Write An Essay That Wins You Money - Guide to Scholarship Essays
I've gotten several requests recently to explain scholarship essays and how they differ from normal admissions essays. Here is what you need to know.
Just to get us all on the same page, here are some links for admissions essays. A lot of this will apply to scholarship essays too, and I'll use these as a framework for the rest of this. If you’ve already read these, skip to the next section; if not, start here.
Help with Essay Topics
How To Start An Essay, "Show Don't Tell," And Showcase Yourself In A Compelling Way
Throw Away Everything You Learned In English Class
Conquering the "Why [School]" Essay
What Makes An Essay Outstanding?
How To End An Essay Gracefully
A Short Guide to Short Essays
Before You Submit, PLEASE Review Your Application
Now that you're basically an expert on admissions essays, let's talk about how scholarship essays are different.
Admissions offices are just trying to figure out who you are and get you to write meaningfully about yourself. That's why they offer different prompts and literally do not care which one you pick. Scholarship foundations have a more narrow and specific mission and they want students who fit and support that vision. So if the foundation exists to promote women in STEM and their prompt asks about your passion for STEM subjects, you need to clearly communicate a vibrant passion. You need to focus on that prompt and keep all of your evidence and interpretation in scope for that topic.
Just like the above guides suggest, your best approach is to start with introspection. But you will want to focus this on the prompt and the main things the sponsor stands for. Brainstorm some stories, examples, etc that illustrate how you embody the ideals the sponsor is promoting. Tell your story in an indirect way - don't say "I deserve to win this scholarship because I'm the bomb-dot-com." Instead show how great you are and how good a fit you are for the scholarship with your story.
Also, you will want to make sure your essay isn't too short because they will perceive that as apathy or laziness. Aim to be within at least 15% of the word limit.
Y'all are some overachievers. You seriously have no idea how strong your stats and profile will look to most local/state scholarship committees. If you sit at home and don’t apply for scholarships, it’s like having Lebron’s basketball skills but just shooting in your driveway and never competing. Go down to the gym and start hustling some people (or go to this list and bring home an NBA MVP). You’re world-class students and in local scholarships, you will dominate the competition.
Put another way – Yale estimates that 75% of their applicants are academically qualified to do the work there. This is mostly driven by the fact that people who clearly have no chance aren’t going to bother (or pay the app fee). This isn’t the case for scholarships and many of them receive hundreds of completely unqualified applications. You need to throw your hat in the ring and go get that bread.
This means that your engaging storytelling, expressive points, and compelling conclusions will floor them. Many have never seen a truly outstanding essay. The bar has been lowered and this is your time to shine.
Note that this is generally not as true the larger the scholarship is. For Coca Cola Scholars, Gates Millennium, QuestBridge, etc none of this will be the case (same with point 2). But for that local scholarship your hometown newspaper gives out it’s money in the bank.
You need to do just a little research. Go to the website of the group sponsoring the scholarship and read their "About Us" page, mission statement, and whatever else you can find to explain what they do and why they exist. You're trying to demonstrate fit with a specific program or organizational mission, not just fit at an institution (as you are with a college application).
For example, on the selection criteria website for the Bryan Cameron scholarship , you can read between the lines and see that they want people who really want to impact their community and have already shown that through their leadership, service, and other pursuits. They also want to see a clear vision for how the student will continue pursuing these goals and how their education will facilitate or accelerate this. They're also big on students who want a career in public service, education, etc so expressing future interest in a program like Teach For America or something might resonate well with them (but you shouldn't "force" this - you should pick something natural and sincere). Showing that you’ve already started down this track will be key.
As you read and research, make two lists. The first is a list of things you notice about what the organization or scholarship is looking for. The second is a list of things about you that come to mind as you read. Draw from both lists when you make your outline for the essay.
Scholarships only make up about 3% of all financial aid in the US every year. That's a sobering statistic for students who are relying on them, but it's important to start out with reasonable expectations. That's still millions every year and you can get your piece. To maximize your scholarship funds, you're going to need to apply to a massive number of scholarships, likely over 100. That sounds really daunting and it is, but there is a strategy to get there.
Many scholarships require an essay, but this is good for you. It serves as a barrier to entry causing many qualified but busy high school students to skip it entirely. The secret is that once you have applied to 5-6 scholarships you will start to see overlap in what the applications ask from you. After about 15 or so, nearly everything can be cut and pasted from what you already have because there are only about 10-15 different essay prompts that most scholarships use. At that point you should have no problem firing off 100+ applications by making minor edits and adjusting for word count. If you're going to do this, do it all the way.
If you're starting college in the fall, you've already written at least two and as many as ~10 of these essays. You are also done building your resume of accomplishments and involvement. This means you've already planted the seed, harvested the wheat, milled the flour, and kneaded the dough. You just need to go bake that bread. Reduce the amount of work you have to do, reuse your application materials, and recycle your essays, adding the small changes required to make them fit.
If you're currently a rising senior, here are over 150 scholarships for you to start on over the summer . The good thing about these is that many juniors aren't even thinking about this, so some of the junior-specific scholarships have WAY less competition.
"Man ScholarGrade, this sounds like a ton of work and it might be too good to be true. How do I know it works?"
When I was in high school I applied to over 125 scholarships using the approach outlined above. I visited my guidance counselor's office a couple times a month to see if they had any new ones. I searched like crazy. My CTRL, C, and V keys were worn down to nubs by the end, but I won about 25 different scholarships totaling thousands of dollars. I ended up getting a full ride.
The two keys are (1) to take the time to craft and tailor an outstanding application, and (2) to fire it off to as many scholarships as you can find. Once you have your 10 or so quality essays, shotgun away like it's pre-nerf Fortnite (is this reference still relevant, r/FellowKids ?).
You can be much more specific. You can leverage your academic arc and goals to show that investing their money in you is a good idea. You don't have to be as focused on conveying "intellectual vitality" or other personal qualities that colleges look for. For scholarships, you want to show that you embody the mission and vision of the sponsor.
Most of the large scholarship aggregators (Fastweb, scholarships.com, etc) seem to be more about getting your contact info to spam you than they are about actually helping you find relevant scholarships.
Here's a few good resources that you need to check out. These are run by the government, so they don't have an agenda to mine & sell your personal data or use it for marketing.
This site is run by the US Dept. of Labor. The main page is dedicated to helping people find jobs, but the subsection on scholarships is fantastic. There are currently over 8000 scholarships listed and they can be searched, filtered, and sorted in a variety of ways. Furthermore, none of the scholarships on this list should be fraudulent or sketchy.
This will take some clicking and searching to find the site for your state. If you can't find it, let me know and I'll get you a direct link for your state. The site linked above is the federal page that links to the individual state agencies. Every state is different, but the fact that it takes so many clicks and so much digging only means that if you can navigate it, you're more likely to hit paydirt in the end.
Be careful out there. Many predatory shill companies or fraudsters set up fake scholarships to mine for personal data, facilitate identity theft, or scam people with a variety of creative ploys. You should never have to pay a fee to apply for a scholarship. No one should be guaranteeing that you will win aid. Don't give out your SSN or other sensitive personal data unless you know the organization is reputable. Most scholarships should not need your SSN or FSA ID.
- Check out what is available at the colleges you're applying to. Look on the websites of the colleges you're considering to see what scholarships they offer. Reach out to financial aid and ask for a comprehensive list. You can also reach out to your department, the admissions office, or the honors college to ask if they have anything you can apply for. The worst thing that happens is that they just say no or don't respond. They might notify you of a program or scholarship you hadn't considered or would not have found. I suggest starting here because these are often the biggest and most impactful. Note that the deadlines have likely passed for these for current seniors, but if the deadline was recent, you should still reach out and ask if they will accept your application. For juniors, early in the fall is the best time to tackle this.
- Talk to your guidance counselor. They probably have more resources for you, especially on local scholarships and those offered by your high school. These are the lowest hanging fruit in the world of scholarships. Many of you are among the top 0.1% of students in your local area, so you are a slam dunk for local scholarships. Seriously the scholarship review committees will have to wipe their drool off your application before they present you with the check.
- Look for essay contests. Often these aren't advertised as "scholarships" but the money is still just as green. How many high schoolers have extra time to spend writing quality essays for contests? Seriously do you know any? I realize you don't have this kind of time either, but if you can find it, there will be little competition. I know a guy who entered an essay contest for minorities despite being as white as a loaf of Wonderbread at a Coldplay concert (seriously his 23 and Me would probably just come back as a blank sheet of paper). He was the only entrant and won 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize for over $1500 total. Sure, the award ceremony was a little awkward, but it was well worth the time he took to enter. One key takeaway here is that you can apply to scholarships even if you aren't 100% qualified.
- Look in your social and professional circles. Go check the websites of large companies in your city to see if they offer any scholarships. Check at your and your parent's place of employment. Check with any social or professional organizations your parents belong to. Check with your religious organization (there are even scholarships for atheists). This takes all of 20 minutes to do and could yield some really high probability scholarships.
- As a last resort, go to the big boards. You can also try finding lists on Scholarships.com, Fastweb, Google, or r/Scholarships . There are several other similar sites/resources but you only need 3-4 of these to have most scholarships covered. If you know of other great resources, feel free to share in the comments. As with all scholarship lists, start with local ones because your odds of winning those are way higher. The key to making these sites work well for you is to search selectively. Try to find scholarships that are focused on your intended major, your home state, your parent's place of employment, your race/religion/ethnicity/sexual orientation/gender/native language/etc. Anything that narrows the scholarship's focus will reduce the applicant pool while also giving you ammo to align your application with the scholarship's goals/mission. Don't get your hopes up too high for any scholarship you find on sites like this, but if you apply to enough you will have a great shot to win some. Pro tip : make a separate email address for these because you are likely to get some spam. If you win, they will almost certainly call or mail something to you. You can still scan the spam email account monthly just to make sure.
If you would like a professional review of your essay or you have specific questions, PM me or find me at www.bettercollegeapps.com .
It is June now...👀👀
Awesome advice! Saved.
Awesome comment! Upvoted.
I took a look at the link with the list of scholarships for juniors (thanks for posting it!!). A lot of it seems to be just around $500 to $2000, which doesn't seem like a lot. Does it just add up to a lot if you apply to + win a bunch?
That's one approach. The other is to apply for QuestBridge, Gates Millennium, Bryan Cameron, or other full scholarships. There are also full ride scholarships offered at most colleges. You just have to look them up and apply. These are all of course quite competitive.
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The ScholarGrade Essay Series Part 1: How To Start An Essay, "Show Don't Tell"
The Top 30 Essay Mistakes To Avoid
Why College Essay tips and some Personal Essay Tips
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Do not cite the deep magic to me, witch. I was there when it was written.
Are there any good scholarships for international students?
Check out r/IntlToUSA . Also a lot of the lists I mentioned can be filtered for international eligibility.
That’s a lot of words, I stopped when you said “strong stats” lolll
I may be no lebron but I’ll take being a kyle lowry 🤪
Thank you so much for making this!
Have a nice day!
Yes, but there won't be as many scholarships out there. A lot of scholarship deadlines are in the spring. Almost all college-specific scholarships have deadlines in the fall.
Any advice for international students searching for scholarships?
Check out r/IntlToUSA . Also, some of the scholarship lists I mentioned can be filtered for international eligibility.
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