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Top 20 Tips for a Winning Scholarship Essay

College expenses are very high these days. A vast majority of young adults in the United States are reeling under the weight of education loans. The economy and job markets stink right now with little hope of recovery in the near future. And not everyone is rich like Bruce Wayne. Winning a good scholarship is, therefore, one of the best options before you, to chip away some of that burden. Here, we lay out our top 20 tips for writing a winning scholarship essay.

Scholarships are a limited resource. As you can imagine, there is a stiff competition for these awards. Every scholarship organization out there wants to make sure that their limited corpus of funds is distributed to the most deserving candidates. Hence, they lay out an obstacle course where the most daunting task is the scholarship application essay.

Our aim in this article is not to supply you with a bunch of scholarship essay examples or a list of no essay scholarships so that you can escape crafting one on your own. Instead, we want to equip you with guiding principles of writing a scholarship essay outline to help you shine among the competition. The principles laid out will also come handy for the rest of your academic life.

What to include in your essay for scholarship?

#1 Keep the scholarship essay structure orthodox

The challenge with essay for scholarships is that you need to make your writing pop up and stand out amidst all the other essays. Many of us get carried away by this agenda and get experimental with our writing. Let me caution you, your scholarship application essay is going to be screened by a very serious lot. You need to draw their attention toward your scholarship essay by demonstrating how unique you are. At times you may apply a different writing technique or approach. But, whatever you do, do not mess with the conventional style and structure of writing a scholarship essay.

The selection committee members have to scan through a large number of applications. A part of your job is to help them find what they’re looking for easily. You achieve that by sticking to an orthodox scholarship essay outline. If you get funky with structure, they may just find it fatiguing to dissect through. In the worst case, your scholarship application essay may end up in the trash even though it is a strong application. Therefore, it is best not to challenge their senses too much while writing your essay for scholarships.

essays for scholarships

essays for scholarships

#2 What the scholarship essay outline should look like

A scholarship essay outline should have a great opening sentence which draws the reader’s attention immediately. And the first paragraph should be an introduction that lives up to the punch in the opening line.

The second paragraph is the body of your scholarship which will back up the statements in your introduction with facts and personal stories that support your case. The body can go into additional paragraph if you have something significantly different to add.

The conclusion is about how this scholarship organization is going to help you with your goals. This is where you will show how vital the aid is for you to chase your dreams. At the end of your conclusion, do not forget to show your gratitude to the scholarship body.

We do not believe in providing you with fully written out scholarship essay examples for you to repurpose. But here are some elements to put, so your thinking is along the right track.

  • The hook: I was only three when I first saw a cockpit up close.
  • Introduction: For as long as I can remember I have loved flying…
  • Body (Paragraph 1): When I was in high school, I did a project in which…
  • Body (paragraph 2): The biggest breakthrough was an inter-school competition…
  • Conclusion: Your organization stands for…
  • Last line: If I am awarded this scholarship, I promise to…
  • Finally: Thank you.

#3 Understanding the scholarship organization

Every scholarship organization has a core philosophy and a core motive behind giving out these awards. It could be in support of a specific cause or a specific community or a specific subject or even just pure merit. It could even be to improve its own brand image within the community it serves, which is often the case with corporate scholarships. If you want to write a winning scholarship essay, it’s important that you imbibe the motive of the granting organization. Firstly, it will help to narrow down the list of scholarships that you are eligible for. Secondly, it will enable you to demonstrate exactly how you’re eligible for these scholarships bearing in mind the organizations’ values and motivations.

For example, if you are an Asian, it would be quite foolish to apply to a Hispanic scholarship fund. Likewise, if you are applying for a scholarship that is based on financial need, then you will obviously need to demonstrate that need in your scholarship essay.

We have compiled several lists of scholarships grouped as merit based scholarships, need based scholarships and minority scholarships to help you navigate through such specific scholarships.


#4 Appeal to the ethos of the scholarship organization

This point is a bit different from the above point about the motive of the scholarship organization. When we say “ethos” we go beyond the plain vanilla motive of the organization. You need to go deeper than that and think in terms of the spirit of the organization.

Sounds cryptic? Think about it this way. Let’s say you want to apply for an African American scholarship by Google. Since it is an ethnicity-based award, you could just say, “hey, I am African American, let me have the money.” But there is a more powerful way to approach Google for this scholarship. You should ask yourself, what does Google stand for. Technology innovation, right? So, when you apply for this Google Scholarship you should make sure that your essay for scholarship reflects how you truly embody the spirit of innovation. That is how you pander to the “ethos” of the awarding organization.

#5 Understand the essay prompt in letter and spirit 

When you are applying for multiple scholarships, you will notice that each application will have its own unique essay prompt. They are mostly generic, but sometimes the essay for scholarship prompt will contain a specific angle that an organization wishes you to address in your essay. You need to grasp that angle. If you are in doubt it is best to run it past someone experienced.

The most generic scholarship essay prompt is “How will this scholarship help you?”. In this case you can go about the essay sticking with the basic structure we laid out. An example of a more specific prompt is, “How have you contributed to your community?”. It’s clear that this organization lays significant importance to community work. So, make sure you play up this angle in your writeup. Sometimes, the prompt may sound tricky. Like for example, “Tell us about a life changing experience.” The organization is testing adaptability and/or resilience and you will need to demonstrate that in your essay. The key is to mold your pitch into the premise laid out in the prompt.

#6 Personal stories that are genuine and heartfelt

It goes without saying, the story you tell based on the prompt must be a true one. It is totally not worth faking this. However, there’s another angle to think about here.

Let’s take the previous example, “Tell us about a life changing experience.” Let’s say you have not one experience, but three. Now you could dump all three in your essay for scholarship. Or you could talk about the one that is most relevant for the program that you are applying for or the scholarship cause.

But the main filter that will help you get the maximum bang for the buck is to write about the one you feel the strongest about. The more profound the impact of an experience on you, the more authentic and heartfelt your writeup will be.

Don’t try to pander to the audience here. You may think a certain story has more public appeal than another. But in our experience, the power of a story is in its telling. And you will be able to tell a better story if you feel strongly about it.

scholarship application essay

scholarship application essay

#7 Plan your content as per word/character limit

Most scholarship essay prompts will prescribe a word or a character limit. You have to say everything you have to say within that limit. Students often think it is ok to exceed that limit just a little. That is not advisable; just stick to it.

Go through what you want to say and plan how many words or characters you want to assign to each part such that the total is within the limit. As a rough estimate for character to word conversion, 3000 characters with spaces equals about 500 words. Use this to plan your essays for scholarships.

#8 Brainstorming your scholarship application essay

Few things are scarier than sitting in front of a blank piece of paper. If you find yourself in writers’ block zone, then you clearly haven’t been brainstorming. Brainstorming is the most important pre-writing activity that warms up and lubricates your grey machinery to get going.

There are several brainstorming techniques that scholarship writing experts will tell you about. Creating a topic list is one. You can have a list for goals, community activities, awards and recognitions, personal stories, etc. Making lists brings everything in one place. Then you can string them up and get your essays for scholarships. Making an idea map is another one. Whatever technique you use, make sure you have the essay prompt within sight as a constant reminder of the essay focus.

For the brainstorming activity, use family, teachers, tutors and experienced friends who know you well. They will remember things about you that you probably have forgotten.

#9 Write, test, repeat

Here is a recommended process to ensure that you end up writing a scholarship essay that reads sharp.

  • After you brainstorming session, write about each event in your list, adhering to chronology
  • Discuss your points with people who know you well and that includes family members, teachers, and friends. These discussions often give you clarity on many levels.
  • Write the first draft of your essay based on these inputs, addressing all the aspects of writing a scholarship essay as per this article.
  • Discuss your completed draft with an experienced person, preferably someone with the knowledge of essays for scholarships. At this stage, a stranger can give you a more objective feedback compared to someone you know.
  • Tweak and rewrite your draft as per feedback
  • Discuss and rewrite until you have a perfect version

#10 Incubate the scholarship essay

Just like eggs, good ideas hatch when you sit on them! If you have a satisfactory draft one evening, try reading it the next day. Chances are that you will wonder why you were so pleased with your scholarship essay examples the previous day. That is why it’s a cardinal error to write your essay for scholarship one day before deadline. This is particularly true if it is your very first time ever or even the first in the school year. Ideas need to evolve over a few days.

Scholarship essays are never written in a day. You must give yourself adequate time to work on perfecting them. The most perfect version of your scholarship essay is produced after several rounds of tweaking and fine tuning.

#11 Embellish facts with feeling

In your essay for scholarship, you are basically telling a story about yourself. What happened with you, how it shaped you and led you to where you are today, and how you need further education to get to your goal.

Very often, words don’t do justice to the seriousness of an experience. Students write stuff as it occurs to them and wonder why it doesn’t sound impactful. But there’s a simple trick to impactful writing. Look back at your experience and instead of narrating it like a flat fact, narrate how you “felt” while it was happening.

So, for example, you want to say, “My single mother was a shop assistant and worked hard to make ends meet.” This is a perfectly valid sentence. But here’s how embellishing works. You could write instead, “With my single mother working as a shop assistant, I barely ever stepped inside a store that wasn’t Dollar Tree or a thrift store.”

Now this adds more color to your experience because you’ve spoken about how you viewed the situation.

#12 Embellish, but don’t exaggerate

There is a thin line between the two. Embellishing makes the story relatable to your reader while exaggerating puts them off. The selection committee members go through a lot of scholarship application essays every year. They have a very good sense of what sounds credible and what’s over the top. As long as you stick to how you truly felt about an experience, you will be alright.

#13 Make every word count writing a scholarship essay 

We encourage you to be expressive but caution you not to get carried away. A wordy write-up is fatiguing for the reader. The rule of thumb is to make a point in one sentence, or two tops. After that you move on to the next idea.

In the previous example, if you were to say, “My single mother was a shop assistant and worked hard to make ends meet. We rarely bought new clothes and lived on hand-me-downs. I used to crave new toys but we never had enough for that. We bought our furniture from yard sales…” – and you have the scholarship officer screaming, “enough!”.

Perhaps you could just say, “My single mother was a shop assistant. We lived off hand-me-downs and shopped at yard sales to make ends meet.”

The way to write a succinct scholarship essay is to find specific words to replace long sentences. Avoid jargon. Avoid redundancies. In our example, notice how we dropped the point about toys because it wasn’t adding anything new.

scholarship essay outline

scholarship essay outline

#14 Grammar and punctuation dos & don’ts

We are not going to tell you where to use a comma or a colon. We trust that our schools have taught you that well. Our main concern is that textspeak has become mainstream. There’s an interesting tale about the word “O.M.G.” being seen in a 1917 letter written to Winston Churchill. However, thanks to the gross overuse of abbreviations on the internet, your scholarship committee won’t be amused to see it in your essay, IMAO. (Ahem).

With respect to punctuation, some of us have a tendency to use several commas to indicate a long pause and multiple exclamations to convey great surprise. Not to mention the emojis. We netizens feel compelled to let the reader know what expression we have on our face at that moment.

Appreciate that the world of scholarship application essays is different from the world of instant messaging and the internet. If you feel like using five commas, just say, “I’d like to pause here”. Instead of multiple exclamations you could say, “I was ecstatic”. Replace your “:-)” with, “I smiled to myself”. Finally, please don’t sign off your essay with an “xxx, Katy”.

#15 Favorite scholarship essay themes

Every scholarship organization has a cause it supports and filters applicants on the basis of alignment with that cause. We’ve already spoken about how essay prompts are designed to lead you in a specific direction. That said, there are some universal favorite scholarship essay outline themes that never fail to impress.

Here are a few you could think about:

  • Sustained community involvement
  • Overcoming a difficulty or challenge
  • An early success
  • Co-curricular awards and recognition
  • A distinguishing talent including sports
  • Eye-opening events
  • People or incidents that have inspired you
  • Books, art or movies that have inspired you
  • Out-of-box innovation
  • Demonstrating leadership
  • Chasing a dream or a goal

#16 Humble bragging

The heart of your essay for scholarship is to project how good you are and why you deserve the scholarship award. As you can imagine this can get tricky because talking about accomplishments shares a border with bragging. Bragging in the scholarship essay has the same effect on the selection officer as fingernails scratching a chalkboard.

So, how does one self-promote without making their hair raise? By being humble about your achievements. Firstly, we must ingrain the fact that our achievements don’t make us superior. They only show that we made the best out of an opportunity that presented itself to us. When you write your scholarship essay examples, simply shift the focus away from the accomplishment itself to how you used the opportunity to do something big. And then, add how you’d be grateful if you’re given another opportunity via the scholarship award.

This is a much more polite and humble way of saying, “I deserve this”. Ultimately, no organization wants to waste the scholarship on someone who doesn’t value the opportunity.

#17 Manners matter

Many of the things we’ve been talking about so far, like being humble, saying thank you, avoiding colloquialisms or textspeak are perceived as signs of good manners. It goes without saying that profanity of any kind is a big no-no. Another piece of advice is to avoid putting down someone in your essay. Speaking ill of a fellow applicant, a friend, a family member or a teacher could potentially kill your chances of winning the award.

An organization bestowing a money award on you would want to know you are a good kid who will put that money to good use. There’s no need to go over the top with good manners. But, make sure you check off the basics.

writing a scholarship essay

writing a scholarship essay

What you shouldn’t put in your scholarship essay

#18 Avoid platitudes and clichés 

The whole purpose of an essay in a scholarship application is to stand out from the crowd in a positive way. Clichés or platitudes can ruin the best scholarship essay examples and leave the selection officer feeling bored reading your application.

Platitudes are everyday quotes that you may have heard your grandmother use often, such as “everything happens for a reason” or “every cloud has a silver lining”. But on some occasions, they may help pull your ideas together simply because their meaning is well understood by one and all. Use them only when they serve this purpose.

Clichés are not all that obvious to spot. For example, alien attack is a cliched theme for a sci-fi movie, and yet who doesn’t like Avengers: Endgame? You see, it isn’t so much the theme as it is the treatment of the theme that you have to be creative about. Essay experts will spot your clichés, so, make sure you run your writeup past them.

#19 Don’t reveal political leanings

You must completely avoid making a statement about your political leanings unless specifically asked for. Even seemingly innocuous statements such as being pro-choice or pro-life can notch your application down if the reader is opposed to your leaning. It is in your best interest to put a 100% politically neutral tone and voice in your application package.

#20 Avoid extreme stands

Having an extreme view about something or believing in extreme solutions may be seen as immature and impractical in a scholarship essay examples. The idea is not to discourage you from holding an opinion but to temper down extreme positions. For example, climate change may be a legit cause to stand for. However, banning all vehicles overnight is probably not a feasible solution.

Feeling confident about writing a scholarship essay? 

We’ve come to the close of our top 20 tips to writing a scholarship essay. If you’ve been dragging your feet about writing your essay so far, this list should snap you out of it and get you started.

There are of course, a few weird no essay scholarships awarded based on the color of your hair or your prom dress. We aren’t here to address those. Instead, our aim is to turn writing a scholarship essay into a fun and fruitful activity. If you still need assistance, do not hesitate to check ViTutors for scholarship application essay experts from all over the world and for all budgets. All the best!

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