Learning how to write scholarship essays is the secret to winning scholarships. At this point in your high school career, it may be hard to make a drastic difference in your GPA or SAT score (actually, we do have some essential SAT tips to increase your score). Scholarships though are a whole different ball game. Here, a little preparation can set you apart from the hundreds (or thousands) of competing scholarship applications and help you bring home those sweet scholarship funds.
Scholarship essays have a lot of similarities to academic essays, but also quite a few differences. Those differences can lead to confusion and poor essays as students struggle to connect their personal stories with an academic outline. It’s this connection that will set you apart. You’ll want to set a clear outline, tell a compelling and emotional story that gets readers excited about you and your trajectory, and then connect that clearly with the scholarship provider’s mission.
Learning how to write scholarship essays is a daunting task, but we’ve broken it down into 15 simple steps that you can follow for each and every scholarship essay to give yourself the best chance of victory. Let’s get started!
Before Writing A Word of Your Scholarship Essay
1. Apply to Scholarships That Fit You
Crafting a winning scholarship takes time. While it’s tempting to throw together a hundred essays and apply for every scholarship you see, you’ll have a much higher chance if you take the time to find essays that match you well. That’s why the research phase of the scholarship hunt is so important.
As you sift through scholarships, think about your own life history, what you love and excel at in school, what you love and excel at outside of school, what you’re interested in, and what makes you unique. Those are good criteria to help you find scholarships that you’ll enjoy writing, and that will give you a lot more content to write about as well.
If you haven’t already, decide on a good scholarship search engine (we’ve ranked the best ones here) and make a spreadsheet of the ones that fit you best. Don’t forget to include local scholarships in your search, as these winnow down the competition significantly. It’s these local scholarships that you’re most likely to end up winning, but they still require a good essay, and a good essay requires a good process.
2. Give Yourself Time to Write a Good Essay
Life flies by and that’s true of high school as much as any other season of life. As we mentioned earlier, choose quality over quantity in your scholarship applications. It takes time to write and polish a good essay, and if you try to rush the process then your chances of winning will take a hit.
Your free time isn’t the only obstacle though. There are also scholarship deadlines! This is why we recommend keeping a spreadsheet of promising scholarships, and one column of that should be devoted to the due date! As you consider scholarships to apply for, keep the due dates in mind and give yourself time to write a great essay and turn it in on time. With scholarships, a late application almost always results in a score of $0. The first step of how to write scholarship essays is to take the time you need.
3. Learn About the Scholarship Provider
No, we’re not asking you to grab a pair of binoculars and stake out that foundation president’s house. A simple and thoughtful reading of the organization’s “About Us” page should suffice. As you read, ask yourself some questions.
What does this organization do? A foundation’s mission and vision are directly connected to why they offer scholarships in the first place, and who they want those scholarships to go to.
What are the passionate about? If your life experiences or interests intersect with what they care about, make sure to leverage that by highlighting it in your essay! It is possible to overdo this essay-tailoring, but you shouldn’t be so subtle that they miss the connection.
How do they want to be seen? Organizations care about their reputation. What do they want people to see in their scholarship winners and scholarship essays? This is especially pertinent if the winning essay and personal biography are posted to the organization’s website.
Again, this isn’t all that intense. Simply browsing their website materials and thinking about how their ethos relates to the scholarship will put you ahead of most scholarship applicants.
4. Stick to the Prompt
Some scholarships ask for a simple 500-word essay in response to one clear prompt. Other scholarships give you a whole rubric describing what each part of your essay should address. Whether it’s simple or detailed, you need to clearly answer the prompt with your essay (and with your thesis statement more specifically).
You might be surprised by how many applicants disqualify themselves simply by not reading the directions, so read the directions, follow them, and prosper.
5. Read Previous Winners’ Essays
Now that you have a basic understanding of the organization and the essay prompt, it’s time to see if previous winners’ essays are posted online. If so, you’ve hit the jackpot. You’re not going to win by plagiarizing last year’s winning essay, but you sure might win by analyzing it, thinking about what the judges liked in the essay, and using those insights to outline your own essay. When reading previous winning essays, ask yourself these questions.
- What was the main point of the essay?
- What was the main story told in the essay, and how did it relate to the main point?
- How was the essay structured?
- What can you infer about the judges from their choice of this winning essay?
Reading these essays can not only give you insights into the judges, but it can also spark ideas of experiences and stories from your own life that might relate to the scholarship. As you read more and more, you’ll also gain more knowledge on how to write scholarship essays. You’ll also come away with great ideas on how to interweave stories into the essay structure.
6. Think About Yourself and Your Stories
There can be a lot of overlap in scholarship applications, which we’ll discuss again further on. You might be surprised by how often you’ll use a few stories from your life across multiple scholarship applications. With that in mind, take a trip through time and think back on your history.
- What are some defining moments?
- What are some experiences you loved?
- What experiences and people changed the trajectory of your life?
- What obstacles have you overcome that have made you a stronger person today?
- What are you passionate about doing in the future?
- Was there a moment out you loved doing something?
Use questions like these and think through the timeline of your life, and you’ll likely come up with more compelling stories than you knew you had. Any stories that relate to your college and career interests are especially valuable. Again, you can connect a lot of experiences with your college major, so don’t be too worried if it’s a loose connection. All you’ll need to do is make the connection clear in your essays.
Once you’ve got a few arrows in your story quiver, it’s time to move on to the next step of the scholarship essay writing process.
7. Reuse Content From Older Essays
While you need to tailor each essay to the specific scholarship, you’ll find that there are a lot of essays where you can use one of your earlier submissions as a starting point, or at least use a chunk of it. We mentioned that good writing takes time, but copying your own good writing is much faster! Using content from previous essays can help you get essays much faster, as long as you still go through the whole process and make the edits you need to.
8. Outline Your Scholarship Essay
You’ve made it to a big step, and it’s the last step before you put your metaphorical pen to paper! Keeping the prompt in mind, write out your outline paragraph by paragraph. What is your thesis statement? What stories will you use, and how will you structure the story in the essay? It’s time to take all the tools out of the toolbox and make a rough outline that will help guide you and keep you focused as you write. This is challenging, but it’s one of the most important steps of how to write scholarship essays, so take the time that you need here.
Purdue’s online writing lab has a short but helpful summary of tips for writing narrative essays such as scholarship essays, so you might consider giving it a quick read.
The outline doesn’t have to be perfect or even pretty. It’s there to:
- Break the essay-writing process into manageable chunks so you don’t feel overwhelmed
- Keep you focused and help you avoid rabbit trails
- Guide you in what to write next so you can avoid confusion and writer’s block
If your outline accomplishes those goals, then it’s good enough and you’re ready to start writing!
How to Write Scholarship Essays
9. Write Your First Sentence
The first sentence can be daunting, and for good reason. Your first sentence is your first impression, and people make a lot of decisions based on first impressions. A great first sentence can hook the reader and draw their interest, while a poor one leaves judges predisposed to skim through your essay. Anyway, you know it’s important—you want to know how to write a good introductory sentence! There are lots of good methods out there, but due to the personal nature of most scholarship topics we’ll discuss our favorite four intros for scholarship essays.
The first option is to launch straight into a story. Give the reader enough setting to know they’re in a boat and then plunge them over Niagara Falls with an exciting hook of an exciting story.
The second great option is to use an epic quote that matches both the organization, the prompt, and the topics you’ll discuss in your essay. You don’t have to have an exhaustive knowledge of all the quotes in the world. Just think about a topic of quote that would fit well and use good old Google until you find a quote you’re satisfied with. You can also go for the high-risk, high-reward strategy of using a quote from someone within the organization (the founder, the person the scholarship is named after, etc.).
Questions can also make fine introductions, but they have a higher risk of being boring, so be careful. You’re not aiming for a solid grade-A paper here. You really need to go beyond technical quality and really stand out and impress the readers. They’re going through a big pile of essays and throwing out the “good” ones, which is why we’re more cautious with questions.
Statistics are another idea we recommend for a first sentence. While statistics may not convey the emotion of the story, they are often more interesting than questions as a first sentence. You capitalize on a statistic by using stories later on to show that it’s more than just a statistic, and the statistic will stand as a good foundation to help the reader understand your topic.
One of the secrets of how to write scholarship essays is the first sentence, and with these methods you’ll be equipped to rock your essay right from the start.
10. Complete Your Introductory Paragraph
Once you’ve got that dreaded first sentence out of the way, round out your introductory paragraph and close it with a thesis statement. You want to summarize the main points of your essay, giving a map so they know clearly where they are going. The clearer your essay structure is, the more the reader can enjoy the scenery as they read through your essay.
11. Write the Body
Don’t stray from your thesis statement (which should reflect your outline) in the body. Keep the paragraphs neatly divided into their topics, and interweave your story while answering the prompt. As you tell your story, it’s good to show emotion and passion.
Even if life is hard for you now, you want to show a positive outlook with hope and excitement for the future. If you aren’t excited about your college and career choice, why is the scholarship committee going to care? As you write, you are casting a vision of your future. If the reader gets excited about that vision along with you, then you’re much more likely to be a finalist in your scholarship applications.
As you get to the end of the body, make sure to connect your story with the main point. How does it relate to the essay prompt and to this grand vision of the future that you’re selling? Your reader should understand this clearly before you say it again in the closing paragraph.
Edit Your Masterpiece
12. Edit for Content
Ok, you’ve written your masterpiece, but don’t make the mistake of clicking that submit button just yet. You’ve done the hard work already, but editing is another step that sets you further apart from your competition. With each step of wisely-directed effort, you are moving ahead of more and more of the competition.
Before we get into the grammar and spelling, let’s think about the big picture and ask some questions.
- Is the structure clear? Does the reader know clearly where they’re going, and does your essay stick to the path you gave the reader in your thesis statement?
- Are the stories clear? If the reader is confused about what actually happened in a story it can destroy the whole vibe you are going for. Only with clarity is the reader going to be able to fully connect emotionally with the story you’re telling.
- Are the main points clear? Perhaps you told a great story, but the readers are left wondering how that trip to a developing country connects to your interest in engineering. You’ve got to make each point clear, and be especially clear in connecting your stories to the main point of your essay.
- Is there a reason for each sentence to exist? This is going a little further into the details, but you should ask what the point of each sentence is. Even if it’s grammatically correct, a sentence that doesn’t help your essay is going to hurt your essay. Every sentence should have a meaningful role in the outline of your essay.
13. Edit for Grammar
By this time your eyes are glazing over every time you read this scholarship essay, but don’t stop yet. Do your best to catch obvious grammar and spelling mistakes. Be especially aware of words like to and too that aren’t caught by spell check software.
You’re about to ask for editing help from some friends, but that’s no excuse to neglect this step. Why? Because people are only going to invest as much as you are willing to invest yourself. When they see you’ve put in the effort to craft a great essay, they’re much more likely to spend more time making it even better.
14. Ask for Help and Listen to Feedback
This could be a teacher or tutor, a parent, a mentor, a relative, or even a friend. Finding someone who’s at least a decent writer is important, otherwise your paper could get worse instead of better. Asking for help can be one of the hardest steps in how to write scholarship essays, but you’d be surprised what a fresh pair of eyes can see when they read your essay.
Once you get their feedback, listen. Successful novelists have to develop thick skin, because even the most successful writers have editors who give constructive criticism. That criticism can be hard to hear, but if you listen with an open mind your essay can take another big leap in quality.
You don’t have to do everything your editor suggests, but if you aren’t following at least half of the suggestions then you probably need either a new mindset or a new editor!
15. Proofread One More Time
You were hoping we wouldn’t say that, weren’t you? Unfortunately, the editing process (especially when you involve someone else) often leads to a lot of little new grammar and potentially spelling errors. After all the work you’ve put in, don’t give up right at the finish line! Roll up your sleeves, find all those little mistakes, and then sit back in satisfaction as you look at your masterpiece.
By the time your essay is completed, you’ll be a better writer, you’ll have something to be proud of, and you’ll have a much higher chance of winning those sweet scholarship dollars.
Now that you know how to write scholarship essays, you’ll need to find some scholarships to apply for! We’ve got a lot of material for you to check out, so go ahead and dive in on our scholarships page!