Writing an essay to try to earn a scholarship? As a college professor who sits on several scholarship committees, I have some advice for you. After reading at least 100 scholarship essays, I’ll tell you about the ones that stood out, and the ones that….didn’t.
Have a plan. I have read many essays where students write about how they would like to change the world by helping abused children or something of that nature. I always think those students sound like nice, caring people. However, the essays that strike me are the ones where someone has a plan. I read an essay by a student who wanted to prevent elder abuse by implementing a program that would help to educate caregivers of older adults with dementia. She felt that if people understood more about older adults with dementia, they would be less frustrated by their behaviors and less likely to abuse them. I advocated for giving that young woman a scholarship. She had a vision-rather than some vague thought about making the world a better place. If you want to start your own business, write about what type of business you would start and why it will work. No one’s going to hold you to your plan, but show that you’ve put some thought toward it.
Address the questions. I sit on a committee for a scholarship that is intended for promising students. The question asked on the application is simply: “Why are you a promising student that deserves this scholarship?” You would be surprised how many applicants do not answer that question. Sometimes there is no specific question to answer, but applicants are asked to write a statement that supports their application. In this case, consider who the scholarship is intended for. Is it for women in leadership? If so, describe why you are a leader and your future plans to lead (it is probably unnecessary to describe why you are a woman). Is it for students who have achieved despite adversity? If so, describe the obstacles you’ve overcome to become a successful student.
Start strong. A ho-hum first sentence makes me glance over the rest of the essay with low expectations. A strong first sentence draws my interest, which is important if your essay happens to be the 25th essay I’ve read that evening. Here is an example of a weak start: “I’ve always worked hard in school and gotten good grades despite working 20 hours a week.” Here’s a strong start: “I’m exhausted when I get home at midnight from my job at the grocery store, but I sit down and look over those geometry notes one last time.”
Use examples. Many applicants list of their best qualities: “I’m detail-oriented, organized, and conscientious.” This may be true, but it’s not very interesting to me. Can you come up with examples of times when you were detail-oriented, organized, and conscientious? If you have trouble with this, ask a friend, family member, or teacher. Once I read an essay from an applicant who claimed he had very high expectations for himself, and he was determined to live up to those expectations. He explained that he played basketball in high school and needed to make 25 straight free throws in the driveway before he could go to bed every night. A little obsessive, perhaps, but he had me more convinced.
Edit. Most scholarships are not decided on grammar, but if your poor writing distracts the readers from your actual response, you’re in trouble. If you are not a strong writer, have someone else (who is a strong writer) take a look at your essay. In fact, have several people edit it for you. An essay that has not been carefully proofread tells a committee that this scholarship is not really that important to you—after all, it wasn’t even worth taking the time to edit the essay.