Your Definitive Guide to Writing Scholarship Essays

Getting a college scholarship can be a great way to save money. Find out some of the best ways to make your scholarship essay stand out.

Your Definitive Guide to Writing Scholarship Essays
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Qualifying for a college scholarship is an excellent way to reduce or even eliminate tuition costs. If your family’s finances are tight, then applying for a college scholarship can be an ideal option to pursue. Plus, there are literally thousands of scholarships available out there, and you can check out some of them on BrokeScholar’s scholarship page. But one of the keys to getting a college scholarship is writing a knock-out scholarship essay.

College scholarship application essays tend to carry significant weight when it comes to deciding who will receive the scholarship. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to stand out amid the vast swathe of applications that scholarship programs receive. Even if you nail the scholarship criteria exactly, you are still likely to be one of many applicants with similar grades, accomplishments, community involvements, test scores, and ambitions. In order to figure out how to write a good scholarship essay, read this definitive guide to writing scholarship essays.

How to Write a Scholarship Essay

Like the application itself, neatness is crucial when it comes to the essay. And this requires multiple drafts of your scholarship essay, so be prepared for a lot of writing and editing. It should go without saying that you should type the essay on a separate sheet before committing it to the application itself. But before getting started, you should learn some of the best strategies for how to write a good scholarship essay. Let’s take a look below at some steps, according to experts, that will help you with writing a scholarship essay.

Pick a Theme and Make an Outline of Your Scholarship Essay

As with all forms of writing, arguably, the first step is to create an outline. A college scholarship essay should have a roughly basic format of an introduction, body, and closing. Some sources say to have a body that is three paragraphs, but this isn’t a dogmatic guideline to follow. Write as many body paragraphs as you see fit, without making the scholarship too long. The best scholarship essay format is as follows:

  • Introduction: Here in the introduction, put forward the theme of your essay and the main ideas supporting it. The introduction is a good place to introduce your personal background, but wait to delve into it more until the body of your college scholarship essay.

  • Body paragraphs: There is no concrete rule for how many paragraphs should be in the body of your college scholarship essay, but three ideas, one paragraph for each, is a solid approach. The body paragraphs will support the theme and statement you made in your introduction.

  • Closing: Your conclusion paragraph, where you have a chance to drive the theme home. Avoid re-stating points already made, and instead, fuse them together. Think of your scholarship essay like an upside-down pyramid, with the introduction the wider base, the body paragraphs the narrowing middle part, and the closing paragraph the tip of the pyramid.

This is a simple yet useful scholarship essay format that has worked time and again for prospective students applying for scholarships. The structure and organization will keep you from rambling or veering off course. It will also provide needed focus to the writing process. Everything in the essay should serve the theme. 

Make Your Scholarship Essay Personal and Specific

It is commonly said by experts that the most effective scholarship essays are ones that are personal and include meaningful details. A college scholarship essay that comes across as genuine and provides insights into who you are on a deeper level will help you and your essay stand out in a mass of academic essays that may be stale for readers who must review hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. You should really attempt to paint a picture of your life; convey the obstacles you’ve faced in your life — for example, not speaking English as a first language when your family only recently immigrated to the United States — and how you overcame such obstacles. And make sure to explain in detail the ways you overcome these challenges, because specificity is key to writing a good scholarship essay.

Have Your Scholarship Essay Tell a Story

Your college scholarship essay should not be like a book report or a science lab write-up. Telling a story, with a compelling narrative, is a key feature of most successful scholarship essays. Approach your scholarship essay like writing a fiction story or even a screenplay. Structure your college scholarship essay in a way to begin with a hook, and then draw the reader in as you reveal the challenges you’ve faced, the ways you overcame them, and how this made you a better, more worldly person. Telling a story means including real, concrete details to give your narrative force; merely vaguely saying that you overcame obstacles through perseverance isn’t enough. “Show don’t tell” how exactly you rose above the obstacles that were placed in your path.

Cater Your Scholarship Essay to the Prompt

Plenty of college scholarship essays have an open prompt. However, many other college scholarships have essays that have a prompt that must be addressed. When this is the case, don’t try to repurpose other application essays from open-prompt scholarship essays. Rather, really focus on the prompt and then tailor your personal experience and story to addressing the prompt. And take note: You should cater your scholarship essay to the prompt — do not try to tailor your scholarship essay to the eventual reader of your essay. 

Your college scholarship essay should be a living document of your life at this point. Not only should it list your hopes, heroes, accomplishments, goals, and ambitions, it should give a solid plan for the future, and clear examples and lessons from the past. One of the best scholarship essay examples was for The Fund for Education Abroad, which is committed to diversifying education abroad by providing funding to students who are typically under-represented in study abroad. The prompt was to describe how you and/or your plans for studying abroad could be viewed as under-represented. The applicant then went on to provide a compelling story, beginning with an episode of prejudice against the applicant’s brother-in-law, then transitioned into the applicant’s own struggles with his own sexuality, then moving into how these experiences related to his desire to study abroad in Prague, specifically because of an international film festival there that celebrates LGBTQ themes. The scholarship essay then closed with a brilliant illustration of what it will be like to view the films at the film festival and how it will add to his growth as a person and as a student.

Don’t Forget Grammar, Editing, and Peer Review

Just like with an essay for an English class, always make sure to reread your essay, checking for proper grammar, succinctness, clarity, and tight structure. Make sure your paragraphs have smooth transitions. Always make it clear who is speaking in your scholarship essay, whether it’s you as the narrator or another person talking in your essay. 

When you do type the final version, remember to double space. No point in further taxing the eyes of the screeners. Good grammar is also crucial. Spell and grammar check relentlessly. Have friends, teachers, parents, or anyone else with a knack for sentences go over the essay with you to uncover any structural, grammatical, or logical problems. Needless mistakes will make the application look thrown together. If you're going to put a lot of effort into your college scholarship essay, you'll want that effort to shine through to all who lay eyes on it. Furthermore, if you’re applying to scholarships that have open prompts, it is possible to write two or three all-purpose pieces and tweak them appropriately to fit each individual application. This too will save a lot of work. As for the essay itself, the key is to write something that will stand out in the mind of the reader.

The Bottom Line on How to Write a Good Scholarship Essay

After spending so much time writing one thing, it's quite difficult to remain objective. Others may find what you've missed as well as provide some ideas to shore up the essay. Review the overall structure and the scholarship essay format to make sure it’s tight, flows logically, and doesn’t come across as vague or rambling. Your college scholarship essay should be personal, but your personal story must apply to what the application is asking; if you merely write a detailed history of personal struggles you’ve dealt with, but never mention how you overcame them, then your scholarship essay won’t stick the landing. You must construct a personal story of rising above, of learning and self-growth, and of your future goals and how this scholarship will allow you to attain them.

With the essay out of the way, all forms correctly filled out, and all secondary materials included, it's now time to send your college scholarship essay off. Hit the post office, come home, sit back, and take a deep breath. The only thing left to do is hope and wait.

Andrew DePietro

Author: Andrew DePietro

Senior Researcher, and Content Strategist

Andrew DePietro is a finance writer covering topics such as entrepreneurship, investing, real estate and college for BrokeScholar, Forbes, CreditKarma, and more.