5 Ways to Make Your Scholarship Essay Stand Out

It’s no secret college is expensive. One way to alleviate the cost burden is through scholarships, a form of financial aid that doesn’t need to be repaid. Scholarships can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, but winning them requires strong credentials and a well-crafted essay.

With so many components to the college application, experts say it’s common for students to rush through certain parts. But applying for scholarships and writing strong essays should receive careful attention, experts say.

“A scholarship can mean the difference between graduating debt-free or accumulating substantial student loans,” says Liz Doe Stone, president of Top Tier Admissions, an admissions consulting company. “The financial relief can also provide more freedom in choosing a career path without the pressure of loan repayments and open up other professional opportunities, since (scholarships) look great on a resume and may facilitate networking opportunities.”

[What Students Can Use Scholarship Money For]

Students should approach scholarship applications and essays as if they’re applying for a job, says Haley Lindsey, director of financial aid at Missouri Western State University.

“Essentially, you’re trying to obtain money,” says Lindsey, whose role also includes reviewing scholarship applications. “When you’re writing your essay, be professional. You want to put your best foot forward.”

Here are five ways students can make their scholarship essays stand out.

Start Early

Scholarships will set deadlines throughout the year, but experts say a majority — especially local scholarships — typically set deadlines from January through April of a student’s senior year. Regardless of the deadline, experts agree on when to start writing essays: the sooner the better, as procrastination typically leads to poor writing.

“It’s critical to give yourself enough time to research, write, revise and seek expert feedback,” Stone says. “Your final draft should clearly make the case that your goals align with the scholarship’s mission and values, and this process takes time.”

Students can save a lot of time by pre-writing and reusing essays, but they should be prepared to carefully tailor them to the specific school or organization awarding the scholarship, experts say.

Pre-writing essays can be especially useful for students applying for a high number of scholarships. If students try to write a unique essay for every scholarship, there’s a chance they could experience burnout, which could negatively affect the quality of their essays, says Bethany Hubert, financial aid specialist and manager of high school partnerships at Going Merry, a free scholarship application platform.

“I would much rather a student have two or three essays in their pocket that they’re super confident about, that they spent hours on over the summer and can use again,” she says.

Craft a Strong Opening

Scholarship committees often sift through hundreds of applications and essays — or more. The ones that stand out capture the reader’s attention from the start with a strong hook that creates curiosity in the reader’s mind, says Andrew Simpson, editorial director for College Essay Guy, which offers coaching on college admissions and essay writing.

The following example from an “open topic” prompt shows this well, he says.

Fedora? Check. Apron? Check. Tires pumped? Check. Biking the thirty-five minutes each evening to the cafe and back to work a six-hour shift was exhausting, but my family’s encouragement and gratitude for the extra income was worth it.

This opening “clearly sets up the experience and stakes that drive the essay forward, but again does so relatively succinctly,” Simpson says.

Introductions like this, which drop the reader into the action through an anecdote or personal story, tend to be effective and persuade the reader to keep reading, Stone says.

“Remember, the classic advice to ‘show, not tell’ is key,” she says. “Use descriptive language to paint a picture and immerse your reader in the action.”

Tell Your Story

Committees want to see how students are able to connect their personal achievements to their future goals and how the scholarship will help them achieve them. Committees don’t need applicants to be “level 10/10 vulnerable,” Simpson says, “but a lot of strong scholarship essays we’ve seen include moments or details that make us feel connected to the students, that make us root for them.”

[Read: How to Avoid Scholarship Scams.]

Students can do this is by sharing their personal story. For example, Hubert says she won several scholarships by writing about her journey as a first-generation college student. Sharing such background allows scholarship committees to understand an applicant at a deeper level.

One student Hubert worked with wrote a scholarship-winning essay about attending college despite her parents not doing so, explaining how she plans to forge her own path.

Everyone makes mistakes, but it is those who learn from their mistakes who are successful. I am learning from their mistakes. Where they got stumped, I find a way to get over. Where they may have stumbled, I continue to run. I have to keep running for my goals in life. Even after reaching my goal I will continue to strive towards greatness. People use the saying, “the sky is the limit,” but it isn’t.

“This made me feel something, and it resonated with me on a personal level,” Hubert says. “Statements that are direct, clear and evoke an emotion are great for essays asking you to discuss a personal experience.”

Authenticity is important to scholarship committees, so applicants should focus on what makes them “a uniquely deserving candidate for this award,” rather than what they think the committee wants to hear, says Carolyn Pippen, a college admissions counselor at admissions consulting firm IvyWise.

“A great essay about a seemingly mundane or ‘unimpressive’ topic that helps the reader understand you more clearly will always be more effective than a generic, surface-level response about a more ‘exciting’ topic,” Pippen wrote in an email.

Be cautious of tone, however. While applicants don’t want to come across as arrogant, they should sound confident in their essays and still be the main character in their story, Stone says.

“It’s easy to write an essay about a meaningful mentor, family member or friend,” she says, “but these details distract from what the scholarship committee wants to know about: you! An effective scholarship essay will highlight your achievements and/or discuss the challenges you have overcome through concrete experiences that make your essay more memorable.”

Answer Prompts Directly and Thoroughly

Scholarship essays vary in length, but in many cases students have around 500 words to share their message. Some essay prompts are open-ended, but most ask very specific questions. Applicants should read the prompt thoroughly and directly address what it’s asking.

Lindsey says she occasionally reads essays where applicants don’t fully answer the prompt or even leave some blank.

“If you can’t answer all the questions, then why should I reward you?” she asks.

Since the runway for most scholarship essays is so short, students need to get to the point immediately and efficiently tell the story, focusing one or two solid examples to directly answer the question, Pippen says. Hubert says students should use the AEC formula to get their point across quickly: assertion, evidence, then commentary.

[Read: How to Find and Secure Scholarships for College.]

Students should have someone proofread their completed essay without knowledge of the prompt, Hubert says. If the reader can discern what the prompt was only by reading the essay, the student will know they answered the question directly.

“A lot of times, people who are writing miss that and they end up writing a really good essay, but it has nothing to do with the prompt or it dances around it,” she says.

Use Strong and Sound Writing

While students may be lax when text messaging with friends, that style of writing should not carry over to scholarship essays. Using shorthand, slang or improper sentence structure, grammar or punctuation is a surefire way to lose credibility in the eyes of essay readers, experts say.

“It is very common and I see it a lot of the time where instead of saying ‘you,’ students put ‘u,'” Lindsey says. “That’s a huge turnoff to scholarship committees. If you can’t take the two extra seconds to put in the two extra letters, that’s not a good essay, to me. They don’t have to be a phenomenal writer, but if they’re not giving me the full word or (if they’re) using that texting language, it’s an automatic out for me.”

Such writing also typically signals a lack of time spent crafting the essay. Successful essays undergo multiple drafts and edits to ensure strong writing, Simpson says.

Example of a Scholarship-Winning Essay

The following excerpt, used with permission from Stone, comes from an essay that won a student a scholarship.

This prompt asked applicants how their course of study will contribute to their future career and why they chose that path.

By studying Spanish language and Latin American history in college, I plan to pursue a career that will allow me to advocate for immigrants and refugees. Since I plan to study in the United States, I am specifically interested in helping the Mexican-American immigrant community by creating lesson plans for schools that will teach students about immigrants’ struggles and educating people about the laws that will resolve injustices.

The applicant goes on to explain what they’ve already done to gain experience and knowledge in this field, including creating an app that educates people on bills being passed or voted on that pertain to immigrants’ rights within their state. The applicant then mentions a class they took at Brown University

in Rhode Island where the final project was an infographic highlighting the challenges immigrants face and what U.S. citizens can do to help.

The essay closes:

This project helped me to realize that I could be interested in a career in law or social services that will allow me to work directly with the immigrant community to address their needs.

“This scholarship essay effectively articulates the student’s post-college goals and how these goals are rooted in their specific high school experiences and accomplishments,” Stone says. “By linking their intended course of study to their advocacy for immigrants and refugees, they demonstrate both a strong commitment to community activism and a practical understanding of the challenges faced by immigrants. This alignment of past experiences with future aspirations — as well as their sincere dedication to making a positive impact through their chosen field — resonated with the scholarship committee.”

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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5 Ways to Make Your Scholarship Essay Stand Out originally appeared on usnews.com

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