18 Tips for Writing a Winning Scholarship Essay

Most scholarship applications require an essay and that’s why it is important for you to understand how to write an essay that persuades the scholarship program board that you are the most deserving student for the available scholarship. Writing a great scholarship essay can earn you such an opportunity.

Just like a college application personal statement, a scholarship essay should give the reader a sense of you as a dimensional person above what can be shown by your high school GPA and test score. At Custom Scholars we have read and written tons of scholarships essay. In this blog post, we will share some of the major tips you can consider to come up with a winning scholarship essay.   

1. Adhere to the principles of writing ANY strong essay

Like any other essay you write while in school, you’ll want to format your scholarship essays in a way that makes it easy for the reader to consume and digest the content. In other words, a winning essay must have a good “flow.” 

Here are some effective essay writing skills that will help you develop an effective scholarship essay format:

  • Have a strong opening sentence to the essay, sometimes called a “hook.” This is a great overview of types of essay hooks, but remember, stay true to your own voice and tone. For instance, you may want to come out of the gates strong with a snapshot of where you see yourself in 10 years, after getting the education of your dreams: “Diving deep into the mysterious reaches of the ocean daily may not be everyone’s central goal in life, but I can’t wait to search for and protect endangered aquatic life for a living.”
  • Stick to the tried-and-true introduction, body, and conclusion structure. Even if the essay prompt seems relatively loose, you’ll want your essay to have a clear Introduction, body, and conclusion. 
  • Start new paragraphs for new ideas. It’s MUCH better to have more short paragraphs than whopping paragraphs that are hard to read or understand.  
  • Make sure to wrap up your essay neatly and don’t just dead-end it. You can round it out, for example, with a declaration of why you wish to pursue post-secondary education: “Ultimately, I want to be a strong role model for other young women who may have been afraid to use their voices.” You may not have time for a whole conclusion paragraph, but a quick “bow” at the end is nice.

2. Familiarize yourself with the essay prompt… and stick to it!

Read the prompt several times and be totally clear about what it is requesting. Many scholarship programs have similar themes for the essay prompts, such as how you’ve demonstrated leadership qualities or how greater financial freedom will impact your life as a college student.

If the prompt doesn’t seem to have a question in it (e.g. “Reflect on the state of the environment and your role in helping it”) then we highly recommend that you re-frame the essay prompt as a question. So for example, ask yourself: “What is the overall state of the world’s natural environment and how am I directly impacting it?”

Although it may sound obvious, do NOT deviate from the prompt. Your ability to address a highly specific topic is part of what scholarship committees will assess. It can be easy for your thoughts to meander but stick directly to the prompt.

3. Choose a topic that you genuinely enjoy

You’ll want to stick to the essay prompt. But in some cases, you may have some freedom to choose the topic, or at least the central focus. In that case write about a subject, event, or value that means something to you. You’ll produce better work and come out more original if you care about what you’re writing. This goes a long way in improving your scholarship essays without creating more hard work for you.

Here’s what we mean. Let’s say a prompt asks you to describe a time when you were proud of yourself. Several instances may come to mind. Maybe it was when you dove off the high diving board the first time. Or maybe it was when you returned a wallet you found with $100 inside. 

Don’t choose the instance you think the scholarship essay readers want to hear. Choose the one that feels most resonant to you. It may sound cheesy, but when you write earnestly from the heart, your writing will be much stronger and more interesting.

4. Do a little research on the scholarship provider 

Who is the company or organization running the scholarship program? Read up a bit about them on their website’s home page. Get familiar with their mission, vision, and their motivation for giving this scholarship. When you’re better informed about the scholarship committee, you are in a better position of writing an essay that will win you the scholarship. 

Many scholarship providers also feature previous scholarship winners on their websites, sometimes with the essay (or an excerpt from it) that won. Study what the scholarship provider says about those previous winners and what the winner wrote to get an idea of which of your qualities to highlight in your essay.  

5. Know the word/character limit

Most scholarship essays have a word or character limit for your essay. If you’re not used to being mindful of these parameters, it can be hard to gauge what “250 words” actually look like. As a rule of thumb, 250 words is equivalent to one typed page, double-spaced. (And therefore 500 words = 2 typed, double-spaced pages, and so on).

You can take an essay of yours (or any piece of written work) and run a word/character count to get a feel for various lengths. Microsoft Word and Google Docs have functions for this, but you can also use a letter counter. 

Once you know the word or character length, stick to it! If you have to write a 500 word essay, don’t write 501 words. You can be disqualified for going over. And while you don’t necessarily have to write an essay that hits the limit, it’s a good rule of thumb to come as close as possible. 

The terms used in the instructions will guide you on the number of words or pages. For example, if you are told in about 500 words, you can write an essay with slightly above or below this number. If the instructions state in less than or not less than the words can still vary but if you are told to write a 500 words scholarship essay, the essay should have that exact number of words. 

6. Brainstorm and plan

Brainstorming and planning is one of the most important parts of essay writing. The entire essay writing process will go much more smoothly if you have a road map for where you’re going. The very first step is to get some organic ideas circulating so that you end up choosing an essay focus that makes the most sense for you. 

Once you have a clear sense of your essay’s focus, you can begin to outline. Some students like to skip the outline. But an outline actually makes the drafting process much faster. Depending on the length and depth of the essay, you can even just lay out the details you’ll want to include in your introduction, body, and conclusion. It can be as simple as that, but you should never skip the planning process.

7. Appeal to ethos, pathos, and logos

You might be wondering what these are. If you haven’t learned about ethos, pathos, and logos yet, let’s give you a quick primer. Ethos, pathos, and logos are modes of persuading your reader. In other words, they’re techniques to make your work more powerful and convincing. Here is a great overview of ethos, pathos, and logos, but in short, here’s what each refers to:

Ethos = Refers to how you establish your own credibility, reliability, or authority on the subject matter (hint: you’ll be relying largely on your own life experiences in your scholarship essays).

For example, you might discuss how your experience working a part-time job has influenced your thoughts on minimum wage laws.

Pathos = this is how you use emotional appeal (including creativity, imagination, etc.) to tell your story or make your case.

For example, you might paint a picture of all of the wildlife lost in massive brush fires.

Logos = they show how you use logic or ratio to convey your point.

For example, you may use statistics to convey how reliant high school students are on their cell phones.

Basically, in the ideal essay, you’ll use all three types of support to make your essay as earnest and persuasive as possible.

8. Be honest

Your life and experiences are interesting and important. You do not need to embellish or make up details to try to seem more deserving of the scholarship money. Nothing is more powerful than your authenticity. And trust us, it’s much easier for readers to spot baloney in an essay than you may think.

Here’s a simple example. If you’re a tutor, you may be inclined to say something a bit dramatic, like, “over the last 4 years, I’ve had the privilege of helping shape thousands of lives.” 

Hmmm…have you really tutored thousands of students? Likely not—you’re busy! We get it. It’s easy to embellish. 

Instead, you could say something to the effect of: “After 4 years of tutoring nearly 150 individuals in math and science, I feel my own math and material science skills have improved substantially.”

Trust us, your unexaggerated accomplishments are impressive!

9. Show, don’t tell

This is a vital rule for creative writing. Try to paint a vivid picture for your reader instead of just explaining everything. For example, don’t just say that you’re stressed out by juggling work and high school. Illustrate what that stress looks like in your life. (Are you pulling all-nighters and pounding coffee? Are you doing homework on your breaks between work, school activities, and community service?) Create a picture, and provide specific, believable examples.

Try something like: “It was like an anvil had smashed down on my knee. In searing pain, I lay on the ice as the crowd fell silent. Something was very wrong.”

Notice how we immediately feel the impact of the injury in this example! That’s how you should explain yourself. 

10. Be specific and concise 

Although we encourage students to be evocative in their language, we also want them to stress about getting to the point. Typically, the simplest, most direct word choices are the most effective. Avoid generalizations in favor of specific examples. Also, avoid flowery language and go for more brief sentences.

Let’s demonstrate. The following sentiment feels overly general and wordy:

“I love nature because nature is beautiful. Honestly, I can’t think of a single thing I don’t like to do in nature. Really, it’s been my favorite place to be since a young age and any activity that involves being outside is just good for my soul.”

This rewrite expresses the same idea in a much more brief way

“Whether I’m hiking, wading in the ocean, or planting seasonal flowers in the garden, I am rejuvenated by being in nature.”

11. Use exclamation points sparingly

We all know that exclamation marks indicate excitement and we all love exclamation marks! While winning financial aid in the form of scholarships is very exciting, too many exclamation marks can be overkill. Avoid using many exclamation marks. You should use at least 2 exclamation marks throughout your essay. 

Make sure the exclamation marks are appropriate to the prompt. We’ve seen some pretty creative scholarship essay prompts in our day (like one that asks to share a funny story or joke). In this case, you can use exclamation marks more freely.

Many people falsely believe that an exclamation mark will make a sentence more powerful which is not the truth. The truth is, an empowering statement has a powerful effect even without an exclamation mark.

12. Emphasize your resilience

In most cases, scholarship prompts often ask you about a hardship you’ve overcome. These types of questions are good as they give the reader a chance to understand a student’s resilience and ability to solve problems. These characteristics are huge in a scholarship essay.

The mistake many students make on this question is to write 100% about the hardships they’ve faced without acknowledging or discussing how they overcame them. Essay readers are not simply looking for the hardest story when selecting a winner, but rather a complete narrative that includes how the student worked to overcome the challenge.

In such a case, we recommend focusing on a central event or experience that tends to read as more powerful, especially when faced with a word or character limit. You may have faced several hardships in your life, but your essay will be more focused if you choose one that you’ve overcome.

13. Be professional… but also be yourself

Although you have to avoid swearing and overly colloquial or conversational language, you need to be yourself. In this case, you have to write in your own voice and tone. So long as you keep it professional, readers want you to sound like YOU. You don’t have to write a stuffy essay for it to be good! Keep it clean and clear, but also keep it real!

Here’s a great piece on the difference between voice and tone, and how you can improve your writing skills to stand out.

14. Sell yourself… but also be humble

When writing a scholarship essay, you have a great opportunity to share your accomplishments. But you should not just list all of your best qualities and accomplishments as a rationale for why you deserve the scholarship award. It’s important to strike a fine balance. Don’t let it look like you are bragging. 

You should instead use those attributes to show why you deserve to get the scholarship compared to other individuals applying for the same.  

15. Be brief with your “thank you”

Your character, dedication, and integrity should come through naturally in your writing. You don’t need to add a long-winded “Thank you for reading this essay” paragraph at the end of your essay. Most scholarship essays are short and thus it is important to avoid bloating your essay with gratitude and praise for the opportunity. You should use your character and words to answer the prompt thoroughly.

In case you still have space after including all the important information, a brief thank you is thoughtful and appropriate. On the other hand, you have to be as concise as possible. For instance, you can simply say something like, “Thank you for this opportunity and for taking the time to read this essay,” at the end of your essay. 

In case your ‘Thank you’ cannot fit in the essay due to word limit, you should feel free to write a ‘Thank you’ letter once you have been awarded the scholarship. 

16. Pause, proofread, and revise

The author Robert Graves said, “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting,” and it’s true; nothing comes out perfect the first time. So revise, revise, and revise! In the revision process, take enough breaks. Walk away from your work to clear your mind and then come back to it with a fresh mind. You’ll see your essay with fresh eyes which will help you take it to the next level.

You can also hand off your work to someone else to review it and point out errors if any. This is not a must and should only happen if you are comfortable with it. Choose a trusted teacher, peer, or friend, and be open to their suggestions for improvement. Essay help services can also help with editing and proofreading for a few dollars.

17. Give yourself enough time

You need to give yourself enough time to think about the prompt, plan, draft, and revise. A well-planned essay has a much higher chance of winning than the one you crank out last minute. You can give yourself at least 2 weeks before the deadline of your essay to brainstorm, draft, and revise your essay.

For the best results, you should leave a couple of days between each of these stages of the essay-writing process. This break will help you avoid essay writing burnout. It’ll also give you a better chance to edit errors, typos, and places for improvement.

18. Reuse your scholarships essays

In most cases, you don’t need to write a new scholarship essay. If the essay prompts and directions are nearly identical between one scholarship application and another, you can reuse a previous essay. If you’re a high school senior, you might even be able to reuse the personal statement you write for college applications. This will save you time.  

For instance, one scholarship requires you to write an essay addressing a prompt that says something like “Why should you receive this scholarship?” and another gives you a prompt like “Why do you deserve this scholarship?” Your answer to both prompts is probably going to be the same, right?

You can write the essay for one application, then reuse and adapt that same essay to fit the word count, directions, etc. of the second application. Something you should consider is, if you mention the scholarship provider’s name (e.g. Coca Cola Foundation) in your essay, remember to change the name when reusing the essay for another scholarship application!

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