Five hundred words could stand between you and $500. Once you’ve found scholarships that match your credentials and polished your application, it’s often time to write that dreaded scholarship essay.

In the Financial Aid Office, essays are the number one reason students cite for not applying for scholarships. Some say they don’t know what to write; others simply don’t like writing. Whatever the reasoning, you just have to get over it because, like it or not, essays are often a part of the process! Scholarship committees want more than a list of credentials to select an award recipient. Distinguishing one talented, service-oriented, highly motivated student from another is not easy. Don’t think of your essay as a burden—it’s your chance to differentiate yourself from the crowd and win that scholarship!

Carefully consider the topic

Especially after you’ve applied for a few scholarships, the essay prompts all start to seem the same: How will college help you achieve your goals, how have leadership and service shaped who you are, and why do you deserve this scholarship?

While it’s true that many scholarship decision committees are looking for the same information, there’s often something a little bit different that’s required and that could be the most important part of your essay. For example, Illinois State University’s Alumni Association scholarship application asks some standard questions about why you need and deserve the award, but also asks, “How do you see yourself continuing your relationship with Illinois State post-graduation?” That’s a key piece of information for the Alumni Association because they want to support a student who will eventually support their organization. (By the way, if you applied for this year’s Alumni Association scholarships for which the deadline has now passed, decisions will be made by June. Look for the 2016 application in mid-January.)

Think about the organization that is providing the scholarship and what their goals might be. A professional organization is likely hoping to attract potentially successful, new professionals into their field. Likewise, an employer aims to recruit employees in the future. Some donors want to help students come from a background similar to their own. Other organizations aim to draw attention to their cause and reward those who have worked on it. Be sure to include statements in your essay that show how your goals and hopes for the future align with the donor’s. Also, remember to provide enough detail about the experiences you are sharing. If you’re asked to discuss your leadership or community service experience, include specific examples of your direct contributions, not just the end results of the entire group’s work.

Don’t forget the basics

Everything you learned in English class about crafting a coherent essay still applies in the scholarship world. It’s a good idea to draft an outline before you start writing. Come up with a strong introduction that supports the statements you will make throughout the essay. Structure your essay in a logical way that would make sense to any reader.

Often, you’re just working with 500–1,000 words, so you’ll want to be concise—there’s no room for filler at that length. Once you’ve got a decent draft, edit, edit, edit! Of course look for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, but go well beyond that to really polish your essay. Remove unnecessary words and rework awkward sentences. Ask a friend or family member to take a look for you. A fresh set of eyes can help immensely! There are a number of resources available online to help as well, including the Purdue University Online Writing Lab.

“Reinvent the wheel” when needed

You can and should save all of your scholarship essays, and it’s perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to reuse sentences or paragraphs when you’re applying for a different scholarship. Keep in mind, though, that many scholarship committees don’t change very much from year to year. They may remember your essay from last year and not give you much credit for it when you submit the exact same essay this year. If you applied for a scholarship before and weren’t selected to receive it, it’s fair to say your essay did not sway the selection committee for that particular scholarship. Try a new approach. Plus, in a year’s time, you’ll hopefully have even more wonderful experiences and achievements to share with the committee.

When you are reusing significant parts of a previous essay for a scholarship application, pay special attention to the name of the scholarship and the name of the school at which the money will be used. A scholarship committee at Illinois State University will not likely want to give their award to a student who couldn’t be more excited to go to a competing college. Similarly, your application won’t be at the top of the stack for a private foundation or donor if you don’t get the name of the award right in your essay.

Take full advantage of the opportunity to help the scholarship committee get to know you through your essay. Demonstrate why you’re the best possible candidate for the award by submitting a polished essay that addresses your achievements most relevant to that particular scholarship.

If you’re just starting your scholarship search, review our posts about finding scholarships that match your student profile and making your scholarships applications the best they can be. Also, follow ISUScholarships on Twitter and Facebook for the latest scholarship and financial aid information and reminders.

2 thoughts on “Scholarship basics: Write a winning essay

  1. Sue Randle says:

    Love your tips – very helpful and encouraging

    1. Liz Larson says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Sue! 🙂