Let’s imagine for a moment that you are a scholarship judge. You have an enormous pile of applications in front of you.
From the application forms, you can get basic information about each applicant’s grades, test scores and activities. But without being able to meet each candidate, how do you get a sense of who they are so that you can determine if they are the most deserving of your money? One of the best (and sometimes only) ways to get to know the applicants beyond their cut-and-dry statistics is through their essays. This is why, for many scholarship competitions, the essay is the most important part of the application and where you should spend the most time.
Scholarship judges view the essay as their window into who you are, your passions and your potential. There are some interesting implications depending on the type of student you are. If you are a straight-A student with excellent test scores and a flawless academic record, you may be tempted to rely on these achievements to carry your application all the way to the final round. However, if you neglect the essay, you won’t win the big prize. On the other hand, if you are an average student and know that other applicants will have better academic achievements, you can use the opportunity that the essay provides to make yourself stand out. In many cases, you will actually be able to beat applicants who have higher GPAs and test scores.
Regardless of your accomplishments and academic achievements, you need to write a powerful essay if you want to win a scholarship. In the midst of exploding buildings and the hero tearing away in a red sports car, it would be out of place for the background music to be a polka. The sights and sounds need to fit together to create the desired atmosphere. If one element is out of place (like a polka during an action scene), it destroys the effect of the entire movie. Similarly, what makes a good essay is that it fits within the context of the overall application. In other words, the essay and all other elements in your application package—such as your list of activities and teacher recommendations (if required)—must fit together to create the effect you want.
Let’s say that you are applying for an award based on community service. In the application you list all of the community service groups that you belong to and service project awards that you’ve won. But in the essay, you vent about your disgust for the homeless and how they should find jobs instead of blocking your passage on sidewalks. If your essay’s message is not in line with the rest of your application, it will create a conflicting message and keep you out of the winners’ bracket. Even if we reverse this example, the result is the same. Imagine that you wrote a brilliant essay about community service but had no related activities to back up the commitment you profess in the essay. The essay, no matter how well written, will not make up for a lack of actual involvement in community service work.
When you think about the essay, consider it within the context of your entire application. You want to present a cohesive message with the essay as the centerpiece. Each piece of the application should add to this unified message. The theme of your essay and application is almost always determined by the goal of the award or why the organization is giving away the money. For example, a minority advocacy organization may provide an award to help members of an under-represented ethnic group to pursue higher education. A private foundation may give an award to preserve the memory of a late benefactor who supported students entering teaching. A professional organization may award money to encourage students to enter their profession.
It’s important to research and uncover the purpose of each award. Then you can use this information to guide the essay and application. Once you know the goal of the organization, use that knowledge to choose which aspect of your life to highlight as the general theme of the essay. If you are applying for the award for under-represented students, you may want to focus on your potential and how you will be a role model for others in the future. To apply for the educator or other professional awards, you’d want to highlight your future in education or the field of the awarding organization. In other words, use the goal of the award as a guide for the essay.
Excerpted from How to Write a Winning Scholarship Essay available at bookstores and at supercollege.com. Gen and Kelly Tanabe are authors of 12 books. Ask Gen and Kelly your questions about paying for college at supercollege.com.