8 Tips for Writing a Killer Scholarship Essay

With many scholarship application deadlines around the corner (including the FRCC Foundation Scholarship), now seems a perfect time to offer tips for writing a compelling scholarship essay, which can mean the difference between getting a scholarship and not.

I sat down with Ryan McCoy of the FRCC Foundation to get some of his dos and don’ts on scholarship essay writing. Here are a few of his top suggestions:

1. Follow directions.

Amazingly, too many students ignore the essay question(s) being asked on the application, Ryan says. The FRCC Scholarship application is quite simple, and applicants are requested to write one essay—the answer to which determines what types of scholarships one might be eligible for. It asks three questions:

  • Why should the Foundation invest in you?
  • What are your academic and professional goals?
  •  After achieving your academic goals, how will you give back to the community?

Pretty simple. So should you go into extreme detail about your childhood? Probably not.

2. Be concise. Be clear.

“Sometimes we find that students jump around a lot in their essays,” says Ryan. “Whatever you do, try not to ramble. Have a clear and concise argument on why you’re a deserving student.” In other words, make your point quickly. And do it well.

3. Make sure the essay stands alone, but don’t include every detail.

Another big mistake Ryan sees often is students who assume the reader knows their life story. His advice: “Think like a journalist: When you read a newspaper article, it assumes you don’t know anything about that topic,” Ryan says. “The same goes with your scholarship essay. Assume the reader knows nothing about you.”

But don’t go into extreme detail. If an essay offers up too much personal history, it might be hard to follow (and of course, too long). “You want the essay to be easy to read,” says Ryan. “The reviewer should have a sense of who you are after reading it, but should not be confused or overwhelmed.”

As a writer, grammar geek, and someone who has written a lot about getting into (and succeeding in) college, I have a few tips of my own:

4. Plan it out.

Remember those tedious outlines for essays in high school English class? Dust off your notes and plan out your essay carefully, devising a clear structure that conveys a central point or theme. This outline will help you stay organized in delivering your key message and not stray off topic.

5. Don’t rush.

That essay you wrote this morning might not look as great two days from now. Take a stab at a first draft, then set it aside for a day, a week, whatever you can afford. Reviewing it with fresh eyes will give you new insight into how it comes across. Mistakes will pop off the page in a way they didn’t when you read through it ten times the same day you wrote it.

6. Have someone else read it.

Get a teacher, a boss, or even a friend to read your essay and offer their feedback. Does the essay capture who you are? Your journey? Does it make sense? Is it clear and concise?

7. Read it out loud.

I’ve suggested this before in my post on learning to write better, but you’ll no doubt catch a mistake or two when you read something out loud. Don’t send off an essay that is sloppy or has grammar or punctuation errors. Is that really the impression you want to give people who are making a decision on whether or not to award you money?

8. Make it yours.

Before you write a word, spend time thinking about the question being asked. Brainstorm. Some scholarship applications might pose a very specific question, such as “Please tell us about a significant experience that has had a big impact on your life.” Other colleges may ask more general questions, such as “What are your academic and personal goals.” Whatever the question, make your answer personal. Write it from your heart. And don’t try to second-guess the person reading it by writing what you think they’d like to hear.

If you’re struggling with a scholarship essay, what do you find most challenging in the writing process? If you’ve successfully written a killer essay, what tips do you have?


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Michaele Charles is the founder of Voice Communications and writes frequently for higher education institutions, small businesses, corporate clients, and others. She also is a fledgling children’s writer. In her pre-writing life, she worked in accounting and finance.

One Response to “8 Tips for Writing a Killer Scholarship Essay”

February 06, 2013 at 4:00 am, 3 Important Financial Aid Tips | Front Range Community College Blog said:

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