Paying for college is a very valid concern and a top priority for students in the United States. The most desirable scholarships are those that are renewable and don’t have to be paid back. More and more students are starting to plan ahead in terms of their financial future and no one wants to be stuck with debilitating student loans years after college completion.
It’s common knowledge that there are billions of dollars in scholarship money out there from the U.S. Department of Education, in addition to private sources, so taking the time to learn how to write a scholarship essay could be a valuable time and financial investment.
Although there are a multitude of scholarships out there, the pros say there are definitely some guidelines to follow for writing an exemplary essay. Keep reading to find out some simple steps for getting it done, and done well.
So, what is a scholarship essay?
Scholarships are student financial aid awards for college based on merit and most of the time they require an essay. Students will want to search out scholarships that they are qualified for. The organization granting the award will decide on the terms ahead of time. The essay terms can vary in nature, and a couple examples include a specific word count or a prompt to answer, or both.
For instance, PROMPT: Write about your hopes for the future for women and girls worldwide, 500 words or less.
The essay prompt and terms and very specific. Organizations expect applicants to adhere to the question and the word count. Whatever the requirements are, the first step will be to hold fast to the guidelines in order to qualify for the award.
Good news! The first step in writing a scholarship essay should seem very familiar. Brainstorming is always a good rule of thumb before fashioning a set of ideas into an essay. The prompt for the essay should get you on your way to formulating thoughts and it’s not a bad idea to jot ideas down during the brainstorming phase. No ideas are bad ideas during the brainstorming phase but always keep the prompt in mind during this time – you don’t want to veer away from what the scholarship committee is expecting. Brainstorming can take time and generating good ideas will be an important first step.
Devising a structure for your essay is the next very important step. Sometimes this can be difficult because when ideas flow they don’t always flow in a clear and logical order. This key step helps to organize ideas, though. If you take your time with the outline, it could even save you a headache during revision. Essentially, outlining should determine the order of ideas and if rearranging is necessary. One helpful suggestion while outlining is to take the jots you made while brainstorming and arrange them into a logical order that makes sense for your essay. A scholarship essay should model other essays in this way. For instance, an introduction should provide a thesis statement in a sentence or two. Your thesis should be prominent in your introduction.
A standard essay has a thesis statement near or at the end of the introductory paragraph. However, in the beginning stages of writing it may be helpful to initially write a stand-alone sentence so that you can think about it, analyze it, and change it as necessary. The thesis is the major emphasis for what you are trying to convey but a working thesis doesn’t have to be the final-draft version — just the clear and specific claim you want the reader to pay attention to. Keep in mind that a thesis statement should never be a question, a list, or be confrontational or strongly opinionated. A huge mistake in writing a scholarship essay would be to lose your reader right away by not having a clear thesis statement.
Now that you are ready to write your essay, model it after an academic essay with a logical order. Your truth of the thesis lies in the body of the essay but your point should be clearly stated in the introductory paragraph, even if the essay is more narrative in nature. It’s time to communicate your ideas clearly and support your message. The reader needs concise writing without rambling and unnecessary details. Ultimately, your essay has a very valid purpose or motive — you want that scholarship! Some common ways to spark the interest of the reader is by weaving in thoughtful information about who you are and what’s important to you. Additionally, inviting the reader to follow the path of a story helps to keep their interest. Finally, detailing a specific incident or real life example will make the essay very personal.
5. Formatting tips.
It’s important not to overlook formatting tips. There’s a standard format to adhere to like traditional size, font, margins, and spacing. There’s no need to make the font fancy or colorful to gain attention from the reader. The judges will want to be wowed by the writing itself, not the formatting. The writing font should be 12 point font, double-spaced for easy reading, and the text should be a professional font like Arial or Times New Roman. The default font that’s implemented into your writing software program is likely acceptable. The idea is to make it simple to read, professional looking, and not too stylized. Typical margins range from 1 inch to 1 ½ inch, which is also probably already a default setting in your software. In some cases, incorrect formatting or font that’s too big, bold or stylized could be an automatic cause for disqualification.
6. Editing and revising.
You will be the editor of your own work but getting another set of eyes is a good idea. Asking someone to review your work will help you discern what is working and what isn’t. Other real readers can let you know about mistakes in the technical aspects of the writing in addition to the feelings and thoughts evoked while reading your essay. When it’s time to proceed as your own editor, there are some guidelines to follow.
Read your essay aloud.
Reading your work out loud will give you a sense of how it sounds when read naturally. Let your ears do some of the work too. If you have been laboring over the sentences, structure, and words, it will sound differently when read aloud this way. If it sounds off, it likely is and it might require revision.
It’s likely that your essay has a required word count so every word counts. Be tough on yourself and scrutinize your work down to every last word. Phrases, words, clichés, and metaphors people hear all the time can lose their impact. You want the reader to hear your voice, not everyone else’s.
Interesting sentence structure will make for an interesting essay. You don’t want your essay to sound monotone. You can avoid this by writing sentences with different lengths and starting sentences in varying ways. Also be mindful of the specific words you use to start sentences. “And,” “because,” and “but” should be avoided as sentence starters.
Another tip is that you don’t want to go overboard with obscure words. Sometimes synonyms can lose the context you intended. For instance, extraordinary is a synonym for special. A life experience can be special without being extraordinary. You want your essay to sound professional and sharp but using the thesaurus for every other word will be obvious and the scholarship committee will see through it.
7. Handling the conclusion.
Scholarships are very competitive and some experts agree that reviewers and committees may not even have time to read entire essays. However, this shouldn’t prevent you from doing your best work. Assume that it is being read all the way through. Ask yourself if your last paragraph is strong on its own. If your essay is in the running, it will be read from beginning to end. Your conclusion will be an integral part of your essay — summing up the main points and tying everything together in a creative way. Your conclusion could be your best tool for success if it’s strong, memorable, and intentionally brings your thesis full circle. Stating your thesis word for word should be avoided, though. Your final comment should show you’ve taken the time to edit for content and creativity. The conclusion is the impression you are leaving with the scholarship committee, so make it a lasting one.
Do’s and don’ts.
Did you skip all the way to the end? If you did, here’s your simple list of do’s and don’ts for writing that scholarship essay.
Do: Be yourself.
Everyone is unique and has a special story or life experience to share. If you are human, you have dealt with adversity or some kind of challenging situation. Be honest in your essay and be proud to share your story. No one else shares your history in the exact same way. Your tone will come across better if you own it versus overselling or dramatizing your story.
Do: Meet the deadline.
Procrastination will likely not produce your best work, so time management and organization will be your allies when preparing your essay. Your conscientious effort with time could pay off in the end and will probably make you feel better about your work. Be sure to meet the deadline whether it’s digitally or by snail mail.
Do: Be optimistic.
Is there power in positive thinking? This idea has been studied and overwhelming evidence says, yes! Positive emotions provide you with the ability to open your mind to possibilities, and build life skills. Positive emotions can help with the writing process, too. In fact, writing itself has been shown to bring contentment and joy when writing about positive experiences, so try to enjoy the process.
Are you tempted to use a high school essay on a former topic, an essay you drafted for another scholarship, or fabricate something you read or recall from the past? Originality is important when there’s so much at stake and there is much competition. Thinking and writing independently will give your essay a better chance to stand out.
This one should be a given but sadly it does still happen. Do not copy someone else’s work. There are many online resources that give exemplary scholarship essay advice and examples. Advice is one thing and researching is always a good idea, but presenting someone else’s writing as your own is dishonest and unethical and would be cause for immediate disqualification.
Don’t: Get discouraged.
Don’t get discouraged if you pour your heart into one or two essays and don’t win either one. Someone out there who is persistent and working hard at this will win. Let that person be you. Your odds will increase the more you apply and don’t forget that applying for scholarships can be done from year to year on an ongoing basis. If you are already in college, you can still find multiple opportunities.
There’s a lot of information out there surrounding the best ways to write a scholarship essay and some of the tips can vary, but the essential things to pay attention to are the writing suggestions that are emphasized across the board. For example, pay attention to your audience. Get familiar with the organization’s mission, website, or focus. Next, outline like you would with an academic essay and stay organized. Always edit and revise, adhering to the guidelines of the prompt. Furthermore, be yourself, be original, and never plagiarize. Finally, to wrap it all up, being mindful and positive in your thinking certainly can’t hurt.