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Scholarship Essay Tips for Student Writers

By Matt Konrad

It’s likely that nothing has caused scholarship applicants more stress over the years than the open-ended scholarship essay. Even students who breeze through their application, boast stellar grades and list impressive accomplishments can be stopped in their tracks by that big empty space.

Fortunately, a little bit of preparation and some useful advice are all it takes to help you break through that potential writer’s block. Here are Scholarship America’s tips, drawn from more than 60 years of evaluating applications—and starting, most importantly, with your mindset.

Open-ended questions are an opportunity, not a chore.

No matter what kind of scholarship you’re applying for, you can bet that there will be plenty of qualified applicants. Your goal is to stand out from the crowd, and essay questions are your best possible opportunity to do that.

Not all scholarships require perfect grades or amazing test scores, and your GPA and school activities can only do so much to show what makes you you. Essays are your opportunity to stand out by talking about your everyday reality, and how it impacts your educational journey. Are you balancing school with a job? Taking care of siblings? Teaching peers while you learn? These may seem like ordinary responsibilities to you, but they also mean you can multitask, prioritize and handle being busy – just the skills you need to succeed in college.

It’s never too early to start.

To maximize your opportunities, don’t start from scratch every time you come to an essay prompt. Instead, take some time in advance—like, for example, summer break—to organize some basic thoughts and general responses. (Our Scholarship America Self-Inventory can give you some guidance.)

Scholarship essays often ask about your passions, your goals, your volunteering and the obstacles you’ve overcome in life. Get prepared for these potential topics by outlining potential answers and brainstorming some stories you can tell that reflect your personality. By developing a few general talking points and responses, you can save yourself a ton of time when application season gets busy.

Do your research.

Take some time to dive deeper into the scholarships you’re likely to apply for. Start making a calendar of dates and deadlines; as you’re doing so, dig into the scholarship providers’ websites and social media channels to learn more about them.

What is their company’s or organization’s mission? What do they value? What kinds of students are they most likely to help? By understanding the goals of the scholarship and the scholarship provider, you can tailor your responses accordingly.

Build the structure first.

When it comes time to writing your actual essay, don’t just start typing. Open up a separate document and use those writing skills you learned in high school to build a structure: a strong, personal, compelling introduction; two or three supporting points; and a thoughtful conclusion. Look back at the answers and talking points you put together, and see how they fit into the blanks, and then you can start writing in a focused, organized way.

Remember why you’re here.

While essay responses may be open-ended, they still need to be written with purpose. As you fill in your outline, pause periodically to check whether you’re sticking to the essay prompt and answering the question it’s asking.

And don’t lose sight of the larger purpose: you’re writing the essay to tell evaluators why you, specifically deserve this specific scholarship. Draw from your preparation and research, but make sure to emphasize how your answer speaks to the scholarship provider’s goals and mission.

Look toward the future.

Every scholarship means hope for a brighter future—and striking an inspirational, positive and forward-looking tone will help evaluators see your promise. If you’ve faced challenges in life, don’t be afraid to discuss them, but focus more on how you’ve overcome them, and where you’re going next.

In the same vein, don’t just use the conclusion of your essay to recap the introduction. Instead, think big: outline what you’ll do in the next year, or the next decade, if you earn this scholarship, or how you hope to give back after you’ve started your career.

Don’t let language get in the way.

Lots of students stress about their essays because they “aren’t writers.” But unless you’re applying for a writing-related scholarship, don’t worry! You’re submitting your essay to tell your personal story, and there’s no need to get too showy with your language. Instead, remember some basic rules:

  • Show, don’t tell: share your personal experiences and perceptions; instead of long paragraphs about the value of perseverance, tell a story about how you got yourself out of a jam.
  • It’s not a vocabulary test: The most important part of the essay is telling your story. If simple language gets the job done, don’t overcomplicate things.
  • Write it like you’d tell it: Before you finalize anything, read your essay aloud, to yourself or someone else. By hearing it rather than reading it, you’ll find ways to keep the rhythm and structure more natural and interesting.
  • Proofread, proofread again, and proofread one more time: Scholarship evaluators don’t really care that much if you can spell onomatopoeia. But they do care that you’re the kind of person who will spend extra time double-checking their work and submitting something you can take pride in.

You’re not done until someone else reads it.

Once you’ve finished outlining, writing and proofing, it can be tempting to just call it “done” and submit your application—but don’t! No matter how careful you’ve been and how happy you are with the results, you should always have someone you trust review your work before submitting. Whether it’s a teacher, a family member or your friend who always aces English tests, send your finished copy to them; a fresh set of eyes is often needed to catch mistakes or suggest improvements.

Just as importantly, sending your work to someone else is a good reminder that you’re not alone in the process! Scholarship essays have been a source of stress for millions of students, but a good support system, early preparation and a bit of research will help you get over that stress and start earning scholarship dollars.