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?
I have had the privilege to sit on several scholarship committees over the years, but lately it seems as though fewer students are actually reading the guidelines before they submit their applications. I don’t know if they believe that the winners are chosen at random or that no one is actually reading the essays, but after reviewing a recent stack of submissions, I've come to the conclusion that many students are simply too lazy to follow directions. Just like most things in life, scholarships come with rules. I know most students abhor them, but scholarship providers don’t simply give away money because students ask nicely for it; providers want to know that the investment they are making is a good one and that’s where scholarship guidelines play a part. If students are unwilling to spend the time needed to review the rules and submit a quality essay, they probably won't be willing to go above and beyond in college, either. Although that may not be the case for all students, it’s the rationale used by many providers to weed out possible contenders. In general, three fatal flaws that continue to keep most students from reaching the coveted finalists pool.
1. Word Count
I know many students express their frustration over the limitations placed on scholarship essays, but the word count is there for a reason. In most cases, scholarship essays are kept to 500 words or less. It makes it easier for committees to review hundreds (sometimes thousands!) of submissions and ensures that students are staying on topic. It’s also an easy way for scholarship committee members to reject those applicants who failed to read the directions. No matter how brilliant the essay may be, if it doesn’t meet the word count, no one will be reading it. In my experience, more than 20 percent of the applications I have reviewed are disqualified because the students do not follow this simple rule.
I blame Twitter for derailing many students in this area. So many have grown accustomed to fitting in 140 characters in their everyday conversations that it seems to have filtered into their scholarship essays, as well. I cannot tell you how many times I have come across someone using the lowercase ‘i’ instead of the appropriate version, not to mention all the acronyms littering the page; OMG, it’s enough to make me SMH! Another pet peeve of mine - spelling errors! Many are obvious keystroke errors, but simply having another set of eyes proofread the essay would save many students from this fatal flaw. Many scholarship reviewers use the baseball rule when it comes to grammatical errors; 1-2-3 and you're out!
3. Wrong Response
I know I have mentioned in previous posts that students should work smarter by reusing some of their previous work. That does not mean, however, submitting an essay that has nothing to do with the scholarship prompt. For example, an essay about the zombie apocalypse probably shouldn't be used for an essay about ice cream. As a reviewer, nothing is more frustrating than coming across a submission that was obviously meant for another scholarship program. It basically screams, ‘I want the money, but I don’t want to work for it.’ Another fatal flaw, students who write why they deserve a scholarship or list all of the hardships in their life; unless the scholarship provider specifically asked for this information, students need to stick to the script and stay on topic. They may think that it will tug at the scholarship committee’s heart strings (and sometimes it does), but if their essays do not answer the scholarship prompt, they'll be headed for the rejection pile. So many students complain about not winning scholarships, but if more would take a few moments to review the guidelines and learn to stick to the rules, I think they would have a better chance at actually earning some cash for college. It’s amazing how many never even take the time to edit their work before hitting the submit button. Clearly, these students don’t value the scholarship committee’s time, so why should we feel inclined to provide them with a scholarship? In most cases, the students who put forth their best efforts (and pay attention!) will earn the scholarship rewards.