How to Write a Powerful Scholarship Essay

on March 22, 2016

A powerful essay can make a difference in whether you win a scholarship or not. The essay is one of your few opportunities to directly influence the selection committee. Everything else on the application is in the past. You can be selective in deciding which skills and activities to highlight, but otherwise it is too late to make changes in your background credentials.

The scholarship selection committee is judging applications, not people. They judge you by what you write, so don’t present trite answers to the essay questions. Be different. Tell a story. Talk about the impact you had on others and the impact that others had on you.  If you pick a topic you’re passionate about, the essay will be more interesting. Depth matters more than breadth.

Don’t copycat last year’s winner. Imitating a previous winner is the quickest path to elimination from the scholarship competition. Selection committees want to see something new, not something old.

Avoid other gimmicks. You may think you’re being clever by writing your essay in crayon, but this has been done many, many times. Likewise, essays involving pop-up books or graphic novels aren’t new. Chocolate chip cookies will be appreciated, but won’t increase your chances of winning the scholarship.

If asked to write about your greatest weakness or the biggest mistake you made, don’t portray a strength as a weakness. That’s a common cop-out that sidesteps the question. Answer the question by picking a genuine weakness, especially one with which they can identify. Write about how you learned from your mistakes. The purpose of this question is to see if you know your own limitations and how you have grown.

Use the inverted pyramid style of writing, where the most important information appears in the first sentence of the first paragraph. Some judges may read only the first paragraph of your essay, so you need to have a hook in the first paragraph to grab their attention.

If you have trouble writing essays, try recording yourself as you answer the question out loud. People speak at about 200 words per minute (wpm) while people write or type at 30-60 wpm. So, the act of writing interferes with the flow of thought. Recording your answer and then transcribing it will yield a more interesting essay, one that is more likely to attract and hold the reader’s attention.

A similar technique can help with proofreading the essay. Your application is judged by the words you write. An essay filled with spelling and grammar errors will give a bad impression, making you look uneducated. Print out a copy of the essay, so that it looks different than it did on the computer screen. Read it out loud, marking any place where you stumble. These disfluencies can be signs of spelling or grammar errors, poor word choice or problems with the logical flow. Correct the problems and repeat the process until you can read the essay from start to finish without stumbling.

Once you have a polished essay, save time by reusing it on future applications. Tweak the old essays for each new competition. If you mention the name of the scholarship competition in the essay, be sure to update it for each new application. Mentioning the wrong scholarship competition in your essay won’t help you win the scholarship.

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