Ahhh the scholarship essay. The beast that’s probably standing between you and so many scholarship applications. 

We get it—no one wants to write more essays. They feel time-consuming and boring…and you’re already super busy! But the scholarship essay is often your KEY to winning big money for college.

(By the way… check out these scholarships for current college students, scholarships for current grad students, and our revamped Scholly Search database!)

Now keep in mind, not all scholarships require an application essay, but a lot of them do. And one of the most common concerns when applying for scholarships is how to write a scholarship essay that will persuade the selection board that you’re the right person to receive the money available! 

But if done right, your scholarship essay is a window into your unique world. It gives the readers a sense of you as a dimensional person—beyond what GPA alone can reflect. You get to showcase your unique voice and tone, which is exciting. And yes, they can even be fun to write!

The best part is that if you write a couple of strong scholarship essays, you’ll be able to “recycle” them (tweak them only slightly to use for other scholarship applications), which we discuss further in our piece about how to build a scholarship toolbox to win way more money for college.

At Scholly, we’ve collectively written and read TONS of scholarship essays, and we’ve curated a scholarship essay checklist that is sure to help you slay your essays and drastically improve your chances of winning more money for college!

So without further ado, here’s our ultimate checklist for how to write a scholarship essay.

1. Adhere to the principles of writing ANY strong essay

Like any other essay you write for school, you’ll want your scholarship essay to have excellent structure, allowing the reader to consume and digest the content easily. In other words, it should have good “flow.” 

Here are 7 steps to writing your best work, regardless of context, as well as some keys to effective essay writing:

  • Have a strong opening sentence to the essay, sometimes called a “hook.” This is a great overview of types of essay hooks, but remember, stay true to your own voice and tone (more on this later).
  • Stick to the tried-and-true introduction, body, and conclusion structure; even if the essay prompt seems relatively loose, you’ll want your essay to have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  • Start new paragraphs for new ideas. It’s MUCH better to have more, shorter paragraphs than whopping paragraphs that are hard to read! 
  • Make sure to wrap up your essay neatly and not just dead-end it.

2. Familiarize yourself with the prompt… and stick to it!

Read the prompt several times and be totally clear about what it’s asking. Many scholarship essays have similar themes, such as how greater financial freedom will impact your life. If the prompt doesn’t seem to have a question in it (e.g. “Reflect on the state of the environment and your role in helping it”) then we highly recommend that you re-frame the prompt as a question.  So for example, ask yourself: “What is the overall state of the world’s natural environment and how am I directly impacting it?”

And it may sound obvious, but do NOT deviate from the prompt. Your ability to address a highly specific topic is part of what’s being assessed. It can be easy for your thoughts to meander, but stick directly to the prompt.

3. Choose a topic that you genuinely enjoy

Even if your prompt is highly specific, you may have some freedom to choose the topic, or at least the central focus. Write about a subject, event, or value that means something to you. You’ll produce better work and come across more authentically if you care about what you’re writing on. This goes a long way in improving your scholarship essay without creating more hard work for yourself.

4. Do a little research 

Who is the company or organization giving the scholarship? Read up a bit about them on their website’s home page. Get familiar with their mission and their motivation for giving this scholarship. When you’re better informed about the readers, you’re better able to tailor your essay to them.

Many scholarship providers also feature previous scholarship winners on their website, often with the essay (or an excerpt from it) that won. Read these essays to get a sense of what went over well!

5. Know the word/character limit

Most scholarship essay prompts will provide a word or character limit for your essay. If you’re not used to being mindful of these parameters, it can be hard to gauge what “250 words” actually looks like. As a rule of thumb, 250 words is equivalent to one typed page, double-spaced. (And therefore 500 words = 2 typed, double-spaced pages, and so on). We suggest that you take an essay of yours (or any piece of written work, really) and run a word/character count on it so that you can get a feel for various lengths. Microsoft Word and Google both have functions to do this, but you can also use a letter counter like this one. Once you know the word or character length, stick to it! You may be disqualified for going over. And while you don’t necessarily have to write an essay that hits the limit, it’s a good rule of thumb to come as close as possible.

(Oh, by the way, the above paragraph is 160 words and 858 characters).

6. Leave yourself enough time

Like any written assignment, you’ll want to leave yourself enough time to think about the prompt, plan, draft, and revise. A well-planned essay has a much higher chance of winning than one you crank out last minute.

7. Brainstorm and plan

We can’t stress this one enough. The entire essay writing process will go much more smoothly if you have a road map for where you’re going. The very first step is to get some organic ideas circulating, so that you end up choosing an essay focus that makes the most sense for you. Here are some awesome essay brainstorming techniques.

After you have a clear sense of your essay’s focus, you can begin to outline. Some students like to skip the outline, but it actually makes the drafting process much faster! We like these resources for how to create a basic essay outline and how to work through the outlining process.

Depending on the length and depth of the scholarship essay, you can even just lay out the details you’ll want to include in your introduction, body, and conclusion. It can be as simple as that, but you don’t want to skip the planning process.

8. Appeal to ethos, pathos, and logos

Uh, what-os? If you haven’t learned about ethos, pathos, and logos yet, let’s give you a quick primer. Ethos, pathos, and logos are modes of persuading your reader, in other words, techniques to make your work more powerful and convincing.

This is a great overview of ethos, pathos, and logos, but in short, here’s what each refers to:

Ethos = how you establish your own credibility, reliability, or authority on the subject matter (hint: you’ll be relying largely on personal experience in your scholarship essay).

Pathos = how you use emotional appeal (including creativity, imagination, etc.) to tell your story or make your case.

Logos = how you use logic or ration to convey your point.

Here’s a graphic that breaks down ethos, pathos, and logos clearly.

Basically, in the ideal essay, you’ll use all three types of support to make your essay as earnest and persuasive as possible.

9. Be honest

Your life and experiences are interesting and important! You do not need to embellish or make up details to try to seem more deserving of the scholarship money. Nothing is more powerful than your authenticity. And trust us, it’s much easier for readers to spot baloney in an essay than you may think!

10. Show, don’t tell

This the cardinal rule for writing. Try to paint a vivid picture for your reader instead of just explaining everything. For example, don’t just say that you’re stressed out by juggling work and college. Illustrate what that stress looks like in your life. Create a picture, and provide specific, believable examples.

Here are some tips for “showing not telling,” and an overview of the best literary devices to make your writing pop!

11. Be specific and concise 

While we encourage you to be evocative in your language, we also want to stress that you should get to the point. Typically, the simplest, most direct word choices and images are the most effective. Avoid generalizations in favor of specific examples, and likewise, avoid ornate, flowery language in favor of more succinct sentences.

12. Avoid cliches… 

What’s a cliche? An overused idea or statement, one you seem to hear everyone say. For example, many students claim in their scholarship essays that to win the scholarship money “would be a game changer” or “would mean the world to them.” Meh. Okay. But what does that actually mean? What would newfound financial freedom look like? Be specific and unique and avoid vague platitudes.

13. … And profanity! 

This one should go without saying, but: don’t swear in your essays! And really, don’t use any language that could be considered inflammatory.

14. … And redundancies!

You’ll want to avoid overusing the same words, obviously. But also make sure you’re not making the same point throughout your essay and just phrasing it differently. Read every sentence in your essay and cut any that seem to echo others repeatedly.

15. … And controversy!

Unless the essay prompt explicitly asks you to address a controversial topic and take a stance on it, don’t. These essays are about you. Based on the prompt and your personal experiences, perhaps you’ll discuss a “hot topic,” but don’t do so just to make your essay stand out; you’ll risk alienating your reader(s).

16. … And “text speak”

Like any academic essay, you’ll want to avoid “LOLs” and other acronyms, abbreviations, etc. We love them, but there’s a time and place for them.

17. Be professional… but also be yourself

While you’ll want to avoid swearing and overly colloquial or conversational language, you DO want to be yourself, which means writing in your own voice and tone. You don’t have to write a stuffy essay for it to be good! Keep it clean and clear, but also keep it real!

Here’s a great piece on the difference between voice and tone, and how you can use yours to stand out.

18. Sell yourself… but also be humble

Is this the definition of a humble brag? Maybe. Your scholarship essay is a great place to share your accomplishments, but don’t boast so much about yourself that you annoy your readers. It’s important to strike a fine balance.

19. Take a walk around the block and then revise

The author Robert Graves said, “There’s no such this as good writing, only good re-writing,” and it’s true; nothing comes out perfect the first time. So revise, revise, revise!

In the revision process, we’re HUGE fans of taking breaks. Walk away from your work to clear your mind and then come back to it. You’ll see your essay with fresh eyes which will help you take it to the next level.

If you feel comfortable doing so, it’s also a good idea to hand off your work to someone else for feedback. Choose a trusted teacher, peer, or friend, and be open to their suggestions for improvement.

20. Proof your scholarship essay!

And finally… PROOF your work! Make sure it is absolutely spic and span. Spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and typos are the fastest way to have your scholarship essay dismissed by the readers! On the other hand, having a pristine essay substantially increases your chances of being selected.

Need your work instantly proofed and improved? You’re in luck! We’ve got you covered with Scholly Editor, an AI-powered proofer that provides immediate feedback and suggestions on word choice, grammar, sentence structure, voice and much more!

Happy essay writing, and good luck!

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