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.
Co-authored by Renae Hintze
College is expensive, but what if I told you that you could make up to $500 per hour in high school to offset the cost!?
Amidst your student’s busy life of after-school sports, school dances, sleepovers, and more…college is on the horizon. And it’s an expensive horizon.
While there ARE 11+ billion dollars in merit based scholarships out there that will actually pay for your student’s good grades and high tests scores, why miss out on the opportunity to get a piece of the 2+ billion dollar private based scholarship pie that are awarded based off essays?
These 10 steps + your application = BIG SCHOLARSHIP MONEY! So let’s go for it. Here’s how to write a winning scholarship essay in 10 steps.
Step #1: Get an Early Start
My essay isn’t due for 3 weeks, why would I start it now?
Ah-HAH! I see you there, you last-minuter you. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to. And I’m telling you, DON’T PUT IT OFF.
If it helps, here’s an example of what can happen when you procrastinate. Here is one ASU student’s story:
“Once upon a time I took a class that worked with Photoshop. I had a project where I had to create a fake CD cover for myself. I put it off until the last day and I finished it the night before it was due and went to bed — that’s right, the project was DONE. And it was BEAUTIFUL.
My class was at 7:30 am the next morning (A little slice of college for ya) and I hadn’t printed it out yet. And here comes the lesson in timing: My printer broke. The short version of this is that I ran around the entire college campus trying to find a printer at 6:00 am in the morning to no avail.
My finished project received a non-negotiable 0.”
Soooo 2 things here:
- NEVER trust a printer to print when you’re in a rush
- But most importantly, mistakes happen when you wait till the last minute.
That being said, I recommend you follow a 3-week timeline for writing your scholarship essay.
Step #2: Read ALL of the Instructions
You may write a scholarship essay equivalent to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but if you didn’t follow the instructions, you’re not getting that scholarship. So remember: FORMAT MATTERS.
Here’s what I suggest — don’t just read the instructions… read them twice. Print them out and highlight important things to remember.
Not winning an essay contest based on the sole fact that your essay didn’t follow directions just stinks. Don’t do it to yourself.
If the format isn’t specified, play it safe this way:
- Use Times New Roman
- Use 12 pt font
- Have one-inch margins all around
- Write 2-3 pages
Step #3: Know your Audience
What do I mean by your audience?
I mean the people you’re talking to in your essay. The people who will decide whether or not they want to give you their scholarship!
Here’s the thing. You want to be genuine about yourself and your passions, but AT THE SAME TIME, you want to make sure that what you DO share about yourself in your scholarship essay is something that your reader would be interested in.
How do I learn what’s important to someone?
You need to research your audience and find out what they value.
Let’s look at an example. Say Nike offers a scholarship to the winner of an essay contest:
You can see that Response #1 does a good job of answering the prompt, but doesn’t really relate directly to Nike. Nike is an athletic company with the motto “Just do it.” They encourage their customers to push their limits in the athletic world.
Overcoming a fear (heights) that is central to who you are through a challenging sport (rock climbing) is something that directly relates to Nike’s values.
Where can you find that information?? It’s simple:
- Look up their website and take the time to review it. Focus on the about us page to get a solid idea of what they do and stand for.
- After you have a good idea of who they are, find their contact information and give them a phone call stating the following:
What will this phone call achieve?
- You will learn more about your audience. This allows you to tailor your scholarship essay specifically to what the company stands for. (Remember the Nike example?)
- Stand out by building a relationship with someone on the scholarship committee.
#2 brings me to my next point!
Step #4: Talk to someone who is part of the scholarship committee.
Now this is not always 100% possible. Some scholarships have rules that won’t allow you to talk to anyone on the scholarship committee.
If this is the case, skip this step and just talk to someone within the organization that helps you get a better idea of the company’s mission and values. With that said I always recommend at least trying!
If you do get a hold of someone, here are some important steps to follow:
Listen for Conversational Hooks
Conversational hooks are words or phrases said within a conversation that allows you to expand on the other person’s interest, providing a more in-depth conversation that builds rapport and trust.
Expand on the Conversational Hooks
If you listened for those conversational hooks you will be able to expand that conversation further in several directions. Try and hit as many conversational hooks with your response so it allows them several responses!
“Wow I love fitness as well! I actually am on the track and field team in my high school. As the team captain I really try to help my teammates and inspire them to be better athletes as well. What do you do to maintain your fitness and how do you inspire people and help athletes within the company?”
See what this does?
- It shows that you relate which builds rapport and trust with the scholarship committee member.
- It get the scholarship committee member excited to talk to you because EVERYONE LOVES TO TALK ABOUT THEMSELVES!
Keep the Conversation Going Until They Say They Have To Go!
Keep listening for those hooks, expand on them, and build that relationship!
The longer you can remain on the phone with them talking about THEIR INTEREST, LIFE, AMBITITIONS, AND JOB the more you will be able to relate back to them. This makes you stand out to them when you submit your essay.
Write them an email or (better yet) send them a “Thank you” card thanking them for their time.
Gratitude can go a long way. Wait 24 hours and send them an email thanking them for taking the time out of their busy day to speak to you. Make sure to include something from the conversation that you two really connected on.
OR if you have their address, send them a handwritten card!
You now not only know your audience but have someone in the scholarship committee that is probably rooting for you!
Step #5: Brainstorm Ideas
Ideas don’t always come naturally. In fact, often times when we NEED a really great idea to come to us, this is when we draw a blank. Save time staring at your paper by using a version of brainstorming called “mind-mapping”.
Here’s how it works:
- Write the name of your scholarship at the top.
- Write down everything that comes to mind about it — this includes the person/organization giving the scholarship, what they do, what they are asking for, what YOU do, what YOU like, etc.
I made an example for you here, with the “L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Scholarship”, a scholarship that asks students to write a short science fiction novel.
See how I connect different thoughts by drawing lines between them?
Your mind-map can be much bigger than this. But you can see now that I might choose to write my novel on a pilot traveling across the ocean, who is saved by pirates after his plane is taken down by a giant squid…where he meets a clone of himself!
Pretty exciting stuff, right?
Step #6: Pick a Topic You Care About
Scholarship essays are all about the person behind the essay.You want your readers to FEEL your passion about whatever it is you choose to write. And, they want to find someone who is passionate about the same things they are.
But be careful. Your essay is not a sales pitch. You need to be genuine about what you say, and this is why you need to care about the topic you choose. It will also make it easier to write!
Step #7: Create an Outline
This is something you need to do BEFORE you write the essay. And if you do, it will make writing the essay go faster!
I’ve created an example outline for you here. It shows you how you should think about structuring your scholarship essay.
Here also are some great scholarship essay examples from International Student that you can check out!
Step #8: Tell a Story
Tell a story? They want me to write them a book?
No, but they don’t want you to write a resume either! People who review essays for scholarships go through hundreds and thousands of essays. You may be super accomplished, but so are hundreds and thousands of other kids.
That’s why you can’t just throw your achievements at your readers. Write something that opens a window into your life for them. Like the characters in a book, they need to feel that they are getting to know you better through your essay.
To help you stay on track, here are some Scholarship Essay Do’s and Don’ts.
Step #9: Double-check Your Essay
Ever typed a word into your phone and had it auto-correct to something you didn’t mean to say? It’s the same with your computer. Don’t rely on spell-check to free your essay of errors.
After you’ve finished writing, re-read your essay from start to finish, out loud. It may seem silly to read what you just wrote, but trust me, it’s a good idea.
Ok, but why do I need to read it out loud?
Sometimes sentences you don’t remember writing can sound strange. Sometimes you may use one word so much that it sounds repetitive. You can catch these kinds of errors much faster if you see AND hear them.
Step #10: Have a Professional Review Your Essay
Are you still listening?? This step is important!
Think about if you were to enter singing auditions for American Idol, or the Voice. You could just wing it, but more likely you’ll want to practice singing in front of other people first. Why?Because you’re actually practicing your audition itself.
In this same way, you want to practice having someone else read your essay and hear their feedback. It’s a lot better to have someone ELSE tell you where your essay needs work than the person who is no longer offering you a scholarship!
Who should you ask to review your essay?
Ask a professional. What I mean is, ask someone who has experience with writing. If this person also seems to value the same things the people awarding the scholarship do, EVEN BETTER.
What kinds of people have experience with essay writing and/or scholarship applications?
- Your English teacher
- Your school counselor
- An English tutor
There are over 2+ billion dollars in private based scholarship available. So believe me when I say there are tens of thousands of dollars to be had for everyone who puts in the work.
In conclusion, the following steps can easily make you $500 per hour to help offset the cost for college. Once more, to write a winning scholarship essay:
- Get started early (3 weeks in advance — I mean it!)
- Read all of the instructions (TWICE, and highlight!)
- Know your audience
- Talk to someone who is part of a scholarship committee
- Brainstorm your ideas
- Pick a topic you care about
- Use an outline
- Tell a story
- Double-check your essay for mistakes
- Have a professional review your essay
What scholarships have you or your student received and why do you think they were chosen? Let us know in the comments below!
Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!