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What is a Scholarship Essay?

Among the ways which students can use to navigate the financial pitfalls of higher education are scholarships and grants. Not limited to merit, scholarships are usually given by private organizations, educational trusts and higher learning institutions that have such endowments. Grants on the other hand are geared towards research, and are more usual for post-graduate work. Since this is essentially ‘free money’, the competition for these limited scholarships is usually quite tough.

There are different kinds of scholarships, ranging from:

  • Athletic scholarships.
  • Academic scholarships, both outstanding and average performance.
  • Creative scholarships.
  • Scholarships for community service.
  • Scholarships for minorities, etc.

Most of these categories will require the applicant to write a scholarship essay to convince the sponsors about why they are the best choice for that award. While on paper you may fulfill all the criteria required for the scholarship as most other applicants, the award trustees are often looking for something that sets you apart from the crowd. The award committee has probably read the same type of story repeatedly and are probably starting to get tired of it.

Your scholarship essay needs to set you apart, demonstrating why you are the best choice for that award. While there are merit-based scholarships that consider only the person that best meets and exceeds the set criteria, most awards are usually flexible in that they are looking for a person with something different to offer. Your essay needs to distinguish you from the crowd and demonstrate why you would make the best use of that award if you received it.

Starting Your Scholarship Essay

The first and most important place to start when tackling these types of essays is the instruction manual or rubric. Alongside the essay prompt, you will be provided with the structural requirements of the essay you are to write. Unless otherwise specified by the rubric, the following formatting requirements should be adhered to when writing scholarship essays:

  • Font, Times New Roman, 12 point and double-spaced.
  • Margins, one-inch on all sides.

Once you’ve understood the structural and formatting requirements of the essay, you need to move on to the essay prompt. Awarding institutions will have different prompts depending on the objectives they want to achieve. Those goals might not be immediately clear to you, and it is important that you fully understand why you are required to write the essay.

Reading in between the lines helps even for those very simple prompts on the surface. The prompt might for example ask you to ‘describe a piece of literature that has changed your world perspective.’ You are not simply being asked what kinds of books you like reading. The committee through this essay will know more about your motivations, who you are and possibly what kind of impressions you are seeking to leave. If you don’t understand the essay prompt, you can ask someone else to interpret it and compare that to your own understanding of the prompt.

Instead of an explicit prompt, you might also be asked to write on a topic of your choice. This task usually proves more difficult for most students. Being asked to write on a topic of your choosing may be a test to demonstrate how creative and introspective you are.

Starting the Writing Process

It is crucial that you know what you want to write about before you start writing. Even more important is that you align yourself with the values of the organization which is disbursing the scholarship. Researching the trustee is an important part of writing any scholarship essay. You can get mission statements and core values from the website of the sponsor.

Your focuses and values should align with those of the awarding organization. If they don’t, you might want to reconsider your application. For example, the Rotary Club usually awards academic scholarships to students in various countries each year. The Rotary Club has certain values which it ascribes to among it that of giving back to society. It’s only natural that the applicant demonstrates similar values too if they are to stand an even remote chance of bagging the award. An understanding of keywords that are specific to the awarding organization and using these to buzz your own essay will go a long way in convincing the scholarship committee that you share the same goals and values.

Once you have understood what the prompt requires, you need to list down specific academic, extracurricular and personal achievements that make you best qualified for the award. The list may include:

  • Any awards or honors that you have previously won.
  • Any advanced or college level classes that you have taken in high school.
  • Any research that you have conducted either independently or as part of an organization. This is usually for graduate scholarships.
  • Internships, vocational and volunteer experience that may not necessarily appear on your transcript.
  • Any special projects that you have been a part of or any other knowledge that you have which should be considered as part of the scholarship.
  • What values you share with the funding organization and how receiving this scholarship will assist you to achieve similar objectives.
  • An example of a challenge that you have overcome previously and how you learnt from that experience.
  • Your financial circumstances and how getting this award would help you further your study goals.

All these pointers (if possible) should work towards responding to the prompt. Personal writing techniques are very subjective and vary with different individuals. Keeping your writing objective and succinct will derive directly from how much you have understood about the prompt and the writing outcomes that you want to achieve.

Breaking down The Essay Prompt into an Outline

Now that you’ve fully understood what the prompt requires, you need to create an outline that meshes well with the points that you want to incorporate. Scholarship essay writing shouldn’t be mechanical. With a limit of 1000 words or less, you should be able to clearly visualize the beginning, middle and end of the essay. The best way make sure you include each of your response objectives in the essay is to break down everything with subtle outlines. Naturally, the essay will follow the format of introduction, main body and conclusion. Within each of the sections, you can create more distinct breakdowns that mesh with your experiences and achievements as defined by the list above.

The introduction should immediately make an impact, and it should contain the first explicit response to the essay prompt. A catchy hook will capture your reader’s attention and break the ice while also building anticipation about what is to come. Note that a hook doesn’t translate into clichés. Many applicants will immediately get attracted by the allure of the hero syndrome and aim to channel that faux energy into writing. An experienced reader who has probably gone through hundreds of other essays before will immediately smell a great story right from the introduction.

The conclusion should be the icing on the cake, and any doubts about whether you’re the best candidate for the award should be cast aside here. This is your shot to drive your main point home succinctly and without repeating anything already said.

Breaking down the various sections into headers that adhere to an outline will help you fill out detail for what you are most comfortable with at a specific moment. You don’t have to start with the introduction for your draft if you still don’t have material for that section. These essays aren’t the standard 30 minute essays that need you to have all your words figured out immediately. It may take you weeks or months to perfect and refine. What’s important is that you pick out the most important details that enliven the essay and directly answer the prompt.

Scholarship Essays | Other Pointers to Keep In Mind

Keep your language concise and clear. Too many times students will fill these essays with unnecessary detail which take away from the primary aim of the prompt, which is to align the reader’s values with your own. You might create a story rich with sensory details, but this may completely fail to answer the question being asked.

Being an essay of the personal nature, you are allowed to use anecdotes, humor, satire and other stylistic devices unlike more academic essays. However, use these judiciously and only when there is a more specific point to be made. Your expressions should be as clear as possible; avoid vague statements. Understanding the organization’s value system and mission statement will help you avoid any expressions/opinions that may antagonize readers and hurt your application.

Once you have finished writing the final paper, read through it severally. Proofread and edit it and read the essay from the back up. This will help you notice any misplaced statements or ideas. Have someone else proofread the paper for you and make sure that all the formatting adheres to the rubric provided by the awarding institution.

Good luck!

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