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Write your way to merit aid

One essay can earn you more scholarship money

Write your way to merit aid


You’re in the honors classes, you scored great on your state exams, the SATs are over, and you’re on your way to that next big step: college. It’s an exciting, busy time of your life, and you have endless possibilities at your fingertips. Then one day you get a crisp white envelope in the mail from your college. You open it up and what’s inside? A lot of lines that don’t make sense except for one: Your current balance due, which is typically followed by a very large number!

For the majority of students who are not inherent millionaires, the cost of attending four-year schools can be very overwhelming. But what about the smart, committed, hardworking students? Don’t they deserve to be able to afford a higher education? We think so. And so do more than 1,800 colleges across the United States. reports that there is more than $13 billion dollars of merit aid available for students nationwide, and nearly $11 billion of that comes from colleges. So what does that mean for you? There are ways to reduce the stress on  you and on your bank account!

Merit-based aid is an umbrella term that covers a variety of scholarships, grants and discounts that a college awards to students regardless of financial need.  Merit aid may be based on academic or athletic achievements, special talents, where the student lives, or other demographic characteristics.

“While you don’t have to demonstrate financial need, you need to have a special skill that fits the standards of the scholarship,” says Paul Wrubel, a financial aid consultant. He explains that it’s important to keep in mind that “they are often non-renewable, meaning if you receive aid one year it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be awarded the same aid for the following year.”

Many schools will also require an essay as a part of the application for merit aid. These scholarships are very competitive, and the essay is often how colleges will decide who gets the award, and who doesn’t. The University of Arizona ( writes that there are three important steps to follow when creating your exceptional application essay:

Step 1. Brainstorming: “The most important aspect of your scholarship essay is the subject matter.” If you get stuck, seek out the people who know you best. Ask friends, parents, family members, neighbors, coworkers, etc. to characterize you. Ask that they give supporting examples for their answers. Getting outside opinions may give you an idea you would have never considered otherwise. Remember to always keep in mind how your answers relate to the scholarship you’re applying for.

Try considering:
• Your major accomplishments.
• A challenge you overcame. What did you learn about yourself?
• A time when you failed at something, and what you learned.
• What skills or attributes distinguish you from the majority of your peers?
• What are your goals?
• Who are your role models? Why? What about them impresses you?

Step 2. Selecting a topic: “Consider topics that will allow you to synthesize your important personal characteristics and experiences into a coherent whole…Answer the questions that were asked of you.”

Keep in mind:
• Is your topic genuinely of personal importance, or are you just fluffing an essay? (This will resonate in your writing)

• Is this topic getting repetitive? Is it overly used by you or other students?

• Is your topic overly political and/or offensive? If so, consider another topic that will be more universally accepted. If you select a controversial topic, offer counterarguments to avoid sounding ignorant.

• Be honest, but not for honesty’s sake. In other words, be YOU in your essay, not some cheesy, overly-dramatic version of you. (It will be memorable, but not in a good way.)

Step 3. Writing the Essay: “In writing the essay you must bear in mind your two goals: to persuade the scholarship officer that you are extremely worthy of receiving college assistance, and to make the officer aware that you are more than a GPA and a standardized score…you are a real-life, intriguing personality.”

Here are some dos and don’ts:

DO answer the question completely.

DON’T go Thesaurus-happy, using every big word ever created. No one will understand what you’re saying, including you.

DO use (purposeful) imagery.

DO spend the most time on your introduction and conclusion.

DON’T use slang or informal language (i.e.: calling the official “bro” will probably not get you a scholarship).

DO pace yourself. Take breaks between drafts. Coming back to your essay with a refreshed mind increases your chances of catching errors and thinking of new ideas.

DO ask for feedback and make revisions.

We understand that writing essays can be tough. Try to keep things in perspective. These essays aren’t supposed to be torture. They are about demonstrating how what has happened to you (no matter how seemingly unimpressive) has made you the person you are. It’s a way of celebrating the choices you’ve made and your ability to reflect on them intelligently. And, like a scene from a movie about Y-O-U, who could write it better than the star?

Sarah Girouard is working toward a master’s degree in inclusive adolescent education at Nazareth College (


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