How to Write a
Scholarship Essay

Did you know that the U.S. Department of Education awards approximately $46 billion in scholarship money each year? While most of them are federally funded, there are also a lot of private scholarships out there to help students pay for their college tuition.

Whether they are private or federally funded, students may or may not have to present letters of recommendation and transcripts in order to apply for scholarships, but one thing is for certain: nearly every application requires an essay.

What is a Scholarship Essay

A scholarship essay is essentially your chance to tell the admission committee why they should write a check to you. The committee will offer a prompt for you to answer. It may be something simple and open-ended such as:

“Why do you want to attend XYZ college?”

Or, it might be something more specific such as:

“What impact have you had on your community? How has community service affected you? How has community service influenced your future plans?”

As you can see, some prompts give quite a bit of room for you to craft your answer while others offer more guidance on the topic they want you to discuss. There are also prompts that ask you to answer multiple questions while others ask only one question.

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If you’re planning to apply for some scholarships and need some guidance on how to write a killer essay, pay close attention to the following steps because there’s college money at stake here:

  1. Step 1 – Choose Your Topic Depending on the theme of the essay, this could mean anything from expressing why you want to go to medical school to the meaning of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It’s important that you give this part some thought so that you choose the theme that will best represent the talents, thoughts and point of views that make you an ideal candidate for the scholarship.

    For example, if you’re asked why you want to go to medical school you have a wide range of responses you could offer. Try to be as specific as possible.

    Ex 1: I want to go to medical school because I am passionate about helping people.

    Fair enough, but why specifically are you passionate about this?
    Where’s the proof to back this up?

    Ex 2: Ever since I volunteered as an assistant for Doctors Without Borders in an HIV clinic in South Africa, I have been certain that I want to dedicate my life to helping the world’s sick have access to medication and health care.

    See the difference?

  2. Step 2 – Research the Institution You need to research the institution that is administering the scholarship. It’s important to know the values of the institution who is handing out the scholarship. You can find information about this on their website. Read through their About page to discover their driving principles and ideals. If you can find their mission statement, write it down and incorporate its language into your essay.

    Most likely, the essay question itself will use language that reflects their main priorities, so pay close attention to the wording of the essay question/instructions. Use words that are similar to that language throughout your essay to drive home the idea that your values are aligned with theirs.

  3. Step 3 – Write an Outline Make sure your essay is well-organized and flows smoothly from one paragraph to the next by making an outline of the main points you want to cover and the order you want to cover them in. An outline for a scholarship essay can look something like this:

    Essay prompt:
    Discuss a time in your life that you demonstrated leadership abilities.

    Essay outline:
    I. Introduction – Narrate when I was voted captain of the varsity girls’ basketball

    II. Body.

    1. First paragraph – Background on how the team was on a losing streak, had lost one of its best players to an injury and was mostly composed of young players.
    2. Second paragraph – Discuss how the coach and I designed a training strategy that focused on building technique.
    3. Third paragraph – Some challenges to my leadership and authority by some of the younger team members and how I handled it and won their respect. Result: we begin winning games.

    III. Conclusion: What I learned about leadership from this experience.


  4. Step 4 – Be Yourself Some essay topics are quite personal such as “Tell us about a time you overcame a challenge.” In this case, you’re being asked to express yourself on something that’s unique to you and your life. The best thing you can do here is speak in your own voice as though you’re telling the story to a friend.

    A refreshing and original voice speaks more loudly than one that tries to tow the line just to get their foot in the door. Remember that scholarship committees read dozens, if not hundreds of essays so setting yourself apart by displaying your true thoughts and personality will go a long way as they sift through the pile.

    A word to the wise: Do be yourself but don’t be disrespectful, foul language or slang shouldn’t find a place in your scholarship essay.

  5. Step 5 – Editing Checklist
    • Did you follow the essay instructions? After you’re done writing your first draft, go back and read over the instructions. Is there any part of the prompt you left unanswered? If it’s a multi-question prompt, the tendency can be to focus more on one part. Make sure you give equal attention to each part of the question.
    • Have you shown it to a least 2 other trusted peer editors or teachers? One of the best ways to edit your essay to ask someone else to read it. If you have a trusted teacher who’s willing to look over it, even better. They’ll have a more trained eye for what the admission committee is looking for.
    • Did you nail your introduction and conclusion? The introduction is important because it grabs the reader and makes them want to read further. The conclusion is also essential because it’s the last impression they’ll have of you before choosing which pile your essay goes into (rejected or in the running) so make sure you leave them dazzled.

    Writing a scholarship essay can be a daunting experience, but with some careful planning and effort, you can put yourself in the running to take advantage of some great scholarship opportunities. Good luck!


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