Tactics for Writing Winning Scholarship Essays

Many valuable college scholarships are based primarily on the quality of the essay you submit and several are based solely on the quality and appeal of your essay.  Writing an excellent essay that stands out from the crowd, yet conforms to the scholarship guidelines and the conventions of standard English is essential to winning an essay- based scholarship.  

Essay-based scholarships are not limited to high school juniors and seniors applying to college.  Students already in college qualify for many essay scholarships.  Some scholarship essay contests are open to both undergraduates and graduates.  A few valuable essay contests, such as the celebrated Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, are not actually scholarships at all, but honors for academic excellence and a spirit of service to humanity.  A limited number of essay scholarships/contests are solely for graduate students.

All scholarship essay contests have certain basic things in common.  Here are some tips to help you write the best essay possible.

Choose Carefully

Choose your scholarship contests carefully.  While it is true that the more scholarships you apply for the better your chances will be of winning at least one, if you spread yourself too thin you will not be able to write unique, appealing essays.  Choose the scholarships which you are most qualified for and most interested in.  If your interest is high, you will be able to write a more heartfelt essay and your sincerity will come through to the judges.

Read the Guidelines

Read the guidelines for each scholarship carefully.  Do not waste your time by applying for ones for which you do not qualify.

Follow the Guidelines

Following the guidelines is the key to winning scholarship contests and any other sort of contest.  This means that you must carefully check to see if you have everything required included in your application and not just your essay. 

Do the rules call for official transcripts?  Make sure that they are official and that you request them from your school in plenty of time for them to sent be to the scholarship committee.

Send the transcripts in the way specified by the contest.  This means that if the rules say they must be sent directly from your schools to the scholarship committee, you must do so.  No exceptions.  Keep in mind that most scholarship contests will only accept transcripts sent to them directly from the educational institutions involved.

Do the rules call for a photo of yourself?  This is rather rare, but some contests do require photos with the application. Others want one after you have won the scholarship.  Be sure you have one you’re proud of to send in.

Meet the application deadline. Allow yourself plenty of time to write the essay and gather your other information.  Don’t miss out by being a few hours late.

Remember failure to follow the guidelines exactly will result in your being disqualified for the scholarship, no matter how good your essay is.

Writing the Essay

Given what been said above, you can see how important it is to follow the essay guidelines exactly.  Pay attention to both word limits and subject matter.  If you have any questions about what you are required to write, do not hesitate to contact the appropriate person and ask questions.  These are not “dumb” questions; they are signs of your interest in the scholarship and will be cheerfully welcomed and answered.

Make sure your topic is what is actually requested by the rules.  For instance, if the rules calls for you to write about the person that most influenced your life as you were growing up, you don’t want to choose your favorite teacher, but then launch into a dry spiel about the educational system in your high school.  The essay topic is calling for something warm and sincere about a particular person who influenced your life; make sure that that is what you write about.

The following is an example of a good opening paragraph for such essay:

When I entered Reynard High School I was a shy fourteen year-old.  My family had just moved to town and I was terrified I wouldn’t make any friends.  I had not done well academically in my last school, so I was also afraid that the teachers would be too strict and the work too difficult.  I’ll never forget the warm smile on Mr. Oxnard’s face as he greeted each student at the door that first day.  He made me more at ease immediately.  I soon discovered that this ex-bank president was the best teacher I had ever known.  Mr. Oxnard knew how to make you see the problems in your work and help you correct them, while giving you confidence that you could correct them and learn from your mistakes.  Mr. Oxnard even tutored me for SAT.  He has been one the most important influences in my life; without his encouragement, I would have never had the courage to enroll in college, nor would I have had the marks to gain admittance.

Some essays do not want a personal experience piece.  Many are researched- based and require you to research a topic and give your opinion on it.  Use the most accurate sources possible; of course, if the guidelines specify resources to use, use those.  Make sure that you precisely follow the conventions for citing any references. The rules may specify which citation style to use.  For instance, if the rules state that you must use APA style, make sure you use current APA style. 

Guide to MLA style: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/

Guide to APA style: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/2/10/

Guide to Chicago Manual of Style: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

Technical points on Writing Your Essay

Remember the five paragraph theme you were taught to use in elementary school?  The five paragraph theme is actually a good formula for writing a concise essay for most scholarships.  Some essays are required to be longer than a five paragraph theme allows and some may allow only one or two short paragraphs, but the five paragraph theme is a basic formula that can fit most requirements.

A five paragraph theme requires you to be concise and stick to the topic; this is precisely what the people who read your essay will be looking for, along with creativity and sincerity.

Elements of the Five paragraph theme

  • Introduction:   Introduce your topic with a thesis statement and discuss what you are going to talk about.  For example, the Mr. Oxnard introduction lets the reader know that the writer will be talking about their teacher’s warmth, about his ability to help students correct mistakes so that they feel confident in succeeding with the work and about his tutoring the author for the SAT. 
  • Three paragraphs:  In each paragraph, you will talk about one of the three subtopics you wrote on in your introduction.  Do not wander away from the topics.
  • Transition: Skillful transitions from one topic to another (one paragraph to another) are essential in writing a cohesive, interesting essay.  OWL, Purdue’s Online Writing Lab gives excellent free help for every imaginable writing problem.
  • Conclusion:  Your conclusion should summarize  the points you brought out in your  introduction in a different way; it should leave the reader with something to think about.  For instance:

Mr. Oxnard not only changed my life, he made realize how important warm, personal attention to each student is.  Someday I hope to show his warmth to my own students.


When writing your essay, remember that academic honesty is essential.  Do not plagiarize.  Do not have someone else write the essay for you.  Don’t fool yourself; modern technology can help detect plagiarism and an essay written by someone else may embarrass you if it does not compare with your academic record.

It is acceptable to have someone help you brainstorm for ideas, but these should be general topics.  The final subject should be yours, written from your own perspective, in your own words.

It is also acceptable to have some look over the essay for grammatical errors, but this should not be editing in the strict sense of the word.  You should correct any errors and make any suggested changes in your own way.  Letting an editor rewrite part of the piece is academically dishonest.

An honest, sincere, concise essay will be one you can be proud of.  Even if you don’t win the scholarship, your effort to craft a good essay will have honed your writing skills.  The next time you write a scholarship essay, you’ll be more prepared and you will have a better chance of winning.

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