The Fine Art of Writing a College Scholarship Essay

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Brian O'Connell

By Brian O'Connell

February 27, 2019

College scholarships can be a valuable item – maybe the most valuable item – in your college funding toolbox. Scholarships are free money that do not need to be repaid, and come with the gift of prestige. The path to earning a scholarship is filled with lessons learned that you can apply for a lifetime.

What’s more, they’re easier to get than you might think.

According to Sallie Mae’s How Americans Pay for College survey, three in five college students earned at least one scholarship last year, with the average cash value of those scholarships was $7,760, about 20% of the average annual college cost.

Sallie Mae counts college grants in its definition of scholarships. But, even private scholarships are more available than previously. About one in eight college students has won at least one private scholarship, with an average value of about $4,200. About one in five college students has won an institutional merit scholarship, with an average value of about $9,000.

Scholarships are both widespread and diverse, with aid available across different academic majors, different ethnicities, different sports, and in the city or town you live, among other scholarship sources.

Did you know that scholarships are taxable? Use our Scholarship Tax Calculator to figure out the taxable amount of your scholarships and calculate how much you’ll have to pay in taxes. Amounts used to pay for tuition and textbooks may be tax-free, but amounts used to pay for living expenses are taxable. 

With college scholarship deadlines fast approaching, now is the time for planning and applying for scholarships – and the ability to write a great scholarship essay is a vital part of landing that scholarship.

While each collegiate scholarship essay varies in terms of scope and substance, there are some common characteristics shared by the best essays, and anyone applying for some free college financial aid should know them cold, and use them in their own essays.

To cast some sunlight on the secrets of a victorious college scholarship essay, let’s take a look at the tips that matter the most and work the best when seeking a scholarship.

You can find scholarships on for free. matches students to scholarships, which can be created by anyone. Sign up now.

Five Tips for Writing a Great Scholarship Essay

Be real and be you. Why would a college scholarship committee or individual decision maker place a big priority on an essay? It’s not complicated – an essay goes beyond the basic numbers like grade point averages and test scores to reveal the real person behind the good grades. You’re more than just a number.

Scholarship essays deliver on that front, giving applicant a forum to make their case, hopefully in an eloquent and engaging way. Thus, it’s up to you to pen a worthy scholarship essay. The best way to do that is to focus on the “Three C’s” of writing persuasive prose – be clear, be concise and be compelling.

The best way to do that is to be yourself, write conversationally and succinctly, and always focus on the goal – to sell yourself as the best candidate for a scholarship, based on your personal experiences, your outlook on college and life, and your ability to engage with the reader. Use the “Three C’s” model to get that job done, and your essay campaign gets much easier.

Prepare structurally. While knowing that the goal with any scholarship essay is make your case, you’ll need to prepare for writing it structurally, too.

That means reviewing scholarship applications thoroughly. Each scholarship organization likely has a unique wrinkle with its essay, and you should know what it expects before you submit your essay.

Also, prepare your essay writing campaign by outlining your story – a table of contents is perfectly fine as is a general outlining of organized themes and points you want to make in your essay.

A good outline, with an organized message and theme, can be a great blueprint to follow for your completed essay. Don’t write a scholarship essay without one.

Take careful note of your scholarship essay’s “prompt”. Your scholarship essay will likely come with what academics call a “prompt”, i.e., a question or thought channel the scholarship group wants you to cover in your essay.

Prompts can vary, with a scholarship committee asking you, for example, to describe a perfect day in your life or to write about the most important influencer in your life and why. Study the prompt closely and if you have doubts or concerns about what it means, exactly, don’t hesitate to contact the scholarship organization and ask.

Better to ask and know rather than playing any guessing games with your scholarship essay.

Make a strong opening statement. Your essay should lead off with a strong message that defines your entire essay. Use the “Three C’s” to establish your message and use the rest of your essay to ensure everything flows from that central theme.

Your statement can simply declare a life passion of yours, like serving the needy or crafting a career around a theme of traveling the world to immerse yourself in different cultures. Whatever your statement is, it should be personified by your essay’s title and lead paragraph, and use the rest of the essay to drill down into your statement to make a compelling case why you should win the attention of the scholarship’s decision makers.

Don’t overthink your essay. In most cases, your essay’s word count limit will likely be around 500 words, so you don’t have much room to expand on your essay’s central point. As the “Three C’s” attest, you’ll want to be clear, concise and compelling within that tight 500-word window.

Rather than be too wordy or verbose, engage your reader with tightly written headlines, sub-headings and paragraphs. Go ahead and use bullet points to lead into more detailed thoughts based on your essay outline. Finish with a great “takeaway” ending – one that sums up the narrative and that leads to the reader wanting to know more about you, and do business with you.

Above all else, review and edit your essay thoroughly.

Spelling and grammatical errors are essay killers – they’re a sign of indifference and disorganization. They make you look uneducated. Those are not the traits you want to demonstrate with your essay. To be sure your essay is clear and clean, have a trusted family member, mentor or friend to review and edit your essay, and make sure its error free, and that it reads well.

One Bite of the Apple

One last takeaway on college scholarship essays. You really get only one bite of the apple with a scholarship, so you want to make sure your essay is the one that stands out.

Leverage these tips to write the most clear, concise and compelling scholarship essay you have within you. Vet it with trusted friends and family and deliver it on time.

Do all of the above and you’ll vastly increase your chances of earning that dream scholarship – and know that you’ve also made yourself a stronger writer in the process.

That’s a win-win scenario by any measure and one that’s possible with a disciplined approach to your college scholarship essay.

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