Using a previous scholarship essay contest we hosted, where our judges received more than 4,000 essays, we noticed some frequent mistakes students make that can instantly disqualify you from an essay contest.
We thought to ourselves, "Hello, learning opportunity!
Here, an example of what NOT to do in an essay – and some tips on making yourself a better candidate for scholarship cash.
Here’s one of the essays we received for a previous scholarship contest, to help you learn the do’s and don’ts of essay writing:
“To be able to hold onto your money you have to know how to manage it. Money management is a complicated process. As teenagers we often have no idea how to manage money and we end up wasting a lot of it. But in a bad economy most of us have had a crash course in what happens when you don’t manage your money properly. We have had to delve into a world foreign and unfamiliar to us and solve our own money problems. The most successful of us have managed to still have some semblance of a social life without going over our small budgets. The keys to doing this successfully are actually quite simple.
Set up your own budget of expenses. Teenagers may not have to worry about paying a mortgage or rent but we do have to be able to pay for gas, insurance for our vehicles, and the never ending list of project expenses and supplies for classes. So you have to sit down and balance what you spend in a month with what you actually make, and whether that’s the money you get for your birthday that you manage to stretch with help from mom’s pocketbook or it’s the minimum wage that you get from the local fast food joint where you have managed to find employment the money comes from somewhere and it needs to be written down.
Review your expenses daily. This includes balancing your checkbook and reviewing your online statements, as well as calculating any emergency expenses that you were not considering. This needs to be fluid as sometimes things come up that you just couldn’t have forseen.
You have to get creative. You are not always going to have the time to sit there with a calculator crunching numbers so create small ways to keep thing balanced without having to. Send yourself easy phone reminders about a few of your expenses. Always bring your school id with you because a lot of places will give students discounted rates. And finally, just remember where your money is going it will help.”
So, what was wrong and what was right?
One thing the essay writer did correctly was to stay within the word count for the contest.
The essay contest stated within the rules that essays should range from 250-350 words and this essay comes in at 349 words. Good job!
Another positive is that the writer stayed on topic and answered the question that was presented.
However, even though the writer did stay on topic, the response took a meandering approach and didn’t take a strong or memorable stance. In short, the “meat” of the essay wasn’t there. Think of it this way: sum up in one sentence what you want the reviewer to know and remember after reading your essay. Did you get that across in a clear and concise way?
Each essay should get across at least one breakout idea (aka, the thesis statement) and the rest of the essay should focus on selling that point. If it’s a new, creative or off-beat idea, focus on selling and explaining that. If it’s a common idea, focus on trying to say it better than anyone else.
Here are a few more examples of what the essay writer did wrong:
Misspellings are the fastest way to ensure an essay is disqualified. When combing through a stack of essays, a judge will first rule out the essays with simple misspellings. Long story short: run a spell check and have someone else you trust look over it. It’s always best to get a second set of eyes.
Incomplete sentences – Remember, each sentence should have a subject (someone or something) and a verb (action). Wondering if your sentence is complete? Here’s a hint: A complete sentence tells a complete thought.
No capitalization –
it’s bad enough not to capitalize words at the beginning of a sentence, but at the beginning of a paragraph it stands out even more! Yikes!
Missing punctuation –
In this example, the writer does not have proper command over the use of commas — namely they are missing in places they should have been added and added places they are not required.
Poor grammar and sentences that don’t make sense –
The essay writer uses poor word choices, improper grammar and mistakes such as having too many spaces between words. Another example of poor grammar is the confusion of grammatical persons — in the beginning of the essay the writer uses the first person plural (we) and toward the end, the writer uses the second person (you).
Run-on sentences –
In this essay, one sentence has 72 words. As a rule, try to keep sentences no longer than 35 words each.
Keep these tips in mind the next time you write an essay. Remember, you don’t want to give the judges any reason to disqualify your essay right off the bat.
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Co-authored by Renae Hintze
College is expensive, but what if I told you that you could make up to $500 per hour in high school to offset the cost!?
Amidst your student’s busy life of after-school sports, school dances, sleepovers, and more…college is on the horizon. And it’s an expensive horizon.
While there ARE 11+ billion dollars in merit based scholarships out there that will actually pay for your student’s good grades and high tests scores, why miss out on the opportunity to get a piece of the 2+ billion dollar private based scholarship pie that are awarded based off essays?
These 10 steps + your application = BIG SCHOLARSHIP MONEY! So let’s go for it. Here’s how to write a winning scholarship essay in 10 steps.
Step #1: Get an Early Start
My essay isn’t due for 3 weeks, why would I start it now?
Ah-HAH! I see you there, you last-minuter you. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to. And I’m telling you, DON’T PUT IT OFF.
If it helps, here’s an example of what can happen when you procrastinate. Here is one ASU student’s story:
“Once upon a time I took a class that worked with Photoshop. I had a project where I had to create a fake CD cover for myself. I put it off until the last day and I finished it the night before it was due and went to bed — that’s right, the project was DONE. And it was BEAUTIFUL.
My class was at 7:30 am the next morning (A little slice of college for ya) and I hadn’t printed it out yet. And here comes the lesson in timing: My printer broke. The short version of this is that I ran around the entire college campus trying to find a printer at 6:00 am in the morning to no avail.
My finished project received a non-negotiable 0.”
Soooo 2 things here:
- NEVER trust a printer to print when you’re in a rush
- But most importantly, mistakes happen when you wait till the last minute.
That being said, I recommend you follow a 3-week timeline for writing your scholarship essay.
Step #2: Read ALL of the Instructions
You may write a scholarship essay equivalent to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but if you didn’t follow the instructions, you’re not getting that scholarship. So remember: FORMAT MATTERS.
Here’s what I suggest — don’t just read the instructions… read them twice. Print them out and highlight important things to remember.
Not winning an essay contest based on the sole fact that your essay didn’t follow directions just stinks. Don’t do it to yourself.
If the format isn’t specified, play it safe this way:
- Use Times New Roman
- Use 12 pt font
- Have one-inch margins all around
- Write 2-3 pages
Step #3: Know your Audience
What do I mean by your audience?
I mean the people you’re talking to in your essay. The people who will decide whether or not they want to give you their scholarship!
Here’s the thing. You want to be genuine about yourself and your passions, but AT THE SAME TIME, you want to make sure that what you DO share about yourself in your scholarship essay is something that your reader would be interested in.
How do I learn what’s important to someone?
You need to research your audience and find out what they value.
Let’s look at an example. Say Nike offers a scholarship to the winner of an essay contest:
You can see that Response #1 does a good job of answering the prompt, but doesn’t really relate directly to Nike. Nike is an athletic company with the motto “Just do it.” They encourage their customers to push their limits in the athletic world.
Overcoming a fear (heights) that is central to who you are through a challenging sport (rock climbing) is something that directly relates to Nike’s values.
Where can you find that information?? It’s simple:
- Look up their website and take the time to review it. Focus on the about us page to get a solid idea of what they do and stand for.
- After you have a good idea of who they are, find their contact information and give them a phone call stating the following:
What will this phone call achieve?
- You will learn more about your audience. This allows you to tailor your scholarship essay specifically to what the company stands for. (Remember the Nike example?)
- Stand out by building a relationship with someone on the scholarship committee.
#2 brings me to my next point!
Step #4: Talk to someone who is part of the scholarship committee.
Now this is not always 100% possible. Some scholarships have rules that won’t allow you to talk to anyone on the scholarship committee.
If this is the case, skip this step and just talk to someone within the organization that helps you get a better idea of the company’s mission and values. With that said I always recommend at least trying!
If you do get a hold of someone, here are some important steps to follow:
Listen for Conversational Hooks
Conversational hooks are words or phrases said within a conversation that allows you to expand on the other person’s interest, providing a more in-depth conversation that builds rapport and trust.
Expand on the Conversational Hooks
If you listened for those conversational hooks you will be able to expand that conversation further in several directions. Try and hit as many conversational hooks with your response so it allows them several responses!
“Wow I love fitness as well! I actually am on the track and field team in my high school. As the team captain I really try to help my teammates and inspire them to be better athletes as well. What do you do to maintain your fitness and how do you inspire people and help athletes within the company?”
See what this does?
- It shows that you relate which builds rapport and trust with the scholarship committee member.
- It get the scholarship committee member excited to talk to you because EVERYONE LOVES TO TALK ABOUT THEMSELVES!
Keep the Conversation Going Until They Say They Have To Go!
Keep listening for those hooks, expand on them, and build that relationship!
The longer you can remain on the phone with them talking about THEIR INTEREST, LIFE, AMBITITIONS, AND JOB the more you will be able to relate back to them. This makes you stand out to them when you submit your essay.
Write them an email or (better yet) send them a “Thank you” card thanking them for their time.
Gratitude can go a long way. Wait 24 hours and send them an email thanking them for taking the time out of their busy day to speak to you. Make sure to include something from the conversation that you two really connected on.
OR if you have their address, send them a handwritten card!
You now not only know your audience but have someone in the scholarship committee that is probably rooting for you!
Step #5: Brainstorm Ideas
Ideas don’t always come naturally. In fact, often times when we NEED a really great idea to come to us, this is when we draw a blank. Save time staring at your paper by using a version of brainstorming called “mind-mapping”.
Here’s how it works:
- Write the name of your scholarship at the top.
- Write down everything that comes to mind about it — this includes the person/organization giving the scholarship, what they do, what they are asking for, what YOU do, what YOU like, etc.
I made an example for you here, with the “L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Scholarship”, a scholarship that asks students to write a short science fiction novel.
See how I connect different thoughts by drawing lines between them?
Your mind-map can be much bigger than this. But you can see now that I might choose to write my novel on a pilot traveling across the ocean, who is saved by pirates after his plane is taken down by a giant squid…where he meets a clone of himself!
Pretty exciting stuff, right?
Step #6: Pick a Topic You Care About
Scholarship essays are all about the person behind the essay.You want your readers to FEEL your passion about whatever it is you choose to write. And, they want to find someone who is passionate about the same things they are.
But be careful. Your essay is not a sales pitch. You need to be genuine about what you say, and this is why you need to care about the topic you choose. It will also make it easier to write!
Step #7: Create an Outline
This is something you need to do BEFORE you write the essay. And if you do, it will make writing the essay go faster!
I’ve created an example outline for you here. It shows you how you should think about structuring your scholarship essay.
Here also are some great scholarship essay examples from International Student that you can check out!
Step #8: Tell a Story
Tell a story? They want me to write them a book?
No, but they don’t want you to write a resume either! People who review essays for scholarships go through hundreds and thousands of essays. You may be super accomplished, but so are hundreds and thousands of other kids.
That’s why you can’t just throw your achievements at your readers. Write something that opens a window into your life for them. Like the characters in a book, they need to feel that they are getting to know you better through your essay.
To help you stay on track, here are some Scholarship Essay Do’s and Don’ts.
Step #9: Double-check Your Essay
Ever typed a word into your phone and had it auto-correct to something you didn’t mean to say? It’s the same with your computer. Don’t rely on spell-check to free your essay of errors.
After you’ve finished writing, re-read your essay from start to finish, out loud. It may seem silly to read what you just wrote, but trust me, it’s a good idea.
Ok, but why do I need to read it out loud?
Sometimes sentences you don’t remember writing can sound strange. Sometimes you may use one word so much that it sounds repetitive. You can catch these kinds of errors much faster if you see AND hear them.
Step #10: Have a Professional Review Your Essay
Are you still listening?? This step is important!
Think about if you were to enter singing auditions for American Idol, or the Voice. You could just wing it, but more likely you’ll want to practice singing in front of other people first. Why?Because you’re actually practicing your audition itself.
In this same way, you want to practice having someone else read your essay and hear their feedback. It’s a lot better to have someone ELSE tell you where your essay needs work than the person who is no longer offering you a scholarship!
Who should you ask to review your essay?
Ask a professional. What I mean is, ask someone who has experience with writing. If this person also seems to value the same things the people awarding the scholarship do, EVEN BETTER.
What kinds of people have experience with essay writing and/or scholarship applications?
- Your English teacher
- Your school counselor
- An English tutor
There are over 2+ billion dollars in private based scholarship available. So believe me when I say there are tens of thousands of dollars to be had for everyone who puts in the work.
In conclusion, the following steps can easily make you $500 per hour to help offset the cost for college. Once more, to write a winning scholarship essay:
- Get started early (3 weeks in advance — I mean it!)
- Read all of the instructions (TWICE, and highlight!)
- Know your audience
- Talk to someone who is part of a scholarship committee
- Brainstorm your ideas
- Pick a topic you care about
- Use an outline
- Tell a story
- Double-check your essay for mistakes
- Have a professional review your essay
What scholarships have you or your student received and why do you think they were chosen? Let us know in the comments below!
Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!