How to write an effective scholarship essay

Brittany Mailhot
Brittany Mailhot

Brittany is a content writer with a passion for education, travel, and the great outdoors. She has experience in both international education and higher education.

How to write an effective scholarship essay

    When it comes to saving money on school, learning how to write a good scholarship essay is essential. Unlike the data-focused aspects of the application, this is your chance to showcase your personality, passion, and interests. While writing any essay can be a hassle, following a few simple tips can make the process much easier, and possibly even enjoyable.

    To get started, check out our tips on how to write a good scholarship essay below:

    Understand the assignment

    First things first – make sure that you understand the question. Nothing is quite as frustrating as completing a scholarship essay only to realize that you read the question wrong or missed a key point.

    Scholarship committees want to see that you can follow basic instructions and effectively organize your ideas.

    To avoid this, read the question once and spend a few minutes thinking about what it means to you. What are some potential ways that it could be answered? Then, read it a second time and see if your understanding changes. If it is a complex question, it might be helpful to talk it over with friends, family, and colleagues to get a different perspective.

    Additionally, be sure to pay attention to deadlines, word count limits, and format requirements. Scholarship committees want to see that you can follow basic instructions and effectively organize your ideas. Following instructions sends a professional message and is the first step to writing an effective scholarship essay to fund your education.

    » Read: How to apply for a scholarship

    Understand your audience

    One of the first questions to ask yourself when writing a scholarship essay is “Who am I writing to?” If you are writing to a scientific organization, it could be a good idea to prioritize facts over emotions. If you are writing to a social change organization, focusing on passion and pathos is the way to go.

    You can also gain an advantage by researching the organization that will be making the decisions. What is their mission? What do they value? What kind of essays have they selected in the past? These are all key factors to keep in mind while writing your scholarship essay. You don’t need to take a blind guess at what the organization is looking for – it’s often a simple Google search or website browse.

    Get creative with brainstorming

    Figuring out how to start a scholarship essay is often the most challenging part. That is where brainstorming comes in. The first step to effective brainstorming is to give yourself enough time. Working under pressure might work for some, but it can be a risky move and stress can soon overtake creative thinking. Some studies even show that creative ideas tend to flow to us when we are in a restful state of mind.

    During the brainstorming process, write down all your ideas – no matter how big or small.

    If you are writing a personal essay, spend time replaying major moments in your life and reflecting on the impact that they had on you. What events have taught you the most? What helped you become the person that you are today? Ask friends and family members to help you talk through ideas.

    During the brainstorming process, write down all your ideas – no matter how big or small. All ideas can lead to other ideas and writing everything down will give you a record to look back on. Even if an idea is not ideal for the current scholarship essay you are working on, it could be perfect for a future one.

    If your essay is more analytical and fact-based, it probably requires less brainstorming and more research. In that case, give yourself adequate time to find high-quality sources and determine which information you want to use.

    Need further brainstorming tips? Check out this list for more inspiration.

    Create an outline

    You might have an amazing essay topic and killer points, but that hard work will be lost if your scholarship essay is confusing and difficult to follow. Creating an outline can help you express your ideas in a clear and logical order.

    To begin, make a list of the major points you would like to cover in your essay, including the introduction and conclusion. Then, number them in an order that makes logical sense to you. Now you have the skeleton of your essay and just need to elaborate on your key points.

    For example, let us say that your essay topic is “How would you change your community for the better if you had the money, time, and resources?” and you choose to talk about reducing waste. A rough outline might look like this:

    1. Intro
    2. Why reducing waste is important to me/the community
      1. love for nature
      2. long-term planning
    3. Ways to reduce waste
      1. recycling programs
      2. no-packaging stores
      3. craft fairs that sell reusable “paper” towels, sponges, etc. and support local artists
    4. The impact reducing waste could have on the community
      1. saving money
      2. cleaner community
      3. happier environment
      4. coming together to develop creative ideas
    5. Conclusion

    It doesn’t need to be perfect – it just has to be enough to get your ideas flowing. You can always go back and edit or add new ideas later.

    Speak from the heart

    Scholarship committees are not looking for the same story and information repeatedly. They want to see your unique perspective and experiences related to the topic. Your uniqueness is your advantage. Even fact-based essays present the opportunity to be creative through how you approach the topic and the angle you take.

    It is critical to choose a topic that you are interested in and passionate about.

    When learning how to write a good scholarship essay, avoid clichés and think creatively. It is critical to choose a topic that you are interested in and passionate about. Even though emotions and intentions are often lost or misinterpreted through text, it is obvious when a writer is interested in the topic they are writing about. Choosing a topic that interests you can also make the process much easier.

    This scholarship essay example by Rachel L. for the Unigo Sweet and Simple Scholarship is a great example:

    “Come outside, my love. I want to show you something.” I follow my grandfather to the porch, curious. The sky is dark and filled with stars. “Do you know,” he says, “the ancients believe the stars to be crystal windows the gods use to watch over humanity.” He points with a trembling finger. “Antares. The red giant. You can tell it’s him by his subtle glow, like fire. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can make out a constellation.” He traces a pattern. “Connect those stars to form a ladle. The Big Dipper is there. A worthy name, indeed.” He cracks a weak grin. “Which are you most fond of?” I tell him I like the brightest star and he laughs a little. “Sirius, the most brilliant star. He shines brighter than even our sun. From now on, he’s yours.”  “Mine?” “Tangible gifts are pretty, but only fleetingly. In ten years, you will have forgotten what excitement it once brought you. Unlike them, the beauty of the stars is infinite. That’s why the most valuable of gifts are those you cannot touch.”

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    This topic is clearly close to the author’s heart. She pulls us into the scene as if we are there with her. She gives the reader a glimpse of life through her eyes without using cliche language or overused examples.

    Find the balance between emotion and details

    It is important to find a balance between logic and emotions when learning how to write a good scholarship essay. Your audience should be able to connect emotionally, but not lost in the emotional descriptions that they miss everything else. Sounding professional while also sounding passionate is a key factor to writing a good scholarship essay.

    If your essay is more fact-based, your tone should be a balance between professional and casual to avoid boring your readers. Respond to the question and provide sufficient details, but be sure to mix in casual language and takeaways as well.

    Sounding professional while also sounding passionate is a key factor to writing a good scholarship essay.

    For example, check out this excerpt from William Madagan’s winning scholarship essay for the 2019 Physicians for Social Responsibility Sacramento Chapter scholarship focused on climate change:

    It is this realization that has inspired me to begin work as a Green New Deal organizer. Starting last winter, I began to work with the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led, grassroots organization advocating for the Green New Deal. As a member of Sunrise’s People Power team, my work has been focused on both involving and coordinating new volunteers into the movement, and planning and taking part in various protests, including the protest at Senator Harris’ rally that prompted her to endorse the Green New Deal. We are the last generation that can do something about climate change– and as a member of the last generation, I’m not willing to watch my planet die without trying to save it first. In order to confront an issue caused by inequality, one must address the inequality that caused it in the first place. 

    This student expresses his accomplishments in a logical manner while also demonstrating his passion. Although written in a professional tone, the use of the first-person makes it more personal.

    Give examples of what you learned

    There is an age-old saying: show, don’t tell. Your message will leave a greater impact on your readers if you use examples and stories to express your points. For example, instead of saying “Due to that experience, I learned to ask for help when I’m feeling overwhelmed” – provide examples of times that you were feeling overwhelmed and asked for help.

    As humans, we learn from experience. How many times have you received advice from others only to have it finally sink in after a personal experience? Examples help the reader create a personal connection with your story and are a key part of learning how to write a good scholarship essay.

    In this scholarship essay example by Sami Al-Asady for the scholarship focused on free speech, the author does just that:

    In 1995, after my grandfather and uncle had been brutally killed for voicing criticism of dictator Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime, my father fled Iraq and immigrated to the United States, where free speech is enshrined in the Constitution. My mother, also a refugee, narrowly escaped genocide in the Bosnian War, where ethnic minorities were slaughtered and devoid of their religious freedoms. As a first-generation American, I hold dear the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

    Intellectuals have long revered the principle of free speech. For instance, British philosopher John Stuart Mill, a century and a half ago, declared, “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” Mill argued that minority opinions must be shielded from the mob that would readily suppress them. Silencing lone opinions not only encroaches on individual rights, but it also threatens the bedrock values of truth, autonomy, and self-governance that are so critical to a modern, pluralistic democracy. The idea is profoundly optimistic: good ideas win.

    Instead of simply saying “Free speech is important because…,” the author outlines events in which the freedom of speech was at risk and the impact that this had on the culture and the people. Because of this, his final point is more effective.

    Get rid of errors

    Spelling and grammar mistakes can quickly turn a winning scholarship essay into a mediocre one. Everyone makes mistakes, so it is essential to double check your work for quality, clarity, and coherency. Start by reading your essay aloud by yourself. Then, read it aloud once more from the end of the essay back to the beginning – one sentence at a time.

    Details can help convey emotion and passion, yet too many details can take away from your main point.

    After reading for spelling and grammar mistakes, read the essay through one last time to get rid of any “fluff” (information that isn’t necessary and doesn’t add value to your essay). Details can help convey emotion and passion, yet too many details can take away from your main point.

    This is especially important if the scholarship essay has word count or page limitations. Maximize the space you have by including relevant details that add to your main point and improve your overall essay. Some points may be of emotional importance to you, but will they be important to your reader? If not, ditch them.

    Learning how to write a good scholarship essay takes time and practice. It does not have to be boring or challenging. Following the tips above, such as selecting a topic that interests you, collaborating with friends and family members, and understanding your audience, can quickly take your scholarship essay to the next level. Before too long, you’ll know how to write a good scholarship essay on any topic.

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