a hand writing in a notebook representing how to write a scholarship essay

College Success

A Complete Guide on How to Write a Winning Scholarship Essay

03.05.2022 • 10 min read

Bob Patterson

Former Stanford Director of Admissions

Here’s how to write a scholarship essay. Learn what it is and why it is important in this step-by-step guide with tips and examples.

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In This Article

  1. Scholarships 101

  2. Writing The Best Scholarship Essays

  3. Step-by-Step to a Great Scholarship Essay

  4. 15 Scholarship Essay Tips

Scholarships have come a long way since 1643, when Lady Anne Radcliffe Mowlson established the first scholarship program at Harvard University. Once unknown, they’re now a term used so frequently and so ubiquitously that they’ve almost become a central element to funding a higher education. With college costs having tripled in the last 20 years, scholarships give students like you a way to make college dreams more affordable.

Scholarships 101

Grants and scholarships appear under the larger term “Gift Aid” which, as its title suggests, is a gift of aid. It’s money awarded to you with the purpose of reducing the cost of your education without ever having to be repaid. The funding for this aid can come from the government, colleges themselves, and private organizations, and can range anywhere from $100 to $100,000 or more. The aid may come with certain requirements, such as ensuring you keep a 3.5 GPA or play on the college football team; all you may need to do is complete a scholarship application, write an essay, and then accept. For example, the Frontline Workers Scholarship at Outlier requires some basic information, a multiple-choice questionnaire (of three questions), and a short video.

Grants vs Scholarships

How to get a grant differs from getting a scholarship. It’s important to know the difference. The main thing to remember is that grants are often need-based; meaning they are awarded to you based on your family’s finances. Then scholarships are mainly merit-based; meaning they are awarded to you because you have a particular quality, such as academic ability or athletic promise, in which the university is interested.

Competing for Scholarships

When it comes to applying for and receiving scholarships, competition is always fierce—especially so for international students. The odds of receiving a scholarship can range from 1 in 8 to 1 in 500. But don’t let that discourage you! If you don’t try, you won’t receive anything; but if you do try, there’s a chance.

Last year alone, the students we worked with received:

  • $120,000 from the University of Southern California

  • $100,000 from George Washington University

  • $100,000 from Goucher College

  • $68,000 from Northeastern University

  • $60,000 from American University

  • $48,000 from the New School Parsons School of Design

  • $40,000 from the University of California San Diego

  • $13,000 from NYU

  • And more

Application Requirements

The application process for individual scholarships differs substantially, and often there are countless forms to fill out, essays to write, and preparation to do ahead of time. On the other hand, some simply require you to apply by a certain date. For example, applying by USC’s December 1 deadline automatically ensures that they consider you for all of their merit scholarships. Planning ahead and doing your research are essential if you’re looking for a scholarship; they can appear in the most unlikely of places.

Writing The Best Scholarship Essays

After you’ve done all your research, figured out your deadlines, and read the essay requirements, it’s probably time to think about writing. All scholarships will have different focuses and requirements depending on why the scholarship exists. But each essay is your chance to share your story: why you’re submitting a scholarship application and why you should be the one to benefit from it. These essays are your chance to show a scholarship committee who you are and why you’re here.

Example Essay Prompts

Personal

Tell the scholarship committee about yourself. What differentiates you from the hundreds of students who apply to our scholarship? Why are you unique?

Leadership & Initiative

Tell us about a time you positively contributed to group efforts, where you stepped up as leader in your high school, or made a positive contribution to your community.

Overcoming Challenges

Tell us about a time you failed or something didn’t go to plan; what did you learn from the experience? Describe how you were changed by a circumstance, obstacle, or conflict in your life and the skills and resources you used to resolve it. Describe an experience where you collaborated/interacted with people whose beliefs differed from yours, perhaps during a volunteering experience or as part of community service; what happened?

Topic-Based

Describe your hopes for the future of women and girls worldwide. Describe a social entrepreneurship endeavor that you hope to make (or have started to make) a reality. What is the one technology resource you hope will shape tomorrow’s world?

Financial

What are the circumstances that have impacted your life financially and emotionally to date? What impact would this financial aid/scholarship have on your education? How would you aim to use this scholarship to your benefit or to the benefit of others? Why do you deserve this scholarship?

Future Goals

Why do you want to go to college? Why is your college application important to you? What are your short-term and long-term goals? What is it that you want to achieve and how will a college education help you get there? Describe your high school experience and how you hope your college one will be different.

Focus on Sharing Your Experiences

Whether you write about your personal background, your high school experience, a community service opportunity, or your career goals, your scholarship essay is about you and your experiences. Keep your focus on what the question is asking and how your personal experiences can answer it.

modes of persuasion graphic - ethos, pathos and logos

Many students find “ethos, pathos, and logos” useful to consider; you want to create an essay that is believable and has both emotion and reason. You need to be the authority on your own life, creating a world for the reader to imagine themselves in, while also giving them logical, tangible experiences to hold on to. Personally, I like the Mary Poppins jumping into the painting approach: you’re drawing a world on the pavement for admissions to jump into. Your story becomes real because it envelops them—they’re getting an insight into your life, your experiences, and your emotions. By the end of the essay, they understand you.

Step-by-Step to a Great Scholarship Essay

Brainstorm

After reading the question, pick out all the keywords and write down as many relevant personal experiences as you can think of. Make connections, go on tangents, explore in and around the theme, and find your compelling story. Sometimes it’s useful to pick a few ideas and explore them thoroughly before you choose the one that works best–sometimes the best ideas come out of nowhere.

Find Your Structure & Outline

Every good essay—whether the word count is 150 or 1500—needs an introduction, somebody paragraphs, and a conclusion. The introduction needs to be the thing that “hooks” the reader in. The middle needs to add some detail, and the conclusion wraps everything up. The story doesn’t have to be linear, but the structure does.

Write

If you’ve got the idea, the writing process will come. Just don’t be afraid! You have to start somewhere, so just write and keep writing. Don’t delete anything in that first draft—even if you hate it or it sounds cheesy. Don’t worry about starting at the beginning—sometimes the middle or the end are good places to start. Also, don’t be afraid to go back a step and brainstorm some more. Most importantly, you should trust yourself.

Edit & Rewrite

A key part of the scholarship essay writing process is editing and rewriting. Essays don’t happen overnight. They require hard work to get right. This step is where you develop your ideas, clarify your thoughts, and find the right structure. You want to ensure that your scholarship essay is easy to read, flowing from one sentence to another and from each structural component to the next. Put it down, come back to it later with fresh eyes, and read it as if you were reading it for the first time. Does it work? Keep going over your essay until you can say “yes” to that question.

Proofread

Typos, grammatical mistakes, and spelling mistakes are your enemy. Even the most beautiful content can be a letdown by using “their” when you meant “there.” Ensure you check and double check your essay for mistakes and don’t be afraid of using spellcheck, something like Grammarly, or asking a family member to help you. Proofreading should be the final step in your scholarship essay. Once you’ve done everything you can think of to make it the best essay for you, consider it done and don’t look back.

15 Scholarship Essay Tips

1. Be honest.

These are your scholarship applications and your college future; start with the truth.

2. Follow your passion.

Write about something you love! Not only will it land better with a scholarship committee, but it will actually be easier to write.

3. Focus on what you learned.

The story is important, but what you learned and took from the experience is essential. Colleges want to know that you’ll bring everything you’ve learned with you to college.

4. Self-reflection is key.

Without oversharing, preaching or lecturing, really think critically about what makes you, you. Ask your friends and family members for your best qualities. Think about what you love learning or doing, and be specific—focus in on a particular activity, experience, or personality trait that defines you.

5. Edit, edit, edit.

Proofread, proofread, proofread. Again and again. The little mistakes can make a big difference.

6. Keep it personal.

It may be that you’re applying for a specific scholarship that means you need to connect with a particular social issue, high school experience, technological advancement, or subject. Colleges will be interested in your experience and how you relate to that particular topic or issue.

7. Don’t be afraid to re-use something you’ve already written.

It’s likely you’ve already written something about yourself as part of your application process; as long as they address the prompt and are specific to that scholarship program/university, you can re-use all scholarship essays!

8. Show, don’t tell.

Really paint a picture with your words, describe your emotions, and help the reader imagine everything you experienced.

9. Focus on yourself.

There will be many deserving college students, but focus on what you can bring to the program/scholarship and why your experience is something admissions need to hear. It’s not about other students, it’s about you!

10. Negative experiences aren’t off-limits.

As long as you can describe the positive elements in the negative experience and focus on what you’ve learned, this strategy can really work. Sometimes you learn more from the challenges you overcome.

11. Follow instructions & answer the essay prompt.

It’s an easy thing to forget, but don’t get carried away. Return to the prompt and make sure you do as you’re asked. This includes sticking to the word count.

12. Define your goals.

Ask yourself who you want to become and what skills or personality traits you want to develop. Focus on how this particular college education will help you get there.

13. Do your research.

The most successful scholarship essays will mention specific details about that college, program, major, and other opportunities that you can take advantage of. Read it back to yourself and ask: could this have been written about anywhere? (Try to avoid cliches too.)

14. Have fun!

See any application as an opportunity to share something about yourself in your own words with admissions. These essays are something you have control over.

15. Embrace yourself.

Be yourself and use your own voice. It’s the most powerful tool you have.

About the Author

Bob Patterson is a former Director of Admissions at Stanford University, UNC Chapel Hill, and UC Berkeley; Daisy Hill is the co-author of Uni in the USA…and beyond published by the Good Schools Guide 2019. Together, they have established MyGuidED, a new educational tool for students looking to apply to university (launching 2022).

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