Writing the Scholarship Essay: by Kay Peterson, Ph.D.
The personal essay.
It’s the hardest part of your scholarship application. But it’s also the part of the application where the ‘real you’ can shine through. Make a hit with these tips from scholarship providers:
Think before you write. Brainstorm to generate some good ideas and then create an outline to help you get going. Be original. The judges may be asked to review hundreds of essays. It’s your job to make your essay stand out from the rest. So be creative in your answers. Show, don’t tell. Use stories, examples and anecdotes to individualize your essay and demonstrate the point you want to make. By using specifics, you’ll avoid vagueness and generalities and make a stronger impression. Develop a theme. Don’t simply list all your achievements. Decide on a theme you want to convey that sums up the impression you want to make. Write about experiences that develop that theme. Know your audience. Personal essays are not ‘one size fits all.’ Write a new essay for each application-one that fits the interests and requirements of that scholarship organization. You’re asking to be selected as the representative for that group. The essay is your chance to show how you are the ideal representative. Submit an essay that is neat and readable. Make sure your essay is neatly typed, and that there is a lot of ‘white space’ on the page. Double-space the essay, and provide adequate margins (1″-1 1/2″) on all sides. Make sure your essay is well written. Proofread carefully, check spelling and grammar and share your essay with friends or teachers. Another pair of eyes can catch errors you might miss.
Special thanks to the scholarship specialists who contributed these tips:
TROA Scholarship Fund
Kathy Borunda, Corporate Development
Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Foundation
The American Legion
Patti Cohen, Program Manager
Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation
AFSA Scholarship Programs
Thomas Murphy, Executive Director
Konieg Education Foundation
Lisa Portenga, Scholarship Coordinator
The Fremont Area Foundation
Practice Session: Common Essay Questions — by Roxana Hadad
The essay — It’s the most important part of your scholarship application, and it can be the hardest. But the essay shouldn’t keep you from applying. Take a look at some of the most commonly asked essay questions and use them to prepare for your scholarship applications. Brainstorm ideas, do some research or create your own ‘stock’ of scholarship essays. When the time comes, you’ll be ready to write your way to scholarship success!
Your Field of Specialization and Academic Plans
Some scholarship applications will ask you to write about your major or field of study. These questions are used to determine how well you know your area of specialization and why you’re interested in it.
- How will your study of _______ contribute to your immediate or long range career plans?
- Why do you want to be a _______?
- Explain the importance of (your major) in today’s society.
- What do you think the industry of _______ will be like in the next 10 years?
- What are the most important issues your field is facing today?
Current Events and Social Issues
To test your skills at problem-solving and check how up-to-date you are on current issues, many scholarship applications include questions about problems and issues facing society.
- What do you consider to be the single most important societal problem? Why?
- If you had the authority to change your school in a positive way, what specific changes would you make?
- Pick a controversial problem on college campuses and suggest a solution.
- What do you see as the greatest threat to the environment today?
Scholarships exist to reward and encourage achievement. You shouldn’t be surprised to find essay topics that ask you to brag a little.
- Describe how you have demonstrated leadership ability both in and out of school.
- Discuss a special attribute or accomplishment that sets you apart.
- Describe your most meaningful achievements and how they relate to your field of study and your future goals.
- Why are you a good candidate to receive this award
Background and Influences
Who you are is closely tied to where you’ve been and who you’ve known. To learn more about you, some scholarship committees will ask you to write about your background and major influences.
- Pick an experience from your own life and explain how it has influenced your development.
- Who in your life has been your biggest influence and why?
- How has your family background affected the way you see the world?
- How has your education contributed to who you are today?
Future Plans and Goals
Scholarship sponsors look for applicants with vision and motivation, so they might ask about your goals and aspirations.
- Briefly describe your long- and short-term goals.
- Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
- Why do you want to get a college education?
Many scholarship providers have a charitable goal: They want to provide money for students who are going to have trouble paying for college. In addition to asking for information about your financial situation, these committees may want a more detailed and personal account of your financial need.
- From a financial standpoint, what impact would this scholarship have on your education?
- State any special personal or family circumstances affecting your need for financial assistance.
- How have you been financing your college education?
Some essay questions don’t seem directly related to your education, but committees use them to test your creativity and get a more well-rounded sense of your personality.
- Choose a person or persons you admire and explain why.
- Choose a book or books and that have affected you deeply and explain why.
While you can’t predict every essay question, knowing some of the most common ones can give you a leg up on applications. Start brainstorming now, and you may find yourself a winner!
Essay Feedback: Creating Your Structure — by Kay Peterson, Ph.D.
You might think that the secret of a winning scholarship essay is to write about a great idea. But that’s only half the job. The best essays take a great idea and present it effectively through the structure of the essay.
To see how important structure is, let’s look at an essay by Emily H. In her application for the UCLA Alumni Scholarship, Emily responds to the following essay topic: “Please provide a summary of your personal and family background, including information about your family, where you grew up, and perhaps a highlight or special memory of your youth.”
Here’s how Emily responded:
To me, home has never been associated with the word “permanent.” I seem to use it more often with the word “different” because I’ve lived in a variety of places ranging from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Los Angeles, California. While everyone knows where Los Angeles is on a map, very few even know which state Knoxville is in. Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to live in the east and west and to view life from two disparate points.
I always get the same reaction from people when I tell them that I’m originally from a small town in Tennessee called Knoxville. Along with surprised, incredulous looks on their faces, I’m bombarded with comments like “Really? You don’t sound or look as if you’re from Tennessee.” These reactions are nearly all the same because everyone sees me as a typical Californian who loves the sunny weather, the beach and the city. They don’t know that I lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, before I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then moved again to Knoxville, Tennessee. The idea of my living anywhere in the vicinity of the South or any place besides California is inconceivable to many because I’ve adapted so well to the surroundings in which I currently find myself. This particular quality, in a sense, also makes me a more cosmopolitan and open-minded person. Having already seen this much of the world has encouraged me to visit other places like Paris or London and the rest of the world. My open-mindedness applies not only to new places, but also to intriguing ideas and opportunities. This attitude towards life prepares me for the vast array of opportunities that still lie ahead in the future. From my experiences of moving place to place, I have also come to acknowledge the deep bond I share with my family. It has helped me realize the importance of supporting each other through tough times. Moving from Tennessee to California meant saying good-bye to the house we had lived in for six years, longtime friends and the calm, idyllic lifestyle of the country that we had grown to love and savor. But knowing that we had each other to depend on made the transition easier. It also strengthened the bond we all shared and placed more value on the time we spent with each other, whether it was at home eating dinner or going on a family trip. Now when I think of the word “home,” I see the bluish-gray house I live in now. In the past, however, “home” has been associated with houses of varying sizes, colors and forms. The only thing that has remained unchanging and permanent is my family. I have acknowledged this constancy, knowing well enough that it is, and always will be, a part of me and a unique part of my life.
Los Angeles is one of many places in which I’ve lived. This fact by itself has had a tremendous impact on me.
This kind of essay topic can be difficult because it is very general. Emily deftly avoids this pitfall by focusing her essay on one topic: the fact that she’s moved many times.
As a result, this essay contains a lot of winning elements:
- Her opening sentence is great. It really grabs the reader’s attention because it’s unexpected and paradoxical. We want to learn more about her.
- Her story is unique; she doesn’t rely on clichés.
- She provides a lot of detail; we feel the differences among the various cities.
- She’s focused the account so we learn just enough, not too much.
- She tells us why these events are important. Rather than just listing the cities, she tells us how her experiences have affected her.
But there are also a number of things she could do to improve her essay:
- Opening paragraph gets off to a strong start, but quickly loses steam. The last sentence is too vague.
- The second paragraph is far too long, and covers too many ideas.
- The transitions among the various ideas are underdeveloped. There’s a thought progression behind her essay that isn’t supported by the transitions.
- Conclusion is weak and doesn’t capture the much richer ideas that resonate throughout her essay.
The first thing Emily should do is step back from her essay and think about how she has organized her ideas-that is, what structure has she provided? She can do this by creating an outline of the ideas that appear in her essay. It should look something like this:
a. Emily has lived in a lot of places
b. Emily has viewed life from two disparate points.
2. Body (one paragraph)
a. People don’t guess that Emily is not originally from California.
b. That’s because she has adapted so well to her current environment.
c. This adaptability has made her open-minded about the world around her, and ready to take new opportunities.
d. She’s also learned to recognize and value the bond with her family, which gives her a sense of permanence throughout all the changes.
3. Conclusion: Los Angeles is one of the places she has lived.
As we can see, Emily’s essay is jam-packed with good ideas. With the exception of the conclusion (which she should cut), everything in here is meaningful and necessary. What she needs to do now is identify the most important idea for the whole essay and then rearrange the points so that they support that idea.
What is the overriding idea? I identified a number of fruitful ideas that involve these various points:
- Constant change has been challenging, but learning how to deal with change has made Emily ready for more challenges in the future.
- Constant change has had a paradoxical effect on Emily: It’s taught her both how to be adaptable and how determine what is truly permanent (i.e. her family).
- Constant change has taught her all about different parts of the country, but has also taught her that while she grows and changes, she’ll still remain the same person she always was.
Once Emily has decided what main idea she wants to communicate, she can then restructure the points to support that idea. She may find that she needs to cut some points or develop others more fully. The key is to make it clear how those points relate to the central idea and to use meaningful transitions that point the way to the next idea.
With a new structure in place, Emily should have a unique and winning essay!
**OTHER WINNING TIPS**
Once you have determined which scholarships you will apply for, write to them and ask for their scholarship application and requirements. The letter can be a general request for information “form” letter that can be photocopied, but you should be specific about the name of the scholarship you are inquiring about on the envelope.
Write to each source as far in advance of their scholarship deadline as possible and don’t forget to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope(SASE) — it not only expedites their reply, but some organizations won’t respond without one.
Remember, on the outside of the envelope, list the name of the specific scholarship you are inquiring about. That way, the person opening the mail will know where to direct your inquiry.
Here is an example of what your letter might look like:
XYZ Corporation (Ian Scott Smith Scholarship)
1234 56th Street, Suite 890
Metropolis, FL 00000-0000
Dear Scholarship Coordinator:
I am a (college) student (give academic year) and will be applying for admission to (a graduate) program for academic year 20__ – __.
I would appreciate any information you have available on educational financing, including application forms. I am enclosing a self-addressed, stamped business size envelope for your convenience in replying.
Daniel J. Cassidy
2280 Airport Boulevard
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Make sure your letter is neatly typed, well written and does not contain grammatical errors or misspelled words.
When filling out scholarship application forms, be complete, concise and creative. People who read these applications want to know the real you, not just your name. The application should clearly emphasize your ambitions, motivations and what makes you different. Be original!
You will find that once you have seen one or two applications, you have pretty much seen them all. Usually they are one or two pages asking where you are going to school, what you are going to major in and why you think you deserve the scholarship. Some scholarship sources require that you join their organization. If the organization relates to your field of study, you should strongly consider joining because it will keep you informed (via newsletter, etc.) about developments in that field.
Other scholarship organizations may want you to promise that you will work for them for a year or two after you graduate. The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund offers a scholarship for up to $20,000 for journalism, broadcasting, and communications students with the understanding that the student will intern for them for two years. This could even yield a permanent job for the student.
Your application should be typewritten and neat. I had a complaint from one foundation about a student who had an excellent background and qualifications but used a crayon to fill out the application.
Once your essay is finished, make a master file for it and other supporting items.
Photocopy your essay and attach it to the application.
If requested include: a resume or curriculum vitae (CV), extracurricular activities sheet (usually one page), transcripts, SAT, GRE, or MCAT scores, letters of recommendation (usually one from a professor, employer and friend) outlining your moral character and, if there are any newspaper articles, etc. about you, it is a good idea to include them as well.
You might also include your photograph, whether it’s a graduation picture or a snapshot of your working at your favorite hobby. This helps the selection committee feel a little closer to you. Instead of just seeing a name, they will have a face to match it.
Mail your applications in early, at least a month before the deadline.
**Dr. Peterson has won numerous college and graduate scholarships, including the Jacob Javits Fellowship, the University of California Regents Scholarship and the National Merit Scholarship.
Sample Graduate Application Essay - Before
My purpose for seeking a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership is to expand my knowledge of theory and research methods as it pertains to education. I especially want to fine-tune my research skills as I feel that the importance of gaining research skills is imperative to becoming a lifelong learner and developing intellectual self-actualization as I prepare myself for a career in Education. I realize the importance of gaining credibility among my future colleagues and people that I will be serving in the field.
My view of Education is that of a reformist. I have a particular interest in the improvement of homeless individuals, single mothers and women of color. Because of my own experience with both homelessness and single motherhood, I know the feeling of helplessness as you are sinking deeper and deeper in desperation that you feel that you will never recover from it. I have seen how generations of these people have become prisoners by being illiterate and /or insufficiently educated around our city with little or no hope of getting free from their bondage. Although I have struggled hard to get myself out of this situation I refuse to forget.
I have strove to make a difference wherever I can. As volunteer at Christian Assistance Ministry I witnessed the overworked conditions that the social workers and volunteers faced. Worn from these conditions these dedicated workers had no respite from their daily work of feeding, clothing and providing funds for the homeless and families who have found themselves in a desperate situation. Although I had many job responsibilities at Christian Assistance Ministry the most common was that of interviewer where I assessed the clients situation and offered help either monetary or that of food and clothing. I soon found that intake and interview forms as well as information that was distributed to the patrons. I took it upon myself after approval from the Director to redo and modernize these forms and lists. Also I had initiated lists of other agencies that would assist clients find additional help that they needed in the Greater Houston Area. One of theses lists that I have generated has been used by City Public Service to refer customers that are in need of financial assistance to pay their utility bills. I had contacted each of the agencies personally to get up to date hours, addresses and contact names and numbers before adding them to the list. Many patrons of Christian Assistance Ministry were included in my project as I compiled lists of job hotlines, shelters and affordable housing options. This inclusion also gave many of the patrons a sense of community collaboration, as I would discuss information with them.
In my present job at SeaNet I felt that it was necessary to know what our clients, Small businesses Development Center and Small business administration Counselors felt about the services we were providing them since in the job we do we don't have personal contact with them. With my directors approval I sent out surveys asking various questions about the service we provide and got an overwhelming response. This information was used in a quarterly report that is submitted to our funding agency in Washington DC. At SeaNet I am known as an individual that prides herself in thorough research techniques. I am often being asked to do research for special projects that are beyond our usual information requests. Most recently I have done research on the availability of renewable energy sources in South Texas. This research was for a consortium of various Universities in Texas, The Economic Development Center, Solar Energy and Brooks Air Force Base investigating who are examining the feasibility using various energy sources.
I am also an advocate of 21st Century Learning Centers that would provide a safe refuge for the millions of latch-key children in this country that go home to an empty house on any given school day. Along with that thought are full service schools that would provide many of the health and social services so desperately needed in many school districts. I have and continue to research community programs that are available to school children and their families. I recently collaborated with three such agencies (Upward Bound, Peace Center, and Davis....) in Houston to present to my fellow classmates the importance and impact community collaboration makes on our schools in our city. I also provided information in the form of brochures and handouts about other such organizations that could assist in the needs of their own schools. I feel that it is imperative that every teacher, principle and administrative staff in all schools be aware of these resources in our community. After the presentation many of my classmates who are teachers and administrators contacted several of the organizations that I had introduced them to in that hour presentation and have started programs within their schools.
Although I have not yet formally been employed in the educational work environment I have been a mentor for many students attending Davis Middle School as well as a tutor for several home-schooled children. During the years of my own children attending school, I was very involved in their schools both private and public and took on many organizational and leadership roles. I served on many boards and was very active in assisting instructors and administrators in the schools my children attended. Because of these 15 years of experience, I am very familiar with the diverse educational system in Houston.
I have helped develop leadership in others by serving as an example of how far you can go in education with dedication and hard work. By being a student I have been example to others who didn't feel they could juggle school with work and raising a family. I have a very hard working and decisive character that has earned me a 4.0 GPA. I have never been one to do anything halfway but instead show the dedication and integrity it takes to finish a project to its fullest.
My short-term goals include: establishing a network of scholars and future administrators, participating in a rigorous intellectual process.
My short-term goals include taking full advantage of the Doctorate program to fine-tune and learn more about research and writing skills. I want to use and improve my knowledge in quantitative research using programs such as SPSS and Microcase, in tandem with qualitative researching techniques. I want to develop a clear and concise understanding of leadership and the education profession and how the two mesh as one while enjoying the opportunity to develop a network of scholars. To experience the community and closeness that my fellow cohort mates can provide enjoy the opportunity to brainstorm and discuss pressing issues in our schools today and how we/I/they plan on changing them for tomorrow. After researching many doctorate programs in the area I feel that Texas A&M is unique in the standpoint of wanting to create a bonding collaborative experience among all the Educational Leadership Students and especially among cohort mates. I feel that the young and innovative program suits the fresh outlook on Educational Leadership that I am in search of. I have seen the department of education blossom in the last 4 years that I have been involved with it. I can appreciate the effort and future seeking work that is going on in the department, everyone has the attitude of moving forward and evolving with the times. To me this is the true example of reform, there is no lip service in this program, and it is practicing what it preaches. I know that in the classes that I have taken there is open invitation for research and suggestions for improvement solicited. Although I have no trouble working independently on projects it is reassuring that there will be others to inspire the creative juices that comes from group interaction that this program invites. I will look forward to working with professors that I have worked with before and I am anxious to meet those I have not. There is camaraderie in the Education Department that I do not feel is quite like any other at Texas A&M.
My long-term goals take what I have learned in my master's courses in combination with the doctorate courses that will well have prepared me to enter any job in Education. I intend to prepare much of the research using the foundations for a higher level of research I have established at Texas A&M and be published and make a difference in how the underprivileged will be educated. I know that the preparation for that higher plane of achievement that has been instilled in me will serve me well in any Educational or Governmental Occupation I will find myself in. Above all I will be secure in my ability to someway participate in the nation's urgent need to educate moor efficiently and comprehensively.
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