With a new school year here, now’s the perfect time to get serious about searching for and winning scholarships to pay for college.

We recently shared the 2020 edition of our expert tips for how to win more scholarships, so that’s a great place to start! 

Since many scholarships require an application essay, you’ll want to know how to write one that will persuade the selection board that you’re the right person to receive the money available! 

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! 

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 money for college!

So without further ado, here’s our ultimate checklist for how to write a scholarship essay, complete with a bonus guide for what to AVOID in your essays at all cost. 

Hot Tips for Writing a Winning Scholarship Essay

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). In the case of a scholarship essay, you may want to come out of the gates strong with a snapshot of where you see yourself in 10 years, after getting the education of your dreams: “Diving deep into the mysterious reaches of the ocean daily may not be everyone’s central goal in life, but I can’t wait to search for and protect endangered aquatic life for a living.”
  • 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 short paragraphs than whopping paragraphs that are hard to read! 
  • Make sure to wrap up your essay neatly and don’t just dead-end it. You can round it out, for example, with a declaration of why you wish to pursue your desired academic path: “Ultimately, I want to be a strong role model for other young women who may have been afraid to use their voices.” You may not have time for a whole conclusion paragraph, but a quick “bow” on the end is nice.

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.

Choose a topic that you genuinely enjoy

You’ll want to stick to the prompt, but in some cases, 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. This goes a long way in improving your scholarship essay without creating more hard work for yourself.

Here’s what we mean. Let’s say a prompt asks you to describe a time that you were proud of yourself. Several instances may come to mind. Maybe it was when you dove off the high diving board the first time, and maybe it was when you returned a wallet you found with $100 in it. Don’t choose which instance you think the essay readers want to hear; choose the one that feels most resonant to you. It may sound cheesy, but when you write earnestly from the heart, your writing will be much stronger.

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!

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).

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. 

We recommend giving yourself at least 2 weeks before the deadline of an essay to brainstorm, draft, and revise your essay. Ideally, you should leave a couple of days between each of these stages of the essay writing process to avoid burnout. You’ll have a much better chance of catching simple errors and places for improvement if you attack your essay with fresh eyes (instead of editing it right after you read it).

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.

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).

For example, you might discuss how your experience working a part-time job has influenced your thoughts on minimum wage laws.

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

For example, you might paint a picture of all of the wildlife lost in massive brush fires.

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

For example, you may use statistics to convey how reliant modern society is on their cell phones.

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.

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.

Here’s a simple example. If you’re a tutor, you may be inclined to say something a bit dramatic, like, “over the last 4 years, I’ve had the privilege of helping shape thousands of lives.” 

Hmmm…have you really tutored thousands of students? Likely not—you’re busy! We get it. It’s easy to embellish. 

Instead, you could say something to the effect of: “After 4 years of tutoring nearly 150 individuals in math and science, I feel my own math and science skills have improved substantially.”

Trust us—your unexaggerated accomplishments are impressive!

Show, don’t tell

This is 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. (Ar you pulling all-nighters and pounding coffee? Doing homework on your breaks at work?) Create a picture, and provide specific, believable examples.

Here’s an example of something you might find in a scholarship essay that asks you to discuss a challenge you’ve faced:

Instead of saying “I tore my ACL playing ice hockey,” you can be more vivid. 

Try something like: “It was like an anvil had smashed down on my knee. In searing pain, I laid on the ice as the crowd fell silent. Something was very wrong.”

Notice how we immediately FEEL the impact of the injury in the later example!

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

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.

Let’s demonstrate. This sentiment feels overly general and wordy:

“I love nature because nature is beautiful. Honestly, I can’t think of a single thing I don’t like to do out in nature. Really, it’s my favorite place to be and any activity that involves being outside is just good for my soul.”

This rewrite expresses the same idea in a much more succinct and specific way:

“Whether I’m hiking, wading in the ocean, or planting seasonal flowers in the garden, I am rejuvenated by being in nature.”

Use exclamation points sparingly

We all know that exclamation marks indicate excitement! Right?! 

Truthfully, we love exclamation points! And while winning scholarship money to pay for college IS very exciting, too many exclamation marks can be overkill. 

So as a rule of thumb, don’t use more than a couple of exclamation marks throughout your scholarship essay, and make sure they’re tonally appropriate to the prompt. We’ve seen some pretty creative scholarship essay prompts in our day (like one that asks to share a funny story or joke). In this case, you can use exclamation marks more freely.

Many people falsely believe that an exclamation mark will make a sentence more powerful. But the truth is, empowering statements pack a punch without one.

For example, “I’m looking forward to becoming a lawyer as a means of creating a more just and egalitarian world” is a powerful statement. You don’t need to throw an exclamation point on the end to make it more resonant.

Emphasize Your Resilience

Scholarship prompts will often ask you about a hardship you’ve overcome. We love this type of question because it gives the reader a chance to understand a student’s resilience and ability to problem solve, which is huge on a scholarship essay.

The mistake many students make on this question is to write 100% about the hardships they’ve faced without acknowledging or discussing how they overcame them. Essay readers are not simply looking for the hardest story when selecting a winner, but rather a complete narrative that includes how the student has worked to overcome the challenge.

In addition, we recommend focusing on a central event or experience — which tends to read as more powerful, especially when faced with a word or character limit. You may have faced several hardships in your life, but your essay will be more focused if you choose one that you’ve overcome.

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. So long as you keep it professional, readers want you to sound like YOU. 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.

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 just list all of your best qualities and accomplishments as a rationale for why you deserve the scholarship money. It’s important to strike a fine balance.

For example, the following sounds a bit like a brag “pile on:”

“As a straight-A student who is always the first to get the answers in my classes, is the captain of my debate team, and is a proud proud volunteer at the homeless shelter who knows she is doing her part to help the world, I truly believe I deserve this scholarship.”

Instead, you can simply say something like, “The discipline I bring to my academics and volunteer work reflects how hard I intend to work in college, and I would be grateful for the financial assistance to attend.”

Be brief with your “thank you”

Your character, dedication, and integrity should come through naturally in your writing. You don’t need to add a long-winded “Thank you for reading this essay” paragraph at the end of your essay.

Most scholarship essays are fairly short, so avoid bloating your essay with gratitude and praise for the opportunity. Use your character and words allotments to answer the prompt thoroughly instead!

If you have space, a brief thank you is thoughtful and appropriate but you’ll want to be as succinct as possible. For example, at the very end of your essay, you can simply say something like, “Thank you for this opportunity and for taking the time to read this essay.” Bam. Polite but to the point.

Take a walk around the block and then revise

The author Robert Graves said, “There’s no such this as good writing, only good rewriting,” 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.

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!

What to Leave Out of Your Scholarship Essay

Now that you have a sense of how to attack your scholarship essay, let’s take a look at what to leave out of it. 

Keep in mind that these rules aren’t written in stone, of course, but they’re guidelines that will help you write the most unique and compelling scholarship essay possible.

Okay, so here’s what you’ll typically want to avoid… 

Inspirational quotes

Who doesn’t love an inspirational quote?! We sure do. Whether you find them scrolling Instagram or keep them tacked up above your desk, a great quote can be super empowering. But when it comes to scholarship essays, it’s better to leave them out.

DON’T drop in famous quotes, many of which are overused. For example: “Mahatma Gandhi said to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’ which is why I’m applying for this scholarship. I want to go to college so I can become a nurse and change the world.” 

Here’s the thing: wanting to be a nurse is incredibly admirable in its own right! It doesn’t have to be attached to anyone else’s sweeping statements about life or humanity. This essay is about you, so famous quotes are just a distraction.

DO include meaningful advice or wisdom you’ve received directly from the important people in your life. This is much more personal and will provide a unique account of who you are and what you’re all about. 

For example: “My mother, a registered nurse for 20 years, has always encouraged me to help care for others as a means of making the world a better place. This is why I’m planning to follow in her footsteps and go to nursing school.”

Overly general phrases and platitudes

The name of the game for winning scholarships is standing out from the mix. This means you don’t want to say the exact same thing as hundreds of other applicants. 

Platitudes are super common, overly simplified statements that people use all the time. For example, “Good things come to those who wait.” These are okay phrases to say, but refrain from using them in your scholarship essays to avoid sounding like everyone else. 

DON’T discuss the scholarship opportunity in platitudes like, “It would mean the world to me to win this money” or “Winning this scholarship would be life-changing.” These statements may be true, but they don’t really tell us much about you.

DO illustrate specifically how things will change if you win the scholarship money. For example, “This scholarship money would enable me to have only one part-time job instead of two, providing me more time to focus on my classes.”

Cliche stories or themes

Many scholarship essay prompts ask you to discuss how winning a scholarship would impact you, and this is where cliches often creep in.

Cliches are phrases, stories, or themes that are overused to the point that they lose their power and meaning. And they’ll definitely weaken your scholarship essay.

The most common example of a cliche theme in scholarship essays is the “Cinderella” or “underdog” storyline (think: Cinderella getting her glass slipper, only the scholarship is the glass slipper). Many cliches involve a person who, with a little help, turns it all around and prevails.

In real life we LOVE a Cinderella story as much as anyone, but you can imagine why this type of story ends up in scholarship essays a lot!

DON’T simply share a story about yourself that paint you as a down-on-your-luck student who could have it all if ONLY you won this scholarship money. Here’s what this might look like: “I’ve never really won anything in life: no contests, giveaways, or competitions. But if I win this scholarship and save money on college, I’ll be able to buy a house, travel the world, and become the youngest Supreme Court Justice in American history.”

Don’t get us wrong, we’re all about dreaming BIG! But when it comes to scholarship essays, we want to help you to avoid falling into cliche narratives that dampen the power of your story and hurt your chances of winning. 

DO be realistic and specific when talking about yourself, your background, and your aspirations. Focus on one primary goal that you’ll be better able to attain if you win the scholarship money. For example: “As a Spanish double major, I would love the opportunity to study abroad in Madrid to immerse myself in the culture and become fluent in Spanish. Winning this scholarship money would help fund my semester overseas.”

Profanity 

Here’s another one that probably seems WAY obvious. You’d never swear in a scholarship essay, right? But you may be surprised at how many people do! 

DON’T use any profanity or curse words, even if they’re common turn of phrases that we hear all the time on TV and in the real world. 

For example, try not to say things like: “I’ve worked my ass off for 18 years and now I am ready to apply myself even further in this rigorous pre-med program.”

Will you actually offend anyone with that kind of conversational tone? Probably not. But it’s better to be safe than sorry, and we know you can be more creative than that!

DO stress your excitement, perseverance, and preparedness for this next chapter without the curse words. You can always use a thesaurus to look up new and exciting ways to say things or use imagery to paint a picture of your experiences.

For example: “College has been a marathon and at times I’ve worried I may not cross the finish line. But now that I’ve graduated, I know what I’m capable of and I’m thrilled to be starting graduate school.”

“Text speak”

We realize that texting is the way of the world and we’re all pretty accustomed to abbreviating words and using acronyms daily (smdh and lol-ing about how common this language is now). But keep your text speak in your group chats and out of your scholarship essays. 

Your scholarship essay is a great place to showcase your eloquence and professionalism, so (unless directed otherwise), write as you would for a teacher or a boss. 

DON’T use statements like, “College should be free for everyone IMO, but because it’s not, I need this scholarship 2 help fund my education.” It looks hilarious taken out of context, right? This kind of thing is super common and distracting for the reader. 

DO remove any and all text speak in favor of your own unique voice and tone. You can still use mild humor and even talk like you, but keep it academic and professional.

“Hot takes” of the day

Unless the essay prompt explicitly asks you to address a currently trending, 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).

We definitely encourage you to be yourself, and to be open and honest about your life experiences, but “hot takes” are better left for Twitter than used in scholarship essays.

DON’T treat your scholarship essay like a platform to tackle a trending Twitter topic. A thoughtful essay reads 100 times better than your stance on a popular topic of the moment.

DO take firm stances on causes that you believe in and articulate how winning this scholarship will help you advocate for them. For example, you can certainly discuss your commitment to advocating for gender equality or against wage inequality. 

To be clear: we’re NOT suggesting that you sanitize your beliefs or your writing, or dampen your beliefs to cater to specific readers. Standing behind a cause you can convincingly argue for is the mark of critical thinker. 

The key is to be mindful of the prompt and to avoid unnecessary detours or tangents that tread into hot take territory unrelated to the prompt. 

Emojis, photos, and funky fonts

We love emojis too, but they shouldn’t make their way into your scholarship essay (and yes, we’ve seen it happen plenty of times). Unless for any reason you’re asked to creatively use an emoji in your response, just resist the urge.

The same goes for photos, fun fonts, or anything that isn’t straightforward typeface. Unless, again, you’re given the green light.

DON’T turn your scholarship essay into an art project. It may seem like a good idea, but keep it professional. More importantly, you want your essay to be as easy to read as possible, without overwhelming the readers.

DO stick to the standard: Times New Roman font, size 12 if you’re attaching your essay as a Google or Word document. If you’re pasting your essay into the text box on a website, this will format your content automatically.

And of course, follow all formatting directions to a tee when it comes to things like single vs double spacing, margins, headers/footers, etc.

Extreme declarations

It’s almost always a good idea to avoid extreme, either-or perspectives, and this is definitely true when it comes to scholarship essays. An extreme declaration involves only seeing one side of a situation (and often the negative side) and presenting it as fact. 

DON’T make fatalistic declarations about the future and take unnecessarily strong stances on topics. 

For example: “If I don’t get this scholarship I won’t go to college and I’ll never get a good job to support myself.” 

Or, “The education system in the United States is entirely broken and there’s no way to turn it around.”

See how both of these statements can give the reader a feeling that the writer is not seeing the full picture? 

DO replace extreme declarations with hopeful and open-minded approaches to the future. This is not to say that you can’t take a firm and realistic stance on a topic, but try to reflect a generally optimistic and proactive mindset.

For example, if the prompt asks you about an issue facing the world today, you may say something like: “While there has undeniably been immense damage done to the planet, I’m excited to pursue a degree in environmental science as a means of taking action to reverse these toxic effects of climate change.”

Much more dynamic and compelling, right?

Put-downs of other applicants

Speaking ill of anyone or saying why others are less deserving of scholarship money isn’t a good look. You can absolutely articulate why you’re deserving without putting anyone else down!

DON’T speak unkindly about anyone, especially hypothetical applicants who you see yourself as more deserving than. This may be well-intentioned, but it’s sure to come across as distasteful no matter how well it’s written. 

DO “stay in your own lane,” as they say, and don’t let the essay wander to focus on and nitpick others. Feel free to provide compelling reasons for why you’re a great candidate to receive scholarship money without bringing others into it!

Your autobiography

As discussed, most scholarship essays have pretty tight word or character limits, so you won’t have a lot of room to tell your whole life story. When talking about yourself, it can be easy to get on a roll and include more details than necessary, but try to stay focused.

DON’T write a complete autobiography of your life. It can be easy to believe that going beyond the stated word limit will come across as working harder or putting in more of an effort. In reality, essay readers actually put a lot of weight into your ability to follow directions. So while your autobiography may be incredible, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do it justice in 500 words or less (or whatever the requirement is).  

DO choose and focus on a central incident, challenge, personality trait, hobby, or aspiration.  For example, discuss only your love of animals, your passion for modern dance, your memory of the day your younger sister was born, etc. 

Want More Scholarship Opportunities?

Try Scholly Search, our always-expanding, hyper-personalized scholarship database that matches you with scholarship tailored just to you based on all of your unique qualities. This saves the time, energy, and stress required when digging for scholarships, and drastically increases your chances of winning.

College is expensive. Paying for it doesn’t have to be. Happy searching and good luck!