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Writing the Scholarship Essay: by Kay Peterson, Ph.D.

The personal essay.

It’s the hardest part of your scholarship application. But it’s also the part of the application where the ‘real you’ can shine through. Make a hit with these tips from scholarship providers:

Think before you write. Brainstorm to generate some good ideas and then create an outline to help you get going. Be original. The judges may be asked to review hundreds of essays. It’s your job to make your essay stand out from the rest. So be creative in your answers. Show, don’t tell. Use stories, examples and anecdotes to individualize your essay and demonstrate the point you want to make. By using specifics, you’ll avoid vagueness and generalities and make a stronger impression. Develop a theme. Don’t simply list all your achievements. Decide on a theme you want to convey that sums up the impression you want to make. Write about experiences that develop that theme. Know your audience. Personal essays are not ‘one size fits all.’ Write a new essay for each application-one that fits the interests and requirements of that scholarship organization. You’re asking to be selected as the representative for that group. The essay is your chance to show how you are the ideal representative. Submit an essay that is neat and readable. Make sure your essay is neatly typed, and that there is a lot of ‘white space’ on the page. Double-space the essay, and provide adequate margins (1″-1 1/2″) on all sides. Make sure your essay is well written. Proofread carefully, check spelling and grammar and share your essay with friends or teachers. Another pair of eyes can catch errors you might miss.

 

Special thanks to the scholarship specialists who contributed these tips:

Colleen Blevins
TROA Scholarship Fund

Kathy Borunda, Corporate Development
Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Foundation

Bob Caudell
The American Legion

Patti Cohen, Program Manager
Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation

Lori Dec
AFSA Scholarship Programs

Thomas Murphy, Executive Director
Konieg Education Foundation

Lisa Portenga, Scholarship Coordinator
The Fremont Area Foundation

 

Practice Session: Common Essay Questions — by Roxana Hadad

The essay — It’s the most important part of your scholarship application, and it can be the hardest. But the essay shouldn’t keep you from applying. Take a look at some of the most commonly asked essay questions and use them to prepare for your scholarship applications. Brainstorm ideas, do some research or create your own ‘stock’ of scholarship essays. When the time comes, you’ll be ready to write your way to scholarship success!

 Your Field of Specialization and Academic Plans

Some scholarship applications will ask you to write about your major or field of study. These questions are used to determine how well you know your area of specialization and why you’re interested in it.

 Samples:

  • How will your study of _______ contribute to your immediate or long range career plans?
  • Why do you want to be a _______?
  • Explain the importance of (your major) in today’s society.
  • What do you think the industry of _______ will be like in the next 10 years?
  • What are the most important issues your field is facing today?
Current Events and Social Issues

To test your skills at problem-solving and check how up-to-date you are on current issues, many scholarship applications include questions about problems and issues facing society.

Samples:

  • What do you consider to be the single most important societal problem? Why?
  • If you had the authority to change your school in a positive way, what specific changes would you make?
  • Pick a controversial problem on college campuses and suggest a solution.
  • What do you see as the greatest threat to the environment today?

Personal Achievements

Scholarships exist to reward and encourage achievement. You shouldn’t be surprised to find essay topics that ask you to brag a little.

Samples:

  • Describe how you have demonstrated leadership ability both in and out of school.
  • Discuss a special attribute or accomplishment that sets you apart.
  • Describe your most meaningful achievements and how they relate to your field of study and your future goals.
  • Why are you a good candidate to receive this award

Background and Influences

Who you are is closely tied to where you’ve been and who you’ve known. To learn more about you, some scholarship committees will ask you to write about your background and major influences.

Samples:

  • Pick an experience from your own life and explain how it has influenced your development.
  • Who in your life has been your biggest influence and why?
  • How has your family background affected the way you see the world?
  • How has your education contributed to who you are today?

Future Plans and Goals

Scholarship sponsors look for applicants with vision and motivation, so they might ask about your goals and aspirations.

Samples:

  • Briefly describe your long- and short-term goals.
  • Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
  • Why do you want to get a college education?

Financial Need

Many scholarship providers have a charitable goal: They want to provide money for students who are going to have trouble paying for college. In addition to asking for information about your financial situation, these committees may want a more detailed and personal account of your financial need.

Samples:

  • From a financial standpoint, what impact would this scholarship have on your education?
  • State any special personal or family circumstances affecting your need for financial assistance.
  • How have you been financing your college education?

Random Topics

Some essay questions don’t seem directly related to your education, but committees use them to test your creativity and get a more well-rounded sense of your personality.

Samples:

  • Choose a person or persons you admire and explain why.
  • Choose a book or books and that have affected you deeply and explain why.

While you can’t predict every essay question, knowing some of the most common ones can give you a leg up on applications. Start brainstorming now, and you may find yourself a winner!

Essay Feedback: Creating Your Structure — by Kay Peterson, Ph.D.

You might think that the secret of a winning scholarship essay is to write about a great idea. But that’s only half the job. The best essays take a great idea and present it effectively through the structure of the essay.

To see how important structure is, let’s look at an essay by Emily H. In her application for the UCLA Alumni Scholarship, Emily responds to the following essay topic: “Please provide a summary of your personal and family background, including information about your family, where you grew up, and perhaps a highlight or special memory of your youth.”

Here’s how Emily responded:

To me, home has never been associated with the word “permanent.” I seem to use it more often with the word “different” because I’ve lived in a variety of places ranging from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Los Angeles, California. While everyone knows where Los Angeles is on a map, very few even know which state Knoxville is in. Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to live in the east and west and to view life from two disparate points.

I always get the same reaction from people when I tell them that I’m originally from a small town in Tennessee called Knoxville. Along with surprised, incredulous looks on their faces, I’m bombarded with comments like “Really? You don’t sound or look as if you’re from Tennessee.” These reactions are nearly all the same because everyone sees me as a typical Californian who loves the sunny weather, the beach and the city. They don’t know that I lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, before I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then moved again to Knoxville, Tennessee. The idea of my living anywhere in the vicinity of the South or any place besides California is inconceivable to many because I’ve adapted so well to the surroundings in which I currently find myself. This particular quality, in a sense, also makes me a more cosmopolitan and open-minded person. Having already seen this much of the world has encouraged me to visit other places like Paris or London and the rest of the world. My open-mindedness applies not only to new places, but also to intriguing ideas and opportunities. This attitude towards life prepares me for the vast array of opportunities that still lie ahead in the future. From my experiences of moving place to place, I have also come to acknowledge the deep bond I share with my family. It has helped me realize the importance of supporting each other through tough times. Moving from Tennessee to California meant saying good-bye to the house we had lived in for six years, longtime friends and the calm, idyllic lifestyle of the country that we had grown to love and savor. But knowing that we had each other to depend on made the transition easier. It also strengthened the bond we all shared and placed more value on the time we spent with each other, whether it was at home eating dinner or going on a family trip. Now when I think of the word “home,” I see the bluish-gray house I live in now. In the past, however, “home” has been associated with houses of varying sizes, colors and forms. The only thing that has remained unchanging and permanent is my family. I have acknowledged this constancy, knowing well enough that it is, and always will be, a part of me and a unique part of my life.

Los Angeles is one of many places in which I’ve lived. This fact by itself has had a tremendous impact on me.

This kind of essay topic can be difficult because it is very general. Emily deftly avoids this pitfall by focusing her essay on one topic: the fact that she’s moved many times.

As a result, this essay contains a lot of winning elements:

  •  Her opening sentence is great. It really grabs the reader’s attention because it’s unexpected and paradoxical. We want to learn more about her.
  • Her story is unique; she doesn’t rely on clichés.
  • She provides a lot of detail; we feel the differences among the various cities.
  • She’s focused the account so we learn just enough, not too much.
  • She tells us why these events are important. Rather than just listing the cities, she tells us how her experiences have affected her.

But there are also a number of things she could do to improve her essay:

  •  Opening paragraph gets off to a strong start, but quickly loses steam. The last sentence is too vague.
  • The second paragraph is far too long, and covers too many ideas.
  • The transitions among the various ideas are underdeveloped. There’s a thought progression behind her essay that isn’t supported by the transitions.
  • Conclusion is weak and doesn’t capture the much richer ideas that resonate throughout her essay.

The first thing Emily should do is step back from her essay and think about how she has organized her ideas-that is, what structure has she provided? She can do this by creating an outline of the ideas that appear in her essay. It should look something like this:

1. Introduction:
a. Emily has lived in a lot of places
b. Emily has viewed life from two disparate points.

2. Body (one paragraph)
a. People don’t guess that Emily is not originally from California.
b. That’s because she has adapted so well to her current environment.
c. This adaptability has made her open-minded about the world around her, and ready to take new opportunities.
d. She’s also learned to recognize and value the bond with her family, which gives her a sense of permanence throughout all the changes.

3. Conclusion: Los Angeles is one of the places she has lived.

As we can see, Emily’s essay is jam-packed with good ideas. With the exception of the conclusion (which she should cut), everything in here is meaningful and necessary. What she needs to do now is identify the most important idea for the whole essay and then rearrange the points so that they support that idea.

What is the overriding idea? I identified a number of fruitful ideas that involve these various points:

  •  Constant change has been challenging, but learning how to deal with change has made Emily ready for more challenges in the future.
  • Constant change has had a paradoxical effect on Emily: It’s taught her both how to be adaptable and how determine what is truly permanent (i.e. her family).
  • Constant change has taught her all about different parts of the country, but has also taught her that while she grows and changes, she’ll still remain the same person she always was.

Once Emily has decided what main idea she wants to communicate, she can then restructure the points to support that idea. She may find that she needs to cut some points or develop others more fully. The key is to make it clear how those points relate to the central idea and to use meaningful transitions that point the way to the next idea.

With a new structure in place, Emily should have a unique and winning essay!

 **OTHER WINNING TIPS**

Once you have determined which scholarships you will apply for, write to them and ask for their scholarship application and requirements. The letter can be a general request for information “form” letter that can be photocopied, but you should be specific about the name of the scholarship you are inquiring about on the envelope.

Write to each source as far in advance of their scholarship deadline as possible and don’t forget to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope(SASE) — it not only expedites their reply, but some organizations won’t respond without one.

Remember, on the outside of the envelope, list the name of the specific scholarship you are inquiring about. That way, the person opening the mail will know where to direct your inquiry.

 Here is an example of what your letter might look like:

Date

XYZ Corporation (Ian Scott Smith Scholarship)
1234 56th Street, Suite 890
Metropolis, FL 00000-0000
Dear Scholarship Coordinator:

I am a (college) student (give academic year) and will be applying for admission to (a graduate) program for academic year 20__ – __.

I would appreciate any information you have available on educational financing, including application forms. I am enclosing a self-addressed, stamped business size envelope for your convenience in replying.

Sincerely,

Daniel J. Cassidy
2280 Airport Boulevard
Santa Rosa, CA 95403

Email: dcass@aol.com

 

Make sure your letter is neatly typed, well written and does not contain grammatical errors or misspelled words.

When filling out scholarship application forms, be complete, concise and creative. People who read these applications want to know the real you, not just your name. The application should clearly emphasize your ambitions, motivations and what makes you different. Be original!

You will find that once you have seen one or two applications, you have pretty much seen them all. Usually they are one or two pages asking where you are going to school, what you are going to major in and why you think you deserve the scholarship. Some scholarship sources require that you join their organization. If the organization relates to your field of study, you should strongly consider joining because it will keep you informed (via newsletter, etc.) about developments in that field.

Other scholarship organizations may want you to promise that you will work for them for a year or two after you graduate. The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund offers a scholarship for up to $20,000 for journalism, broadcasting, and communications students with the understanding that the student will intern for them for two years. This could even yield a permanent job for the student.

Your application should be typewritten and neat. I had a complaint from one foundation about a student who had an excellent background and qualifications but used a crayon to fill out the application.

Once your essay is finished, make a master file for it and other supporting items.

Photocopy your essay and attach it to the application.

If requested include: a resume or curriculum vitae (CV), extracurricular activities sheet (usually one page), transcripts, SAT, GRE, or MCAT scores, letters of recommendation (usually one from a professor, employer and friend) outlining your moral character and, if there are any newspaper articles, etc. about you, it is a good idea to include them as well.

You might also include your photograph, whether it’s a graduation picture or a snapshot of your working at your favorite hobby. This helps the selection committee feel a little closer to you. Instead of just seeing a name, they will have a face to match it.

Mail your applications in early, at least a month before the deadline.

**Dr. Peterson has won numerous college and graduate scholarships, including the Jacob Javits Fellowship, the University of California Regents Scholarship and the National Merit Scholarship.