Best Way Write Scholarship Essays

Co-authored by Renae Hintze


College is expensive, but what if I told you that you could make up to $500 per hour in high school to offset the cost!?

Amidst your student’s busy life of after-school sports, school dances, sleepovers, and more…college is on the horizon. And it’s an expensive horizon.

While there ARE 11+ billion dollars in merit based scholarships out there that will actually pay for your student’s good grades and high tests scores, why miss out on the opportunity to get a piece of the 2+ billion dollar private based scholarship pie that are awarded based off essays?

These 10 steps + your application = BIG SCHOLARSHIP MONEY! So let’s go for it. Here’s how to write a winning scholarship essay in 10 steps.

Step #1: Get an Early Start

My essay isn’t due for 3 weeks, why would I start it now? 

Ah-HAH! I see you there, you last-minuter you. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to. And I’m telling you, DON’T PUT IT OFF.

If it helps, here’s an example of what can happen when you procrastinate. Here is one ASU student’s story:

“Once upon a time I took a class that worked with Photoshop. I had a project where I had to create a fake CD cover for myself. I put it off until the last day and I finished it the night before it was due and went to bed — that’s right, the project was DONE. And it was BEAUTIFUL.

My class was at 7:30 am the next morning (A little slice of college for ya) and I hadn’t printed it out yet. And here comes the lesson in timing: My printer broke. The short version of this is that I ran around the entire college campus trying to find a printer at 6:00 am in the morning to no avail.

My finished project received a non-negotiable 0.”

Soooo 2 things here:

  1. NEVER trust a printer to print when you’re in a rush
  2. But most importantly, mistakes happen when you wait till the last minute.

That being said, I recommend you follow a 3-week timeline for writing your scholarship essay.

Step #2: Read ALL of the Instructions

You may write a scholarship essay equivalent to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but if you didn’t follow the instructions, you’re not getting that scholarship. So remember: FORMAT MATTERS.

Here’s what I suggest — don’t just read the instructions… read them twice. Print them out and highlight important things to remember. 

Not winning an essay contest based on the sole fact that your essay didn’t follow directions just stinks. Don’t do it to yourself.

If the format isn’t specified, play it safe this way:

  • Double-space
  • Use Times New Roman
  • Use 12 pt font
  • Have one-inch margins all around
  • Write 2-3 pages

Step #3: Know your Audience

What do I mean by your audience? 

I mean the people you’re talking to in your essay. The people who will decide whether or not they want to give you their scholarship!

Here’s the thing. You want to be genuine about yourself and your passions, but AT THE SAME TIME, you want to make sure that what you DO share about yourself in your scholarship essay is something that your reader would be interested in. 

How do I learn what’s important to someone?

You need to research your audience and find out what they value.

Let’s look at an example. Say Nike offers a scholarship to the winner of an essay contest:

You can see that Response #1 does a good job of answering the prompt, but doesn’t really relate directly to Nike. Nike is an athletic company with the motto “Just do it.” They encourage their customers to push their limits in the athletic world.

Overcoming a fear (heights) that is central to who you are through a challenging sport (rock climbing) is something that directly relates to Nike’s values.

Where can you find that information??  It’s simple:

  1. Look up their website and take the time to review it. Focus on the about us page to get a solid idea of what they do and stand for.
  2. After you have a good idea of who they are, find their contact information and give them a phone call stating the following:

What will this phone call achieve?

  1. You will learn more about your audience. This allows you to tailor your scholarship essay specifically to what the company stands for. (Remember the Nike example?)
  2. Stand out by building a relationship with someone on the scholarship committee.

#2 brings me to my next point!

Step #4: Talk to someone who is part of the scholarship committee.

Now this is not always 100% possible. Some scholarships have rules that won’t allow you to talk to anyone on the scholarship committee.

If this is the case, skip this step and just talk to someone within the organization that helps you get a better idea of the company’s mission and values. With that said I always recommend at least trying!

If you do get a hold of someone, here are some important steps to follow:

Listen for Conversational Hooks

Conversational hooks are words or phrases said within a conversation that allows you to expand on the other person’s interest, providing a more in-depth conversation that builds rapport and trust.

Expand on the Conversational Hooks

If you listened for those conversational hooks you will be able to expand that conversation further in several directions. Try and hit as many conversational hooks with your response so it allows them several responses!

“Wow I love fitness as well! I actually am on the track and field team in my high school. As the team captain I really try to help my teammates and inspire them to be better athletes as well. What do you do to maintain your fitness and how do you inspire people and help athletes within the company?”

See what this does?

  1. It shows that you relate which builds rapport and trust with the scholarship committee member.
  2. It get the scholarship committee member excited to talk to you because EVERYONE LOVES TO TALK ABOUT THEMSELVES!

Keep the Conversation Going Until They Say They Have To Go!

Keep listening for those hooks, expand on them, and build that relationship!

The longer you can remain on the  phone with them talking about THEIR INTEREST, LIFE, AMBITITIONS, AND JOB the more you will be able to relate back to them. This makes you stand out to them when you submit your essay.

Almost done.

Write them an email or (better yet) send them a “Thank you” card thanking them for their time.

Gratitude can go a long way. Wait 24 hours and send them an email thanking them for taking the time out of their busy day to speak to you. Make sure to include something from the conversation that you two really connected on.

OR if you have their address, send them a handwritten card!

You now not only know your audience but have someone in the scholarship committee that is probably rooting for you!

Step #5: Brainstorm Ideas

Ideas don’t always come naturally. In fact, often times when we NEED a really great idea to come to us, this is when we draw a blank. Save time staring at your paper by using a version of brainstorming called “mind-mapping”.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Write the name of your scholarship at the top.
  2. Write down everything that comes to mind about it — this includes the person/organization giving the scholarship, what they do, what they are asking for, what YOU do, what YOU like, etc.

I made an example for you here, with the “L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Scholarship”,  a scholarship that asks students to write a short science fiction novel.

See how I connect different thoughts by drawing lines between them?

Your mind-map can be much bigger than this. But you can see now that I might choose to write my novel on a pilot traveling across the ocean, who is saved by pirates after his plane is taken down by a giant squid…where he meets a clone of himself!

Pretty exciting stuff, right?

Step #6: Pick a Topic You Care About

Scholarship essays are all about the person behind the essay.You want your readers to FEEL your passion about whatever it is you choose to write. And, they want to find someone who is passionate about the same things they are.

But be careful. Your essay is not a sales pitch. You need to be genuine about what you say, and this is why you need to care about the topic you choose. It will also make it easier to write!

Step #7: Create an Outline

This is something you need to do BEFORE you write the essay. And if you do, it will make writing the essay go faster!

I’ve created an example outline for you here. It shows you how you should think about structuring your scholarship essay.

Here also are some great scholarship essay examples from International Student that you can check out!

Step #8: Tell a Story

Tell a story? They want me to write them a book? 

No, but they don’t want you to write a resume either! People who review essays for scholarships go through hundreds and thousands of essays. You may be super accomplished, but so are hundreds and thousands of other kids.

That’s why you can’t just throw your achievements at your readers. Write something that opens a window into your life for them. Like the characters in a book, they need to feel that they are getting to know you better through your essay.

To help you stay on track, here are some Scholarship Essay Do’s and Don’ts.

Step #9: Double-check Your Essay

Ever typed a word into your phone and had it auto-correct to something you didn’t mean to say? It’s the same with your computer. Don’t rely on spell-check to free your essay of errors.

After you’ve finished writing, re-read your essay from start to finish, out loud. It may seem silly to read what you just wrote, but trust me, it’s a good idea.

Ok, but why do I need to read it out loud? 

Sometimes sentences you don’t remember writing can sound strange. Sometimes you may use one word so much that it sounds repetitive. You can catch these kinds of errors much faster if you see AND hear them.

Step #10: Have a Professional Review Your Essay

Are you still listening?? This step is important!

Think about if you were to enter singing auditions for American Idol, or the Voice. You could just wing it, but more likely you’ll want to practice singing in front of other people first. Why?Because you’re actually practicing your audition itself. 

In this same way, you want to practice having someone else read your essay and hear their feedback. It’s a lot better to have someone ELSE tell you where your essay needs work than the person who is no longer offering you a scholarship!

Who should you ask to review your essay? 

Ask a professional. What I mean is, ask someone who has experience with writing. If this person also seems to value the same things the people awarding the scholarship do, EVEN BETTER.

What kinds of people have experience with essay writing and/or scholarship applications?

  • Your English teacher
  • Your school counselor
  • An English tutor

Conclusion

There are over 2+ billion dollars in private based scholarship available. So believe me when I say there are tens of thousands of dollars to be had for everyone who puts in the work.

In conclusion, the following steps can easily make you $500 per hour to help offset the cost for college. Once more, to write a winning scholarship essay:

  1. Get started early (3 weeks in advance — I mean it!)
  2. Read all of the instructions (TWICE, and highlight!)
  3. Know your audience
  4. Talk to someone who is part of a scholarship committee
  5. Brainstorm your ideas
  6. Pick a topic you care about
  7. Use an outline
  8. Tell a story
  9. Double-check your essay for mistakes
  10. Have a professional review your essay

What scholarships have you or your student received and why do you think they were chosen? Let us know in the comments below!

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Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!

Sample Scholarship Essays


If you’re applying for a scholarship, chances are you are going to need to write an essay. Very few scholarship programs are based solely on an application form or transcript. The essay is often the most important part of your application; it gives the scholarship committee a sense of who you are and your dedication to your goals. You’ll want to make sure that your scholarship essay is the best it can possibly be.

Unless specified otherwise, scholarship essays should always use the following formatting:

  • Double spaced
  • Times New Roman font
  • 12 point font
  • One-inch top, bottom, and side margins

Other useful tips to keep in mind include:

  1. Read the instructions thoroughly and make sure you completely understand them before you start writing.
  2. Think about what you are going to write and organize your thoughts into an outline.
  3. Write your essay by elaborating on each point you included in your outline.
  4. Use clear, concise, and simple language throughout your essay.
  5. When you are finished, read the question again and then read your essay to make sure that the essay addresses every point.

For more tips on writing a scholarship essay, check out our Eight Steps Towards a Better Scholarship Essay .


The Book that Made Me a Journalist

Prompt: Describe a book that made a lasting impression on you and your life and why.

It is 6 am on a hot day in July and I’ve already showered and eaten breakfast. I know that my classmates are all sleeping in and enjoying their summer break, but I don’t envy them; I’m excited to start my day interning with a local newspaper doing investigative journalism. I work a typical 8-5 day during my summer vacation and despite the early mornings, nothing has made me happier. Although it wasn't clear to me then, looking back on my high school experiences and everything that led to me to this internship, I believe this path began with a particularly savvy teacher and a little book she gave me to read outside of class.

I was taking a composition class, and we were learning how to write persuasive essays. Up until that point, I had had average grades, but I was always a good writer and my teacher immediately recognized this. The first paper I wrote for the class was about my experience going to an Indian reservation located near my uncle's ranch in southwest Colorado. I wrote of the severe poverty experienced by the people on the reservation, and the lack of access to voting booths during the most recent election. After reading this short story, my teacher approached me and asked about my future plans. No one had ever asked me this, and I wasn't sure how to answer. I said I liked writing and I liked thinking about people who are different from myself. She gave me a book and told me that if I had time to read it, she thought it would be something I would enjoy. I was actually quite surprised that a high school teacher was giving me a book titled Lies My Teacher Told Me. It had never occurred to me that teachers would lie to students. The title intrigued me so much that on Friday night I found myself staying up almost all night reading, instead of going out with friends.

In short, the book discusses several instances in which typical American history classes do not tell the whole story. For example, the author addresses the way that American history classes do not usually address about the Vietnam War, even though it happened only a short time ago. This made me realize that we hadn't discussed the Vietnam War in my own history class! The book taught me that, like my story of the Indian reservation, there are always more stories beyond what we see on the surface and what we’re taught in school. I was inspired to continue to tell these stories and to make that my career.

For my next article for the class, I wrote about the practice of my own high school suspending students, sometimes indefinitely, for seemingly minor offenses such as tardiness and smoking. I found that the number of suspensions had increased by 200% at my school in just three years, and also discovered that students who are suspended after only one offense often drop out and some later end up in prison. The article caused quite a stir. The administration of my school dismissed it, but it caught the attention of my local newspaper. A local journalist worked with me to publish an updated and more thoroughly researched version of my article in the local newspaper. The article forced the school board to revisit their “zero tolerance” policy as well as reinstate some indefinitely suspended students.I won no favors with the administration and it was a difficult time for me, but it was also thrilling to see how one article can have such a direct effect on people’s lives. It reaffirmed my commitment to a career in journalism.

This is why I’m applying for this scholarship. Your organization has been providing young aspiring journalists with funds to further their skills and work to uncover the untold stories in our communities that need to be reported. I share your organization’s vision of working towards a more just and equitable world by uncovering stories of abuse of power. I have already demonstrated this commitment through my writing in high school and I look forward to pursuing a BA in this field at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. With your help, I will hone my natural instincts and inherent writing skills. I will become a better and more persuasive writer and I will learn the ethics of professional journalism.

I sincerely appreciate the committee’s time in evaluating my application and giving me the opportunity to tell my story. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Scholarship Essay Do's and Don'ts

Do:Follow the prompt and other instructions exactly. You might write a great essay but it may get your application rejected if you don’t follow the word count guidelines or other formatting requirements.
DON'T:Open your essay with a quote. This is a well-worn strategy that is mostly used ineffectively. Instead of using someone else’s words, use your own.
DON'T:Use perfunctory sentences such as, “In this essay, I will…”
DO:Be clear and concise. Make sure each paragraph discusses only one central thought or argument.
DON'T:Use words from a thesaurus that are new to you. You may end up using the word incorrectly and that will make your writing awkward. Keep it simple and straightforward. The point of the essay is to tell your story, not to demonstrate how many words you know.

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Planners and Searchers

Prompt: In 600 words or less, please tell us about yourself and why you are applying for this scholarship. Please be clear about how this scholarship will help you achieve your personal and professional goals.

Being African, I recognize Africa’s need for home- grown talent in the form of “planners” (assistants with possible solutions) and “searchers” (those with desperate need) working towards international development. I represent both. Coming from Zimbabwe my greatest challenge is in helping to improve the livelihoods of developing nations through sustainable development and good governance principles. The need for policy-makers capable of employing cross-jurisdictional, and cross- disciplinary strategies to solve complex challenges cannot be under-emphasized; hence my application to this scholarship program.

After graduating from Africa University with an Honors degree in Sociology and Psychology, I am now seeking scholarship support to study in the United States at the Master’s level. My interest in democracy, elections, constitutionalism and development stems from my lasting interest in public policy issues. Accordingly, my current research interests in democracy and ethnic diversity require a deeper understanding of legal processes of constitutionalism and governance. As a Master’s student in the US, I intend to write articles on these subjects from the perspective of someone born, raised, and educated in Africa. I will bring a unique and much-needed perspective to my graduate program in the United States, and I will take the technical and theoretical knowledge from my graduate program back with me to Africa to further my career goals as a practitioner of good governance and community development.

To augment my theoretical understanding of governance and democratic practices, I worked with the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) as a Programs Assistant in the Monitoring and Observation department. This not only enhanced my project management skills, but also developed my skills in research and producing communication materials. ZESN is Zimbabwe’s biggest election observation organization, and I had the responsibility of monitoring the political environment and producing monthly publications on human rights issues and electoral processes. These publications were disseminated to various civil society organizations, donors and other stakeholders. Now I intend to develop my career in order to enhance Africa’s capacity to advocate, write and vote for representative constitutions.

I also participated in a fellowship program at Africa University, where I gained greater insight into social development by teaching courses on entrepreneurship, free market economics, and development in needy communities. I worked with women in rural areas of Zimbabwe to setup income-generating projects such as the jatropha soap-making project. Managing such a project gave me great insight into how many simple initiatives can transform lives.

Your organization has a history of awarding scholarships to promising young students from the developing world in order to bring knowledge, skills and leadership abilities to their home communities. I have already done some of this work but I want to continue, and with your assistance, I can. The multidisciplinary focus of the development programs I am applying to in the US will provide me with the necessary skills to creatively address the economic and social development challenges and develop sound public policies for Third World countries. I thank you for your time and consideration for this prestigious award.

Scholarship Essay Do's and Don'ts

DO:Research the organization and make sure you understand their mission and values and incorporate them into your essay.
DO:Focus on your strengths and turn in any problems or weaknesses into a success story.
DO:Use actual, detailed examples from your own life to backup your claims and arguments as to why you should receive the scholarship.
DO:Proofread several times before finally submitting your essay.
DON'T:Rehash what is already stated on your resume. Choose additional, unique stories to tell sell yourself to the scholarship committee.
DON'T:Simply state that you need the money. Even if you have severe financial need, it won’t help to simply ask for the money and it may come off as tacky.

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Saving the Manatees

Prompt: Please give the committee an idea of who you are and why you are the perfect candidate for the scholarship.

It is a cliché to say that I’ve always known what I want to do with my life, but in my case it happens to be true. When I first visited Sea World as a young child, I fell in love with marine animals in general. Specifically, I felt drawn to manatees. I was compelled by their placid and friendly nature. I knew then and there that I wanted to dedicate my life to protecting these beautiful creatures.

Since that day in Orlando, I have spent much of my spare time learning everything there is to know about manatees. As a junior high and high school student, I attempted to read scholarly articles on manatees from scientific journals. I annoyed my friends and family with scientific facts about manatees-- such as that they are close relatives of elephants--at the dinner table. I watched documentaries, and even mapped their migration pattern on a wall map my sister gave me for my birthday.

When I was chosen from hundreds of applicants to take part in a summer internship with Sea World, I fell even more in love with these gentle giants. I also learned a very important and valuable lesson: prior to this internship, I had imagined becoming a marine biologist, working directly with the animals in their care both in captivity and in the wild. However, during the internship, I discovered that this is not where my strengths lie. Unfortunately, I am not a strong student in science or math, which are required skills to become a marine biologist. Although this was a disheartening realization, I found that I possess other strengths can still be of great value to manatees and other endangered marine mammals: my skills as a public relations manager and communicator. During the internship, I helped write new lessons and presentations for elementary school groups visiting the park and developed a series of fun activities for children to help them learn more about manatees as well as conservation of endangered species in general. I also worked directly with the park’s conservation and communication director, and helped develop a new local outreach program designed to educate Floridians on how to avoid hitting a manatee when boating. My supervisor recommended me to the Save the Manatee Foundation so in addition to my full-time internship at Sea World, I interned with the Save the Manatee Foundation part-time. It was there that I witnessed the manatee rescue and conservation effort first hand, and worked directly with the marine biologists in developing fund-raising and awareness-raising campaigns. I found that the foundation’s social media presence was lacking, and, using skills I learned from Sea World, I helped them raise over $5,000 through a Twitter challenge, which we linked to the various social media outlets of the World Wildlife Federation.

While I know that your organization typically awards scholarships to students planning to major in disciplines directly related to conservation such as environmental studies or zoology, I feel that the public relations side of conservation is just as important as the actual work done on the ground. Whether it is reducing one’s carbon footprint, or saving the manatees, these are efforts that, in order to be successful, must involve the larger public. In fact, the relative success of the environmental movement today is largely due to a massive global public relations campaign that turned environmentalism from something scientific and obscure into something that is both fashionable and accessible to just about anyone. However, that success is being challenged more than ever before--especially here in the US, where an equally strong anti-environmental public relations campaign has taken hold. Therefore, conservationists need to start getting more creative.

I want to be a part of this renewed effort and use my natural abilities as a communicator to push back against the rather formidable forces behind the anti-environmentalist movement. I sincerely hope you will consider supporting this non-traditional avenue towards global sustainability and conservation. I have already been accepted to one of the most prestigious communications undergraduate programs in the country and I plan to minor in environmental studies. In addition, I maintain a relationship with my former supervisors at Save the Manatee and Sea World, who will be invaluable resources for finding employment upon graduation. I thank the committee for thinking outside the box in considering my application.

Scholarship Essay Do's and Don'ts

DO:Tell a story. Discuss your personal history and why those experiences have led you to apply for these scholarships.
DO:Write an outline. If you’ve already started writing or have a first draft, make an outline based on what you’ve written so far. This will help you see whether your paragraphs flow and connect with one another.
DON'T:Write a generic essay for every application. Adapt your personal statement for each individual scholarship application.
DO:Run spellcheck and grammar check on your computer but also do your own personal check. Spellcheck isn’t perfect and you shouldn't rely on technology to make your essay perfect.

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Sample Essays

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