writing for dollarsYou’ve almost finished the application for a scholarship big enough to take a serious bite out of next year’s tuition. You’ve done your research on the organization; you’ve gathered the required transcripts and letters of recommendation. And now, you’ve reached the most daunting part: the essay. Your mind goes blank as you stare at that annoying, blinking cursor sitting at the top of a blank, white page.

If this sounds like you, I have two pieces of advice:  1) Celebrate! Do a little happy dance. You’re almost finished with that important application. And 2) Relax. The essay may seem like the most difficult part, but truthfully, it is already inside of you, just waiting to come out.

I know — it’s easy to give advice. The web is full of sites that give tips for a brilliant application essay. (I’ve listed a few of my favorites at the end of this article.) But having taught students to write these essays for over 15 years, I’ve realized that winning essays are the ones that give their readers an understanding of the writer’s personality. The organization giving that scholarship needs to understand what makes you “you.” They need to feel that your values and your dreams fit their organization before deciding to hand you that bag full of money. And, nobody knows “you” better than you do. So, don’t worry — you’re almost there.

Before we jump into how to DO an essay that will win a scholarship, I have two general DON’TS for you to consider. First, DON’T write lists of achievements or activities in your essay. Yes, your achievements may seem like the most important things to communicate to an organization looking to give you money; but, remember, the scholarship committee already has these lists in other parts of your application. By the time they read your essay, they will already know you were captain of the volleyball team. The repetition isn’t necessary.

Second, DON’T write a traditional academic essay for your application. An effective application essay is different from the 5-paragraph variety that you have been taught to write for ACT or SAT exams. Frankly, the 5-paragraph format is repetitive and boring. Members of scholarship committees read hundreds of these dull essays when going through applications. Your essay will stand out and get you noticed if it doesn’t follow that same predictable pattern.

Now, as promised, here’s the first DO for writing a great application essay. DO write a story at the beginning of the essay. People love stories. That’s why we spend so much time watching movies or reading books.  That’s why people love Instagram and Facebook. We love to get involved in the stories of other people’s lives. Use a story in place of a standard introduction to get the committee members involved in your life.  Here’s a great sample of how that works. 

Revolve the story around the question you are being asked to write about. Let your story “show” that you are committed, responsible, or civic-minded rather than simply “telling” the committee that you are.

Finally, DO write in your own voice from your own perspective. Use “I.” When your English teachers told you never to use the first person perspective, they were preparing you to write academic essays for college classes. Your application essay needs “I” to help the committee make a personal connection with you. Use that “I” to make your essay a conversation in which you speak from your heart about a topic you care about. Show the scholarship committee that you are unique, driven, and worthy of the investment they will make in your future.

Web Resources for Application Essay Writing

General Advice

These sites help you sort out specific responses to different types of questions. Some cover the college admission application essay, but both scholarship applications and admission applications have similar questions. The story-driven essay is a good strategy for both types of application.

“Sample Scholarship Essays” (CollegeScholarships.com)

“How to Write a College Essay” (MIT Admissions)

“Four Ways to Make Your Scholarship Essay Stand Out” (US News and World Report)


Revising and Editing Your Draft

These sites give great advice for revising and editing your essay. Remember, you can have the most creative, heartfelt, brilliant essay in the stack, but if you have typos and grammatical errors, your reader will assume you didn’t care enough to take the time to finalize your work. Your entire application will end up in the “denied” pile.

“Steps for Revising Your Paper” (Online Writing Lab – Purdue)  

“Revising Drafts” (The Writing Center – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) 

“Twelve Common Errors: An Editing Checklist”  (The Writing Center at University of Wisconsin-Madison) 

“Editing and Proofreading Strategies” (Student Writing Support – University of Minnesota) 

Leave a Reply