself, "Are they really interested in my literary preferences or is there something more to this question?" More than likely, they want to get a better idea of who you are—not only what types of books you like but also what motivates you and what sorts of stories or topics interest you. They may also be interested in getting a sense for how promising a student you are based on the type of book you choose and what you have to say about it.
Tip: Always keep in mind that any scholarship essay question, no matter the topic, should demonstrate your interests, your background, and most importantly, highlight the experiences you've had that fit with the goals and mission of the funding organization.
Instead of being given a prompt, you might be asked to write an essay on the topic of your choosing. Although challenging, this is also an opportunity to demonstrate your creativity. Finally, if anything about the directions aren't clear, don't be afraid to contact someone at the funding organization and ask for clarification.
Step 2: Make a List of Important Points and Keywords to Include
Looking for sample essays?
Check out our Sample Essay section where you can see scholarship essays, admissions essays, and more!
Regardless of the essay prompt, you will want to make sure to include the important and relevant information about your experiences and background that makes you an ideal candidate for the scholarship award. To complete this step, it can be helpful to first research the organization to which you're applying and try to find their mission statement on their website. Circle a few key words from the mission statement and make sure to include those buzzwords in your essay.
Scholarship committees are not only looking for good students, they are often looking for a person that fits their organizational goals. You should gather your other application materials such as transcripts and resumes so you can review your qualifications as well as make note of what is missing in these materials that needs to be included in the essay.
For example, if you're applying for a general academic scholarship, you might want to talk about a specific class you took that really piqued your interest or inspired your current academic and career goals. The committee will see the list of the classes that you took on your transcript but they won't know how a particular class inspired you unless you tell them. The essay is the best place to do this. Your list of important points to make might also include:
- Any academic awards or other honors you've won.
- Any AP or college-level courses you took in high school.
- Any outside courses, internships, or other academic experiences that won't necessarily appear on your transcript.
- Why your experience and the mission of the funding organization match.
- What you plan to major in during college and how you think that major will be useful to your future career goals.
- Any special training or knowledge you have, or a project you completed in school or as an extracurricular activity.
- An example of how you overcame a challenge.
- Your financial circumstances that makes it necessary for you to finance your studies through scholarship money.
The challenge now is to integrate those points that you want the committee to know with an essay that answers the prompt. You can see our example scholarship essays to get a better idea of how to do this.
Step 3: Write an Outline or a Rough Draft
Not everyone likes to make an outline before they begin writing, but in this case it can be very helpful. You can start with your list of important points to begin writing the outline. For many, telling a story is the easiest and most effective way to write a scholarship essay. You can tell the story of how you found your favorite book, and how it has changed and inspired you. Start with large headings in your outline that describes the basic storyline. For example:
- High school composition teacher recommended book
- Read it over one weekend
- Made me see the world around me differently
- Inspired me to pursue a career in social justice
Now you can start filling in the subheadings with points from your previous list:
- High school composition teacher recommended book
- Favorite class in high school
- Class opened my eyes to new ways of thinking
- Teacher noticed my enthusiasm—recommended outside reading
- Read it over one weekend
- Was the first time I was so drawn in by a book, I read it very quickly
- I realized my academic potential beyond getting good grades
- Made me see the world around me differently
- Started to look for jobs in social justice
- Interned for a summer at a law firm doing pro bono work for the poor
- This was a big challenge because I realized you can't help everyone and resources are limited
- Overcame this challenge by knowing that small change can be big, and working hard in a field you are passionate about will inspire you everyday
- Inspired me to pursue a career in social justice
- The book is a constant source of inspiration and will keep me motivated as I pursue my career
- The book will always remind me how people with limited financial resources can still make a huge difference in others' lives
Step 4: Write a Strong Statement that Summarizes Your Points
You will want to include one strong thesis statement that summarizes all the major points you will make in your essay. It is often easy to start writing with this simple statement. Your essay doesn't have to begin or end with the thesis statement, but it should appear somewhere in order to tie all the individual sections together.
For example, your thesis statement might be, "You will find that various experiences from both my academic career and my personal life align very well with your organization's mission: shaping community leaders who are working towards a more just and sustainable world." Starting with this sentence can help you organize your thoughts and main points, and provide you with a direction for your essay. When you've finished your essay, be sure to reflect back on your thesis statement and ask yourself, "Does this essay further explain and support my thesis statement?"
Step 5: Fill in the Missing Parts
Now that you have a thesis statement, an outline, and a list of important points to include, you can begin to fill in the missing parts of your story. The first sentence is particularly important: it should capture the attention of the reader, and motivate him or her to continue reading. We recommend starting your story by painting a vivid picture of an experience about which you will be talking in the essay.
For example: "It is 6 am on a hot day in July, I've already showered and I'm eating breakfast. My classmates are all sleeping in and the sun has yet to awaken, but I'm ready to seize the day, as I couldn't imagine spending my summer any other way but interning at a local law firm that specializes in representing the poor. I work a typical 8-5 day during my summer vacation and nothing has made me happier. But I wouldn't be here if it weren't for one particularly savvy teacher and a little book she gave me to read outside of class."
Step 6: Rewrite, Revise, Rewrite
A good writer rewrites and revises his or her work many, many times. After getting a first draft on paper, take a day or two away from the essay and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Make appropriate edits for content, and pay attention to proper spelling and grammar. If need be, you might want to write an entirely new draft and then integrate the best of both into a final draft. Writing a new draft can inspire you to think of new ideas or a better way to tell your story. Some other tips to think about as you rewrite and revise:
- Make sure it sounds like your voice. You want the scholarship committee to feel like they are getting to know you. If you don't sound authentic, the committee will know. It is better to be yourself than to say what you think the committee wants to hear.
- Strike a balance between modesty and arrogance. You should be proud of your accomplishments, but you don't want to sound arrogant. Don't exaggerate a story; instead be clear about what you did and the impact it had and let that speak for itself.
- Check to make sure you are answering the prompt and fulfilling all other requirements of the essay as directed by the committee, such as font preference and word count limits.
- Don't just list your accomplishments; describe them in detail and also tell the reader how you felt during these experiences.
- A scholarship essay is not a dissertation. You don't need to impress the committee with big words, especially if you're not completely clear if you're using them correctly. Simplicity and clarity should be the goals.
- Make sure your essay will be read from the beginning to the end. Committee members won't dedicate much time to reading the essay, so you need to make sure they are given motivation to read the entire thing. If you are telling a story, don't reveal the end of the story until the end.
- Check to make sure the buzzwords from the mission statement appear. It is easy to forget the scholarship committee's goals as you write. Return to their mission statement and look for spots to place keywords from the statement. Be sure, however, that you're not copying the mission statement word-for-word.
Step 7: Have someone else read your essay
Ideally, you could give your essay to a teacher or college admissions counselor who is familiar with scholarship essays and the college admission process. If such a person is not available, virtually anyone with good reading and writing skills can help make your essay better. When your editor is done reading and you've looked over his or her notes, be sure to ask the following questions:
- Was the story interesting and did it hold your attention?
- Were there any parts that were confusing?
- Did you find any spelling or grammar errors?
- Does the essay sound like my voice?
- Does the essay respond appropriately to the prompt?
- Is there anything you would have done differently or something you thought was missing?
After having an editor (or two or three) look over your draft, it is time again to revise and rewrite.
Step 8: Refine the Final Draft
Once you feel satisfied with the draft, review it one more time and pay particular attention to structure, spelling, grammar, and whether you fulfilled all the required points dictated by the committee. If you are over the required word count, you will need to make edits so that you are within the limit. If you are significantly under the word count, consider adding a supporting paragraph.
Essay Writing Center
Misconception: No one actually reads your scholarship essay! – Wrong!
Fact: Your essay is the key to your scholarship application. It is an opportunity to demonstrate to the selection committee that you are a well-rounded individual, that you are more than your GPA, that you are a strong writer, and it gives you a chance to talk about your experiences and qualifications in greater detail than what appears on your resume or transcripts.
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.