I’m an amateur expert in judging scholarship application essays. I’m an active member (and frequent judge) of a professional association that gives $7,000 in scholarships to college students, and I also read a lot of Nora’s student scholarship essays to give students some informal feedback. You might remember that Nora works in a school.
With college becoming more of a basic prerequisite for most jobs, a wider swath of the population is attending college, and often struggling to make ends meet. One of the most visible examples of this is the growth of food insecurity and food pantries on college campuses.
And the Trump Administration’s crusade to cut subsidies for student loans, combined with outlandish college tuition price tags, has made landing school scholarships more important than ever.
So, here are 4 Terrible and 1 Great Idea for Student Scholarship Application Essays.
Terrible Idea #1: Use Valuable Essay Space to Explain How Much You Really Need the Money
This is from an actual scholarship application essay I reviewed this year:
I really hope that I am considered for this scholarship because I can truly use the money. I know that is probably something everyone says but if you took this chance to invest in me I would appreciate it more than anything and I would not let the organization down. I plan to be successful in my life no matter what but I know this scholarship will help me get ahead so much quicker then without it. I have a ton of debt and any type of help is helpful. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to apply and I hope that I can be one of your top candidates for receiving this scholarship.
Probably goes without saying, but everyone needs the money – that’s why they are applying. Not only is it a waste of space, but the pitch will damage your credibility significantly. The equivalent in the professional world:
HR Manager: “Why do you want this job you are applying for?”
You: “I really need the cash!”
Terrible Idea #2: Give the Webster’s Dictionary Definition of Whatever You Are Writing About
Here’s an example Essay Topic: Describe a Time You Were Thrust into Leadership and How You Reacted to It
Example first paragraph: Webster’s Dictionary defines a leader as yadda yadda yadda. But for me, leadership is actually yadda yadda yadda.
If I get a stack of 20 essays, I guarantee that at least one person will use this artificial device. My advice: Delete that first paragraph and make paragraph #2 the new first paragraph. You won’t even notice it’s missing.
Terrible Idea #3: Don’t Have Anyone Review the Essay Before Submitting It
Yes, it needs to be your work, but there’s no harm in having someone review it. Mind you, I said review, not rewrite.
Especially for spelling and grammar. Spelling and grammar issues stick out like an adult at a Chance the Rapper concert. They bring the reader up short. A plain old poorly-written essay doesn’t elicit the same contempt for the writer.
Terrible Idea #4: List Every Significant Thing That’s Happened in Your Life
I get it – you’ve accomplished a lot and you’re proud of it. But reading a long list of accomplishments is about as fun as your dad going with you to see Chance the Rapper. The music might be impressive but no one can enjoy it because of the adult hovering nearby.
Bottom line: Help the reader focus on the music (your story) by leaving your dad (distractions) at home.
You have to ruthlessly weed out the items that don’t fit the story you are trying to tell. A story that speaks directly to the essay question.
Which is a good segue to:
Great Idea #1: Tell a Unique and Compelling Story about How You Overcame Adversity
From the days of Adam and Eve, we have told each other stories. This is how children learned to avoid danger (bees) and find opportunity (honey). And be entertained.
During biblical times, Jesus told parables because he knew these narratives would be easily understood and remembered.
People respond to compelling stories told well.
Yeah, but nothing significant has happened in my life, you say. You didn’t dive in front of a mountain lion that tried to maul your little sister, you didn’t volunteer your body for risky but potentially-life-saving clinical trials, and you certainly didn’t pull a drowning puppy from a lake and deliver mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
No matter. Be creative. The best essay I remember reading was written by a painfully-shy high school junior who was considering a career working with animals, but didn’t know if she had what it took. Nervously, she signed up for a week-long animal husbandry camp. She was tentative at first, but by the end of the week she was inserting her arm (up to the shoulder!) into the birthing canal of an expectant cow to check on the health of the baby calf. And loving every minute of it! My eyes still get a little misty recalling this essay that I read many years ago.
Show some weakness/flaws/idiocy. Then relate how you learned/persevered/overcame. Just don’t be boring. After all, your essay is one of many, and you can’t afford (literally) to be forgotten.