How to Write a Scholarship Essay: 9 Essential Steps

Avatar by Brendan Brown | April 26, 2021, 2:07 am

As a professional editor, I’ve read hundreds of scholarship essays and have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

Therefore, I decided to write this guide to help students win any scholarship award.

The tips and tricks I 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.

Here’s your 9 step guide to writing the best scholarship essay you can.

1. Identifying and understand 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?

You might want to do some basic research on each member of the committee to see some examples of what they have achieved. Understanding their life work, or their ‘niche’, could help you tailor your answer in a way that stands out to their eyes.

(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.

2. Check for any rules you have to follow

Just like assignments, plenty of scholarship essays have to be submitted in accordance with the rules.

Don’t disregard them – those rules tend to be in place for a good reason. Word count and formatting tend to be the most common ones. Sometimes word count limits are strict (‘maximum 800 words’), sometimes there’s flexibility (‘between 600 and 800 words’).

Either way, stick to what is being asked of you.

Check and double-check your emails, forms, and the organization’s website for any special instructions or requirements. Just because you don’t see any instructions in one document doesn’t mean that they’re not in an obscure FAQ section on the organization’s website. If in doubt, always email the contact person for that scholarship and ask.

At best, submitting a scholarship essay without following the rules gets a disappointed headshake from the person who reads it. At worst, it gets you disqualified from the process immediately.

3. Understand what the question is asking

Answering the essay question may seem like the most basic component of an essay, but somehow it inevitably turns out to be the most difficult for many of us.

Remember, before you can craft out a winning essay, you need to have a solid understanding of what the question is asking for. Resist the urge to jump straight into the writing process, as it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing hundreds of words before you come to realize that you haven’t answered the question at all.

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”.

Simplify it

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”.

4. The brainstorming process

Once you understand what your question is asking for, you can start coming up with some ideas to answer your question.

You might find it helpful to write down a list of your achievements or extra-curricular activities. Dust off the old CVs. Have a look at your certificates. Talk to your family and friends. If you have been involved with a multitude of activities over the past few years, it can be easy to lose track of all the impressive things you have done.

Let’s look at this question again: “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”

You might have plenty of experience in one field, or multiple fields, which could be used to answer that question. Perhaps you’ve volunteered extensively for a social cause, or have had the experience of being a leader who challenged the status quo.

However, as the question is only asking for ONE example (‘on a time’), you’ll have to pick and choose. Draw on your list of personal experiences and consider which experience can directly answer the question best.

Now is also the time to put all your findings and research of the committee into good use. For example, if your committee’s niche is climate change, then an experience that relates to protecting the environment will speak to them more than your experience of setting up a cryptocurrency business.

5. The introduction is your most powerful weapon

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”.

Remember, many scholarship essays come with a word count. Every word matters. If you’re not careful, the introduction is an easy way to get caught up with additional waffle.

Don’t start off with a quote

Starting off your essay with a Googled quote is a well-known, cliched tactic. Resist the urge to do this, no matter how much a philosophical quote resonates with you. Unless the scholarship essay specifically provides you with a quote and asks that you discuss it, you should avoid quoting someone else’s words at all costs.

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.

6. Answer the question

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.

Some scholarship essays may require you to answer difficult questions. These questions may go against your instincts of showing your abilities off in a positive light. They may ask you to describe your weaknesses, failures, or any other situations that portray yourself in a less-than-flattering light.

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. You’d want to be more specific.

If in doubt, the S.T.A.R acronym (Situation, Task, Action, and Result) can be a useful guideline.

An answer that demonstrates this well is 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. Ultimately, I received positive feedback from these students, who appreciated the weekly opportunity to socialize with students from different backgrounds.”

The ‘Situation’ and ‘Task’ elements provide the reader with useful background context and demonstrate the existing problem or challenge that has to be overcome. ‘Action’ allows you to shine by demonstrating the steps you took to overcome that challenge. ‘Results’ demonstrates what was actually achieved after you took action. Specific details and numbers, if you have any (e.g. ‘I successfully tutored a class of 30 students, who advanced into their second year of study’), will work well here.

Remember, you’re the STAR of this scholarship essay. You need to highlight actions and achievements that are specific to you.

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.

Avoid words that exaggerate. If a situation was ‘difficult’, then that’s what it was. You don’t need to use ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ to convey an exaggerated measure of just how difficult it was.

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.”

State your accomplishments with confidence, but don’t oversell it.

Statements like “as the student who was awarded with the title of ‘Top Academic of the Year’, I am the best candidate for your organization’s scholarship” can convey arrogance.

Instead, focus on how your accomplishments have developed you as a person, or how those accomplishments have strengthened your motivations. Sincerity and authenticity can go a long way.

Admit your shortcomings in a professional manner, if asked

This is a difficult one.

What happens if a question asks you to explore a situation where you have failed, asks that you admit a weakness, or asks how a mistake you made has impacted you? Goes against everything you’d want to do while applying for a scholarship, doesn’t it? As uncomfortable as it may feel, you can’t shy away from the question if it’s asked. Saying something like ‘I don’t have any weaknesses’ will be blatantly untrue, and anyone assessing your application will know this.

Everyone has shortcomings, and the expectation is that you explore this in a succinct, professional manner. Keep it brief and to the point. Don’t needlessly bash yourself. Avoid emotive language (e.g. ‘devastating’, ‘tragic’, ‘desperate’) which could convey more negativity and exacerbate the effect of your shortcomings.

End these type of essays on a positive note. Talk about further actions you have taken since then to avoid these kinds of situations from happening again. The focus here is on how you’ve grown and learned from those mistakes.

Tying everything together

While an introduction is important, it’s also important to be able to tie everything together at the end of your essay. Just like your introduction, your conclusion should be punchy, and it should make sense when read together with your introduction.

Do not copy and paste

If you’re applying for multiple scholarships and you just so happen to be short on time, the temptation to copy and paste from one essay to another can be overwhelming. Needless to say, it’s not a good idea. Copying and pasting, even if done selectively, will be obvious to an experienced reader’s eyes.

7. 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.

8. 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  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.

You can also try Grammarly, the leading online grammar checker. We have written a comprehensive review of the tool which explains where it can best help students.

9. 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 RhodesTrumanFulbright, 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.

Government or scholarship-focused websites

Some countries have government or scholarship-focused websites that provide an extensive list of scholarships that are on offer. This can save you time in your research process, and provide you with a list of scholarships you may want to tackle. Some of these websites also provide a list of their key partners, which can include colleges, businesses, and communities that are looking to provide students with financial assistance.

Examples include Scholarship America, Federal Student Aid, and EduPass.

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 can be stacked against you, 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. The more practice you get, the better at it you will be.

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.

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