Free money. How much do you want: $500, $2,000, $5,000 or more? College scholarship money is available, but it won't land in your mailbox if you don’t apply for it.
How do you write a college admissions or scholarship essay that makes your application a winner? We asked the experts. Our panel included Dan F. Thornton, senior assistant director for scholarships at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Connie J. Gores, vice president for enrolment at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Vermont; and Thomas Nesbitt, director of admissions at SUNY College at Potsdam.
Here’s what they said about how to write a scholarship essay that stands out from the crowd.
You can't fool the judges into thinking you're someone you're not. "When applicants speak from the heart, it is apparent. It is also obvious when applicants say only what they think the judges want to hear," Gores says. "Sincerity is critical."
Don't be so stuffy and formal that the judges won't be able to recognize you in your scholarship essay answer." Thornton says: "I think the biggest mistake students make is trying to be too wordy or overly scholarly in writing essays for scholarship applications. I tell students to put away the thesaurus and write something on the level that reveals something unique about themselves to the reader."
Let your personality shine through. Nesbitt says that the student who is creative and having fun with the essay question has a better chance of being remembered than the student who uses "the standard, traditional, textbook answer." Gores agrees. She says if you have a great sense of humour, use it to your advantage. But, she cautions, if you are more on the serious side, "now is not the time to become a comedian."
Judges are looking for essay answers that are genuine, so relax and write from your unique experiences. "Essays should reflect the 'real' applicant, not the person the applicant wishes to be," says Gores.
The college admissions/scholarship essay is your opportunity to introduce yourself. Are you portraying your true self to the judges or simply throwing out vague ideas? Illustrate your ideas by writing directly from your personal experiences.
"Any time a student can give someone a piece of their life and show how it will link to success, it tends to make that individual more than an application," says Nesbitt.
Don't be afraid to respond to the question in an interesting, thought-provoking way. "I have seen students who have compared themselves to an Oreo cookie, wrote poetry about how they felt about a college, placed themselves at a certain time in history to prove a point and used current events to prove success in their lifetime," Nesbitt says.
Do the judges learn about you as an individual by reading your scholarship essay? Your positive characteristics should be reflected in your answer. "Curiosity about how/why things are or work a certain way is something the committee values highly," says Thornton. "It is also appealing when the applicant shows a desire to find ways to share his/her intellectual gifts or goals with the greater community," he adds.
The judges want to know what you think. Make sure your essay is not a boring recitation of worn-out media topics. Thornton says to "avoid writing about the most obvious things." He says to be very careful that your essay reflects your opinions and not your parents' views.
How to write a scholarship essay that answers the question
One size does not fit all. Essay questions are designed to draw out specific answers. Study the question before answering it. Does it ask you to highlight your achievements? Prove your problem-solving skills? Determine your motivation? If you are planning to submit several scholarship applications, write a separate essay for each entry.
"Make sure you answer the question asked," says Gores. "Don't use another essay just because you liked it." Your answers should reflect your background. Describe specific events in your life that drive your opinions.
"Applicants should tailor their responses to the question at hand, but should find ways to let their response reflect something about themselves and how they think about the world around them," says Thornton. Brainstorm several possible answers and focus on your most imaginative response. "There is no problem being creative as long as the question is answered,” Nesbitt says. "Also important," adds Thornton, "unless you are applying for a scholarship at a university with a distinct religious affiliation, avoid writing about God or supplying a Biblical reference in response to an essay question."
Check grammar and spelling
Don't be disqualified because of careless spelling errors and bad grammar. "Essays must be typewritten, neat and free of typos," says Gores. "Applications are the paper version of the applicant," she explains. "To be received well, they must be presented well."
Our experts listed many common grammar mistakes, including sentences with plural subjects and singular verbs or vice versa. Watch your punctuation, too. Run-on and fragmented sentences also made the list. Another problem is tense shifting, which gives the written piece an appearance of uncertainty. "
Write the essay, revise it, and revise it again if necessary. Invest the time now for a bigger pay off later," says Gores. After you have double-checked for errors, ask your teachers, parents and friends to proofread your application. Nesbitt suggests at least five people look at your essay before you mail it.
All of the experts agree: Students who turn in sloppy scholarship applications are not taken seriously and often are disqualified outright. Neatness and attention to grammar and spelling are the best ways to make it through the first round of decisions.
Scholarships exist to reward students just like you. Don't be left out because the essay question stopped you from turning in your application. Write, reflect, re-write and refine. A winning essay takes a little time to prepare, but free money for college is an excellent reward.
Look over this list of sample questions, provided by our experts, and brainstorm answers from your unique history.
1. How would this scholarship impact your education?
2. If your education had no limits, you could stay as long as you wanted and money were no object, what would you hope to get out of your time at college?
3. You have just retired. What would people say about you at your going-away party?
4. What legacy do you hope to leave with your life?
5. Who is your hero and why?
6. Describe a personal experience that has profoundly changed your perspective on an issue of regional, national or international importance. In what way has this event impacted your previous perspective? How will it change your approach to this issue (or similar issues) in the future?
7. Describe how a work of art, music, dance, theatre or literature has inspired you.
8. Who speaks for your generation, and what are they saying? If you answer “no one,” why? What needs to be said?
9. Pearl S. Buck once said, "You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings." Tell us about an experience where you felt that you did the right thing in spite of your feelings.