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College Scholarship Essay Writing Tips

Eight Steps To Writing a Killer Scholarship Essay

If you are applying for college scholarships, you are probably knee-deep in paper right now.

Your SAT scores, high school transcripts (or undergrad, if you’re applying to graduate school), letters of recommendations, applications forms, and of course, the dreaded scholarship essay.

Most scholarship programs – from the $20,000 one run by your new college to the $200 one sponsored by the hardware store down the street – require at least one essay.


Some require several written statements. And after finally finishing all those college essays, the last thing you probably want to do is put fingers to keyboard again. Well buck up because while you are nearly done, this homestretch is going to be make-or-break for your college career. Getting into the school of your dreams is only half the battle. Figuring out how to pay for it is the other half. (Or, with the way college tuition costs are skyrocketing today, perhaps figuring out the funds is more like the other two-thirds!) If you are feeling stuck (Stop staring at a blank computer screen! The words aren’t going to magically write themselves!), then check out these eight helpful suggestions for writing the killer scholarship essay:

1. Know your audience.

Let’s say you ran a scholarship search on one of the popular online engines. You got a list of 16 solid leads and now you are rushing to write a dozen and a half essays before the deadlines pass you by. Before you jump in with both feet, take a few minutes – or more – to get to know the organization that sponsors each scholarship. Review their website, paying special attention to sections about the organization’s history, vision and board of directors. If you are applying to a major national (or international) organization, you might want to cross-google the board members’ names. The information you glean can have a big impact on what you chose to write about. For example, if the essay asks about the most influential leader in history, you probably don’t wax on about Karl Marx and the saving grace of Communism to the Daughters of the American Revolution. Information is power. Arm yourself with it.

2. Follow directions.

“Follow directions?! That’s your great tip?,” you might be thinking to yourself. And you’re right: It is pretty basic advice. But then, you’d be surprised by the scores of candidates who fail to answer (or even address) the question at hand. Or the ones who write 600 words, when the application asked for 150. Or even those who send in a single-spaced essay when the instructions called for double spacing.

3. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

You already wrote some wonderful essays to get into college. In those files, you will likely find some great kernels if not entire sections of text that you can recycle for your scholarship essays.

4. Brainstorm.

Most scholarship essays are relatively short (200-800 words) and highly focused. They ask you to reflect on a narrowly defined topic – your favorite author, your opinion on a new piece of legislation, a pivotal experience in your childhood. When not an idea comes to mind, start with some free association brainstorming. Here’s how: Write the question across the top of a piece of paper. Then allow yourself 10 minutes to write down every word or phrase that comes to mind. (Set a timer if that will help.) Don’t judge, just jot.

5. Filter.

Go through your brainstorming pages and circle any viable responses. Now make another list with just those words and phrases. Spend a good 30 minutes fleshing them out. See which concepts can fit together, and weed out the extraneous one.

6. Crystallize a thesis.

Many scholarship candidates make the mistake of writing before they know what they want to say. They are floundering, and their writing reflects it. When you only have 200 words to sell your idea, each word has to count double. That is why a clear thesis statement is so important. A thesis is your guide – it helps make sure that every word you write is pointing in the right direction. To arrive at your thesis, carefully study that mess of notes from your brainstorming and filtering sessions. Your thesis is there, I promise. You just have to find it. Once you figure it out, write it down. Chose your words carefully. Rewrite it a time or two (or 20) until every word you have written has importance. Now, take a deep breath. The hardest part of the process is behind you.

7. Connect the dots.

With your thesis as your guide, write the body of your essay. Perhaps that sounds overly simplistic, but remember: You already laid a wonderful foundation, so now your words can flow. Just make sure that you are staying on point (check back in with your trusty thesis, if you start to wander.) Now is the time to focus on content. You can jazz up your style later.

8. Make it shine.

Just like when you wrote your college essays, you must captivate the attention of important decision makers when writing a scholarship essay.


Make them care about you (but remember that there is a fine line between care and pity. This is not the time for your sob story, even if your life has indeed been one.)

Look at your sentence structure and word choice. Without going overboard and sounding like a thesaurus, your essay should reflect intelligence and polish.

Ask for help from a trusted advisor if this is not your forte. But remember: You – and only you – should be the author of your essay. Anything else is plagiarism.

9. Proof your Scholarship Essay.

And then proof it again. No matter how brilliant your prose, missing punctuation and spelling errors can totally undermine the impact. Email your essay to your parents, best friend, or English tutor and ask them to look it over for you before you press send for good. A fresh set of eyes can catch little mistakes that make a big difference.

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