Writing Winning Scholarship Essays

By Allison Medlin

A student studying at the Hunt Library

To a busy student, writing successful essays can seem like a daunting task. They are often the deciding factor for whether a student receives a scholarship offer or moves on to the next stage of a selection process, and yes, application reviewers do read them. In fact, for many prestigious scholarship programs, essays are read by two, three, or more reviewers, often with the aid of a rubric which students won’t have access to. So how do you know what to write about? Luckily, we’re here to help with some pro tips on taking your essay writing from good to great.

Take Stock

Before you begin writing your essays, take time to reflect on what makes you, well, you! What experiences have shaped who you are? What are your interests, values and goals? According to Callie Womble Edwards, founder and owner of The Life Of A Scholar, LLC and a Gates Millennium Scholar alumna, “Self-awareness is key. Take a personal inventory of your life and experiences. What do you enjoy? What are you most proud of? What are the most important lessons you have learned?” The more time you put into answering these questions and building your personal inventory at the beginning, the easier your writing process will be.

Tell an Authentic Story

The best way to show who you are and what you are about is through storytelling. Don’t just tell the reader you want to work with children, tell them a story about your experiences working with children in the past, and what you’ve learned. Don’t just tell the reader that you’re hard working and resilient – demonstrate it through storytelling about your specific experiences, choices, and actions. Most importantly, make it authentic. Ask your friends and family if the stories you’re telling accurately reflect the “you” that they know and love. Lack of authenticity is a red flag for application reviewers. As Johanna Donovan, senior assistant director in NC State’s Office of Scholarships & Financial Aid, warns: “Believe it or not, after reading essays for over 30 years, I can tell if an essay was written by someone other than the student.”

“…sharing information that is specific, personal and authentic will engage your reader more, and will help distinguish you among a sea of applicants.”

Save the Best for First

Application reviewers read a lot of essays, and yes, they can start to blend together. Don’t make your readers wait until the end for “the good stuff.” By that time your application might already be in the rejection pile. Edwards encourages students to “grab their attention in the first paragraph.” Again, sharing information that is specific, personal and authentic will engage your reader more, and will help distinguish you among a sea of applicants.  

Connect the Dots

Every scholarship program has its own unique mission, history, and culture. In addition to considering an applicant’s unique experiences and merit, application reviewers are often considering the applicant’s potential fit within the program. How do an applicant’s goals and values align with the program’s? Your essay should demonstrate an understanding of the program, and how you would specifically benefit from, and contribute to, its mission. Scholarship programs aren’t just selecting individual students; we’re building a cohort. We’re interested in what potential scholars will bring to our community, during their college career and as alumni.

Write. Edit. Repeat.

Don’t wait until the last minute to write your essays. This may seem obvious, but you will need time to write and rewrite each essay. Edwards advises students to “write multiple drafts and enlist several editors, if possible. Often students wait until the last minute to begin a scholarship essay, but quality writing is an iterative process.” Donovan stresses that students should edit to ensure that what they have written makes sense to the reader: “It may make sense to the student because they know the situation, but have an outside party read the essay and make sure it makes sense to them.” Finally, make sure each essay is free from grammatical errors, typos, or slang. You want your readers to be drawn to the quality and content of your essay, not a misspelled word.

Taking time to reflect, write, edit, and repeat will ensure that your essays stand out and enhance, rather than detract from, your scholarship applications.

This is a modified version of an article originally published by Dr. Allison Medlin, director of the Goodnight Scholars Program at NC State. Dr. Callie Womble Edwards is the associate director of program evaluation and education research at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. Johanna Donovan is the senior assistant director in NC State’s Office of Scholarships & Financial Aid. She has more than thirty years of experience in scholarship administration.