Writing a scholarship essay isn’t like writing an essay for a high school class, experts warn.
Students hoping to earn scholarships, a form of financial aid that does not need to be repaid, often must compete with hundreds of other applicants and sometimes for a very limited number of awards.
Free financial aid plays a significant role in helping students in the U.S. pay for college. According to the 2019 How America Pays for College report from Sallie Mae, 31% of college costs in 2018-2019 were paid for with money that does not need to be repaid; three-fifths of that were scholarships and two-fifths were grants.
To get the most of this highly desirable aid, students can take advantage of a few expert-recommended strategies to make their application stand out. Below are a few tips for writing scholarship essays that pack a punch.
Get Personal and Be Specific
The key to a successful scholarship essay is making it personal, experts say, and including impactful details. An essay that feels genuine and offers insights into who the applicant is on a deeper level will stand out in a crowd of academic essays that may be boring for readers who review hundreds and sometimes thousands of applications.
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Scholarships awarded by the Pride Foundation, for example, require an application that involves multiple essays in which students are asked to describe themselves, what they plan to study and the kinds of work they hope to do. The social justice-focused philanthropic foundation aims to support the LGBTQ community in the Northwest region and awards more than 60 scholarships for any accredited postsecondary school or program, according to its website.
College scholarships had an average award amount of about $5,000 to $8,000 last year, says Katelen Kellogg, the foundation’s communications and outreach manager. She says the scholarships are for LGBTQ or strongly LGBTQ-allied students who are residents of the Pacific Northwest.
Kellogg, who helps read essays from applicants each year, says the scholarship essays that stand out to her include “details that paint the picture of their lives.” She says the most successful essays are “less about something you do and more about who you are as a person.”
Eden Shore, a volunteer manager at the Pride Foundation who also has experience reading hundreds of scholarship essays, says the writing process should be meaningful for students – and that comes across in the essay.
“Your essay can be an opportunity for you to make sense of something yourself,” Shore says. “Illustrate you can thoughtfully reflect.”
Tell a Story
A standout essay hooks the reader from the first sentence, says Monica Matthews, author of the scholarship guide, “How to Win College Scholarships.”
Think about the structure of the essay, and how the reader can be drawn in by it, experts say. The story should feel real and true to the student’s life.
“Students need to begin with a hook and share personal and tangible details about their life,” Matthews wrote in an email. “Simply stating that they have helped others, for example, does not let the judges see the kind of person that they really are. Writing about specific experiences with real-life situations using interesting details makes compelling and memorable essays.”
Tailor the Scholarship Essay to the Prompt
In some cases, it may be acceptable and even smart to repurpose an essay the student has already written and use it for another application. But experts say students should exercise caution.
“Many times, students try to re-purpose essays from the admissions process for scholarship essays, and the result ends up being so-so,” Colleen Paparella Ganjian, an independent educational consultant and founder of DC College Counseling in Virginia, wrote in an email.
Instead, essays should be on topic and specific to the unique question being asked and the organization to which students are applying.
A typical scholarship essay topic will likely ask students about their career goals and their plan to achieve those goals, Matthews says. Other essay prompts might ask students what they’ve done to make their community a better place or to describe a personal achievement and how they overcame challenges to reach it.
Don’t Tailor Yourself to the Reader
Students often feel they need to project a certain image or side of themselves in scholarship applications and essays. This isn’t always necessary.
“The only person an applicant has to be is themselves,” Shore says of applicants to the Pride Foundation Scholarship.
The trap of tailoring themselves can be particularly tempting for students who are nontraditional or have an international background, says Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of International College Counselors based in Florida.
“Don’t shy away from talking about your culture, traditions, and experiences. If you’re an international applicant, a minority, or non-traditional student, don’t try to ‘Americanize’ or ‘mainstream’ your application,” Heller Adler wrote in an email. “Scholarship committees like diversity, and the goal is to stand out and not appear to be like all the other applicants. Don’t be afraid to expand on details about your culture that are meaningful to you and essential to understanding who you are.”
The greatest frustration in reading scholarship application essays, Shore says, is when students fail to follow directions. This means taking note of any formatting specifications, length restrictions and answering the question posed.
“Make sure you’re answering the question that has been asked and stay within the word limit you’re given,” Shore says. “Longer doesn’t necessarily mean better. If students are bored by the essay they write, the reader will be too.”
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.