For the A Better American Scholarship program, we’ve read hundreds of scholarship essays and have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Therefore, we decided to write this guide to help students win any scholarship award.
The tips and tricks we offer here are framed in terms of academic scholarships for students, but they’re applicable to any piece of writing asking someone for something, including funding proposals in the civil sector, to writing cover letters for jobs, even to grants for writers
Here’s your 7 step guide to writing the best essay you can.
The crucial first step: identifying your audience
As with any written undertaking, one of the first things you need to think about in writing a scholarship essay is who you’re writing for. Don’t be fooled here: your professors are not your audience.
Instead, the eyes reached by your scholarship essay will usually belong either to a panel of experts in a particular field or subject or a group of generally educated, non-specialist members of the organization offering the scholarship.
Understanding your audience is fundamental to writing a successful scholarship essay. Ask yourself questions like these:
(a) Who is on the committee, and what is their background?
Are they educated non-specialists, or are they all PhD’s in your specific academic subfield? Do they represent universities, industry, private philanthropists, or other organizations? Are they native English speakers, and if so from what country?
(b) What are their goals?
A scholarship committee from Amnesty International will have a different agenda than one overseen by the US State Department. Is the scholarship offered by an organization committed to fighting climate change, or promoting traditional values among today’s youth, or simply promoting awesomeness.
Written communication doesn’t take place in a vacuum; you’re writing for someone to read it.
You don’t talk to your mom about your Biology class the same way you would discuss it with a fellow Bio major, and the way you discuss it with scholarship essay reviewers should also be tailored to them and what they’re searching for.
The hardest part: answering the question
It seems like the most basic component of an essay, but somehow it inevitably turns out to be the most difficult for many of us.
Take this sample college admission essay topic from The Common Application:
“Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
If this question sets your head buzzing with thoughts of how you always wanted to go to medical school just like Dad until you discovered your passion for social work, hold on.
The story of how you blossomed personally from Daddy’s protégé to social problem-solver is undoubtedly a great one, but it’s not what’s being asked for here. There are two simple questions posed: what made you challenge a belief or idea, and would you do it again?
If you have trouble sifting the main question out of its supporting context, try some of these approaches to getting a strong grasp on your essay question:
Locate the question marks
In the example above, the declarative statement that comes first is asking you to think about something and frame your argument within it, but it’s not the question. Keep in mind, not every “question” will take the form of a question – sometimes it’ll be prompted by declarative phrases like “discuss” or “compare and contrast”.
Rephrase the question(s) in your own simple terms. The second sentence of this example question has five words, and you can simplify it down to just one: “why”. The second sentence can also be boiled down to: “would you do it again?”
Mark it up
Highlight, underline, strike through. Do what you need to keep your eyes on the scholarship prize. In this example, you might strike a light line through the entire first sentence, highlight the second two, and underline the phrases “what prompted you” and “same decision again”.
Your most powerful weapon: the introduction
Once you understand your audience and have identified the guiding light of your question, it’s time to start crafting your essay. Your introduction looks like your biggest hurdle, but it’s actually a powerful weapon.
Even your first line could set you apart from the crowd of cookie cutter applications. It’s the most effective way to signal to your essay reader right away that you’ve come to rescue them from the monotony of reading dozens of indistinguishable essays, that you’ve got a fresh take on the topic that they might even enjoy reading.
Here are some concrete components of your secret weapon:
Don’t state the obvious
“I’m writing to express my interest in and qualifications for the University College Excellence Scholarship” is an awesome way to squash your chances of winning that scholarship. The reader already knows why you’ve written the essay, and while one sentence doesn’t seem like too much to waste on redundant detail, that’s the twentieth time they’ve read that exact sentence today.
Just as bad is the classic “I will first discuss my motivations, then my qualifications, and finally what this scholarship would mean to me personally and professionally.” You just used 21 words and all you’ve said is “duh”.
Answer the question
In the last step you “answered” the question for yourself, but now you’re answering it for the reader. You should be able to answer the main question in one strong, general declarative statement here.
For example, if the question is “what kind of research would you do with this grant,” your introductory paragraph should include a sentence that sounds something like, “With the University Summer Research Grant, I will spend three months in Washington, D. C. conducting archival research on the role of four prominent national newspapers during McCarthyism and the Red Scare.”
Tell, don’t show
The introduction should comprise a few concise sentences that establish and frame an argument that you will support with the rest of your essay.
This is not the place for details about how spending your weekends teaching reading skills to underserved inner-city kids and volunteering at the local adult education center has shown you that many people in our society lack opportunities to succeed. What it should tell is that your extensive background in volunteering with the economically disadvantaged has given you the appropriate mindset to tackle a social problem that the grant will fund.
Remember, you’ll do the “showing” in the body of the essay.
While you probably won’t win a scholarship on the merits of your introduction alone, you can easily lose it here. Focus on pragmatically telling the reader what they need to know about the impending essay and finding the right level of detail for a succinct introduction of your ideas or arguments.
Delivering your message: the writing process
A good understanding of your audience and a strong introduction are only prerequisites to a good scholarship essay, but they’re not enough to win you the money. It’s ultimately the content of your essay, what you say, and how you say it that will determine your success.
The body of your essay is not the place to narrate your CV or show off how broad your vocabulary is. It’s where you answer the question being asked in a detailed, argumentative way.
For some essays, that question will be a broad one: what are your goals? How will this scholarship affect your professional career? If given this opportunity, how will you change the world?
Others will be tailored very specifically to a goal: if applying for a scholarship or grant to carry out research, you’ll be asked to describe your project plan in detail; if applying for an international exchange, you may need to painstakingly detail how your being selected would serve the organization’s goals of increased intercultural communication.
This is the most divergent area of the scholarship essay writing process, because every funding opportunity will look different and ask different things.
Still, here are some universal tips to go by:
Show, don’t tell
Ah, yes, that one sounds more familiar. Never in a scholarship essay (or really any other kind of essay) should you make claims like “I am an excellent time manager and am highly qualified to work with diverse groups of people.” Anyone can say that.
Instead, try something like “During my sophomore year of college I spent each weekend organizing the multicultural movie night at the student union center. This forced me to adhere to a strict schedule while working with a team of students from all departments, years, and cultural backgrounds across the university.”
Listen to George Orwell
While he may have been a bit too absolute in laying down the laws of good writing, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” might be the closest thing we have to a cure-all for bad writing in the modern day.
Orwell’s focus is on getting rid of bloated language with lots of big words and replacing it with pragmatic language comprising accessible, concrete words. Your essay readers would rather read that you are “media savvy and sensitive to PR trends” than that you are “exceedingly competent and knowledgeable on the subject of public relations”.
Be clear and concise
A centerpiece of your writing strategy should be finding the shortest, most direct and logical route to conveying your ideas. Get to the point.
Write assertively and in the active voice
Don’t “be motivated by” something; instead tell the readers that you find your inspiration in it, that you commit yourself to it. Using the active voice puts you and your actions at the center of an essay, making you an active agent rather than a passive recipient of your fate.
State your accomplishments tactfully
Don’t just restate information from your résumé, but instead say why your accomplishments matter. Your academic achievement is useless unless you can convince your essay readers that it has given you transferable skills relevant to the task at hand.
Don’t translate the line on your resume that says “Student Body President, Fall 2013 – Spring 2015” to “I was Student Body President for five semesters.” Instead, tell your readers why that matters: “During my tenure as Student Body President at State University, I learned how to bring multiple stakeholders together around a table and facilitate a compromise.”
The job’s not over: revising and editing
For most of us this is the phase that tests our discipline. After hours, days, weeks, or even months of pouring all you’ve got into a scholarship application, it’s time to tear up your essay. Remember, editing your own work is hard, but entirely possible if you know what to do. It’s the testing ground where many writers fall victim to despair and give up.
Here are some tips on how to get through the editing process with your mind and essay in tact:
Reread your essay prompt and essay together
Think of them as a Q&A session. Does your essay address and answer every part of the question, or does it sound more like a politician standing behind a podium? If your essay talks around rather than about your question, then it needs rewriting.
Reread each individual sentence
Ask yourself some questions about every statement you’ve made. Does this make sense? Does it logically follow the sentence that comes before it and logically precede the sentence that comes after it? Does it relate to the topic of the paragraph and the overall argument of the paper?
Read it out loud
Your final product should read like it was written by a knowledgeable and educated person, not a robot. Reading aloud can help you identify awkward sentence structures and unnatural phrasings that should be edited or removed.
The final touches: proofreading
Did you think proofreading was covered by editing and revision? Proofreading is a different step entirely, and not one you should gloss over as you near the finish line.
Most scholarships receive a lot of very well qualified applicants. This means that the final decision between two 4.0 GPAs and beautifully crafted essays might be made based on a few typos. Take some steps to avoid letting careless mistakes steal your excellent essay’s spotlight:
Trick your brain
Your literate brain is efficient and hates wasting time, so it does a lot of autocorrecting for you. Even if thre are mssing or incorect lettrs in a sentence, your eyes and brain don’t want to waste time nitpicking, because they still understand.
To counter this, try reading it over it at a different location (like a coffee shop), which allows the brain to think it’s reading something new. Or print it out in a different font – a smart trick that will help you see your work with fresh eyes.
Get a second set of eyes
After three proofreads you may feel like your essay is good to go, but by now your eyes have gotten numb to the words and letters on the page and can no longer be trusted.
When it comes to catching grammar mistakes and typos, an editor can make the world of difference. It doesn’t have to be a dissertation editing service, or cost money either. Get a trusted friend or family member to read over and edit it.
They might find a “form” accidentally transposed into a “from” where you missed it, or perhaps a common your/you’re or there/their/they’re mistake. Writing is an art, but when it comes to correct grammar it’s a technical skill too.
Know your on- and off-campus resources
If you’re on the hunt for scholarships to start college, your high school guidance counselors are your best resources, and Language Arts or English teachers make for great essay readers. Also check sites like Fastweb to search scholarships and get advice on applying for them.
If you’re already in university, then there’s very likely a broad support structure in place that you might not even be aware of.
Here are the two key ones that most North American universities offer, as well as an online resource available and applicable to all:
Offices of National Scholarships/Fellowships
Most four-year institutions have an office somewhere on campus that’s there to support you at least in applying for the well-known scholarships (like Rhodes, Truman, Fulbright, and Boren).
Some will support you in everything from applying to small academic research grants from your department to writing admissions essays for graduate school. The best universities will have a whole office staffed to coach you through the entire process, from identifying opportunities to how to claim the scholarship funds on your taxes.
University Writing Center
This will usually be located in an English or Rhetoric department. Your university writing center is most likely staffed by graduate students specializing in writing and other communications disciplines.
They’re not there to proofread or check how you formatted your citations, but they are there to help you write with better, more concise and efficient language that best showcases your accomplishments and qualifications.
Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)
The OWL is the be-all-end-all of online academic writing resources. For everything from formatting citations to how to construct logical arguments, make this your go-to guide.
Bonus: Become a better writer through the process
When we see an opportunity to win a thousand bucks for our studies, most of us don’t think of it as a writing exercise, but that may actually be the greatest value in the whole process. While the statistical odds of winning the award are stacked against you in most cases, you’ll almost certainly end up a better writer than when you started.
Remember, the skills you’re learning in applying for competitive scholarships – persuasive writing, succinct expression of ideas, rhetorical appeals, logical argumentation – are applicable far and wide.
Professional grant writers are an obvious example, but good scholarship essay writers also go on to become successful online marketers, journalists, and bloggers, as well as just about any other profession that requires efficient, goal-oriented communication.
Hayley Capp, winner of the 2013 QS Leadership Scholarship, shares her top tips on how to write a winning scholarship application essay.
There is no one way to write a winning scholarship application. If you gathered together all the scholarship entries that have ever won a prize, you would find it difficult to identify what made them the same. Each would offer a distinctive style employed by the author; a unique insight into his or her past, present and future aspirations.
This uniqueness is the key, and the first point to remember when you pick up your pen to write. Make your scholarship application essay exclusive to you, personalize it, delve deep into your passion and drive to study your subject, and create a response that could only ever relate to you. It is this individuality that stands out, and that’s exactly what catches a judge’s eye and defines a winner.
I won the 2013 QS Leadership Scholarship, so will base my guidance on my own thought process when shaping my application essay. However, the basic principles that I highlight with this example can be extracted and applied to other scholarship essay writing processes.
1. Read and re-read the essay statement you are being asked to respond to, and identify the key themes.
From my own example, the essay statement was: ‘Where I have demonstrated responsible leadership, or innovation, and how it made a difference either in my community or in my work’. I identified the key themes as ‘leadership’ and ‘community impact’.
2. Understand the meaning of the key themes.
After identifying the key themes, it is important to understand what each of these ideas really means, beyond the initial level. For instance, I acknowledged that the meaning of ‘leadership’ involved identifying the effects my leadership had – the actions taken and results achieved under my leadership – and not simply describing the position I held and my responsibilities. The more depth you bring to your understanding of the meaning of each theme, the more examples you will be able to identify to demonstrate your abilities.
3. Fill your scholarship essay with keywords/synonyms of keywords used in the scholarship statement.
Using the keywords from the scholarship statement throughout your essay will demonstrate your commitment to addressing the question being asked. For instance, I made a special effort to ensure references to ‘leadership’; ‘innovation’ and ‘impacting communities’ ran throughout my essay.
4. Make an engaging start to your essay.
If you are struggling to start your scholarship application essay, why not include a quote or statement that relates to your intended course, and which you can later link to the main body of your text. Showing wider knowledge and aptitude for your subject will help convince the judges that it is a worthwhile investment to support you in your chosen course.
5. Understand the criteria used by the scholarship committee to evaluate application essays.
Based on my own experience, I have outlined what I believe to be the key criteria used by scholarship committee judges for evaluating scholarship application essays on the themes of leadership and community impact. My advice would be to address all of these areas in your essay, whether the question explicitly asks for it or not.
What to include in scholarship essays about leadership:
- The extent of the leadership experience and degree of accomplishment. What were the results? Did you manage to grow a society from 10 to 100 members through your tenure?
- Why you got involved in the leadership experience. What was your initial inspiration and how did the experience make you feel? This is a very important aspect as it allows you to show your sincerity and demonstrates your passion.
- What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them? Inspirational stories of perseverance despite adversity make readers (especially judges) want to help you succeed. It also shows that you have great leadership qualities: the ability to adapt to new situations and the determination to not give up.
- What did you learn?How did these lessons shape you as a leader? Every experience brings new lessons and personal growth opportunities and the best leaders are humble and realize this. Speaking about these lessons indicates that you have truly reflected on your experiences and that you understand what leadership is. (In other words, you know that leadership isn’t just about getting a title like “President” or “Executive Director”.)
- What does this mean for the future? A scholarship isn’t just an award; it’s an investment in your future. So if you plan to continue being involved in your particular leadership activity in the future, tell the judges.
What to include in scholarship essays about community impact:
- How much time did you dedicate to the activity? The scholarship committee is likely to be looking for applicants who made a fairly long commitment to a community activity.
- Why was it important to you? Joy from helping others? Excitement of trying something new? Opportunity to form relationships with others? Having a genuine reason helps build a convincing essay.
- Why was it important to the community? Ask the question: What would be different for your community if you didn’t do what you do? It is most important to show that you recognize the real needs in your communities, and act to address these.
- What did you gain yourself through giving to the community? It is important to show that you understand how through giving, you end up receiving more in the end. Sharing what community service has taught you and how it helped you develop demonstrates that you have truly gained from your participation and suggests you will continue doing so in the future.
My final point of advice when writing your scholarship application essay or cover letter is to really show that you know who you are. What are the relevant past and present experiences that demonstrate your abilities and where are you headed? Use carefully selected language to emphasize your passion, ambition and enthusiasm and remember to adopt a positive mindset, in which you believe in all the great things you have done and plan to continue achieving in the future. If you don’t believe in yourself, why would the judges?
You can browse our various scholarship listings here, and QS also offers its own scholarships. Also, you can download our free guide for more advice on how to find scholarships to study abroad.
Hayley Capp is the winner of the 2013 QS Leadership Scholarship. Covering up to US$10,000 of course fees for a graduate program, the scholarship is awarded to the applicant best able to demonstrate his/her ability to use entrepreneurial and leadership skills to make a positive impact on a community.
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