Writing a Great Scholarship Essay: Dos and Don'ts

Getting into college is serious business. Applications must be meticulously filled out, and the college essay must be impeccable. Students often heave a sigh of relief once they receive their acceptance letters, grateful part of the process is over. But that's just it—only part of the process is over. Most college-bound seniors need financial assistance beyond what federal financial aid will cover. That's where scholarships come in. Scholarships require separate applications and demand unique essays that answer the most basic question: “Why should we give you money for your future?”

What Does it Take to Write a Great Scholarship Essay?

1. DO have your college application materials nearby.

For most college applications, students must compile a list of extracurricular activities, awards and achievements, jobs, and volunteer work. Having that list available will make it easier to remember all of the things that make you a unique and involved individual.

 2. DON'T recycle your college application essay.

Too often, students think they can simply take their college application essays, tweak a few words, and send in essentially the same essay. Although college application essays and scholarship essays may have similar prompts (they both ask you to describe yourself in a positive light), the wording is often different enough that the same material will not transfer from one prompt to the other without major revision.

For example, most of my students apply to state schools, for which the prompt is, “How will your presence enrich our community?” However, our local scholarship prompt is, “Describe how your past accomplishments will contribute to your future success.” While many students find they want to speak about similar meaningful activities and accomplishments in both essays, they still need to ensure that the heart of their essays address the prompt fully and correctly.

3. DO choose to discuss what makes you shine.

This may seem like obvious advice; however, an overwhelming majority of my students tend to get self-deprecating come scholarship essay time. They bemoan, “I don't do anything. I didn't participate in anything.” Perhaps you are a student who isn't particularly athletic or didn't make it onto the student government. While teachers tend to push students to become more involved in school activities, it is often the interests outside of school that make each student an individual. So if your passion is music, and you taught yourself how to play guitar freshman year, discuss the challenges of learning an instrument on your own and how music shapes your life today. Chances are, your passion will shine through in your writing. Don't be afraid to share what truly captivates you.

4. DON'T turn your scholarship essay into a resume.

While you should choose to talk about activities, experiences, and interests that make you stand out, you do not want your essay to turn into a list of all the things you have ever participated in. Many students fall prey to the idea that their essays should say, “Look at all the things I did!” Instead, your essay should explore some of the things you did and go into more detail about how those activities, experiences, and interests made a lasting impact on your life. Remember, quality always trumps quantity when it comes to the scholarship essay.

 5. DO discuss your future plans.

Most scholarship committees want to know how the money they award will be used. Although you should not include an itemized list of your impending college expenses, you should mention the college you plan on attending and your intended major, if it is appropriate for the prompt given. Scholarship committees want to see that you have goals and a plan to achieve them. If you are currently undecided, feel free to discuss a career area of interest or two, and address what you have done so far to explore your career options.

6. DON'T turn your essay into a pity party.

While I advise my students to address their futures in their essays, I warn them against complaining too much about their pasts. There are many scholarships available to students with true financial needs, but that information will be filled out in a separate section of the application. The essay is not a place to say, “I really need the money.” Scholarship committees know you need the money; that's why you're applying for the scholarship. Also, if you're addressing obstacles in your past that challenged you to grow and change, make sure you stay away from wording like, “I've been through so much in my life,” or, “I've had it really rough.” There are ways to discuss how you have overcome obstacles in your life without coming across too negative or needy. Your essay should show growth.

7. DO send in a well-polished final draft.

Many students tend to get secretive about their writing and are embarrassed to have others look over essays for them. This is not the time to exhibit this behavior. Instead, have an adult look over your essay for you and help you with editing. Scholarship committees dislike essays full of grammatical errors and typos. An error-filled essay says the writer didn't care enough about the essay to take the time to proofread it. If you don't take the time to proofread, the committee won't take the time to read it.

 8. DON'T fill your final draft with unnecessary fluff.

While you should have an adult look over your essay, don't let that adult make changes with which you are uncomfortable. Sometimes the adults that want to help end up adding too much wording that they think sounds better. In addition, don't stress yourself out over a super-formal introduction and conclusion. Many of my students ask for a list of quotes they can use to begin their scholarship essays, and while this is an age-old strategy appropriate for other essay forms, starting with a quote can come across as staged and pretentious in the scholarship essay. Simply address the prompt you are given and be yourself.

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