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1. Know your audience: Although we're looking at scholarship essays as a whole, it's important to realize that every scholarship provider is looking for a specific student who meets unique criteria. When you get your application, look closely at the questions, the organization giving the scholarship, and any past recipients you can find.
Are they emphasizing classroom performance? Looking for someone who's dealt with adversity at home? Interested in character or community service more than grades? Whatever the answer, your research will put you a step ahead of applicants who are copying and pasting "one-size-fits-all" essays.
2. Plan far in advance: You can also avoid the "one-size-fits-all" essay by getting an early start on each application. Begin your research and planning a week or so before you think you should, and you'll be able to take enough time to turn out something great.
This will also give you time to craft an outline, which can help your essay stay concise and on target. Think of two or three main points you want to make in response to the essay question, add some supporting information under each of them, and consider a sentence or two of introduction and conclusion. Before you know it, you'll have built the structure and thesis of your essay, and you won't have to rush to write it.
3. Make it personal and passionate: When you do start writing, don't forget that the main purpose of your essay is to convince the scholarship provider that you're the student they've been looking for. Answer the questions you've set out in your outline, but make sure every point you make is illustrated with a specific detail that shows you care about the subject.
Don't just mention that you work with disadvantaged kids; tell them how your love of soccer got you into coaching those kids. Don't just tell them about your acting awards; show how the stage helped you conquer your shyness. Putting your unique interests and perspectives on the page will go a very long way toward creating a memorable essay.
4. Find an editor: Last but not least, make sure you have time to run your essay by a good editor, whether it's a parent, teacher, or grammar-nerd friend. Even a well-researched and passionately written essay can be derailed by spelling mistakes or awkward sentences, and if you've spent a lot of time looking at your words, it's easy to miss basic mistakes.
A few minutes of proofreading by a trusted editor can make a huge difference. I also recommend reading your essay aloud to yourself, so you can hear how it flows.
Scholarship essays are a big component of your applications, and can be a major headache, too. But by starting early, answering the right questions, and describing what makes you unique, you'll be writing standout essays without the stress.
Six Common Scholarship Essay Errors
1. Rushed writing: You may work great under pressure, but no one is at his or her best when rushed and stressed. Start your application early and give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm ideas. Use school breaks or write your essays the summer before you start applying, so you're not preoccupied with homework, sports, and school activities.
2. Not knowing your audience: Once you have a stack of scholarship apps in front of you, take some time to get to know the organizations that are sponsoring the scholarships. Check out their websites and pay attention to their vision, history, and programs. Then think about ways you can make your essay appeal to their missions, or at least avoid offending them. And make sure you follow the directions. Don't write a 700-word single-spaced essay if it calls for 500 words, double spaced.
3. Choosing a vanilla topic: Most scholarship applications aren't going to accept your YouTube videos in place of a written essay, but you can still stand out. It starts with picking a topic that's unique and interesting but that still answers the question. "What I learned on my summer vacation" has been done before. (Tip: try doing an online search on "popular scholarship essay topics." Then you'll know which ones to avoid.)
4. Uncreative writing: Use imagery to draw your reader in. Instead of beginning an essay with: "My father inspires me because he puts his life on the line serving as a Chicago police officer," consider an opening like this: "Every day at 5 a.m. sharp, Dad rolls quietly out of bed, polishes his badge until it shines, carefully buckles on his gun belt, and signs on as a police officer for the city of Chicago. My mother starts her day saying a prayer that Dad will come home safely."
5. Using "text speak": While getting to the point is almost always a good thing, that doesn't mean you can shorten words using "text speak." I'm sure most of you know the difference between the proper way to write a text vs. an essay, but believe it or not, text speak has been slipping into college application and scholarship essays. Though you probably won't accidentally write an entire essay in text, if you're constantly working your Blackberry thumbs, you may have to steer away from your instinct to use "thru" instead of "through" or to drop in an "IMO."
6. Unpolished and unproofed: Before you run spell-check or start looking for proper punctuation, make sure your essay shines. Are your phrases eloquent and intelligent, without sounding like you chose all your words from a thesaurus? Does your essay paint a picture for the reader? Will the reader care about—but not pity—you? Read your essay aloud and ensure it makes sense. Most high schools have writing centers where you can get advice for your essay—take advantage of them. To catch spelling errors or misplaced commas, read your essay backward. E-mail your essay to your parents and trusted advisers. A fresh set of eyes can prevent a big mistake.
Scholarship Essay Writing