Writing a standout essay

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Writing a standout essay

Between books, courses, room and board, and (of course) a social life, college expenses can definitely add up! If money is on your list of stressors, you’re not alone.

“It’s the worst,” says Mike Van Munster, a student at the Berklee School of Music (www.berklee.edu). “I felt like a lot of the time I was barely making ends meet. Sometimes you don’t realize how expensive it can be. There’s a lot of unexpected costs. I’m paying for school by myself, so between books, rent, food and classes, it’s hard to scrape enough together to pay for everything, let alone save anything.”

To try and ease some of the struggle, many schools will offer financial aid as a means for deserving students to make it through the semesters.

“Financial Aid is any grant or scholarship, loan, or paid employment offered to help a student meet his/her college expenses,” says the New York State Financial Aid Association (NYSFAA). The amount of money students are eligible for is determined through federal, state and institutional guidelines.

But that’s not all- if you’re interested in applying for a scholarship, some universities also require students to write an essay. This is so students can explain why they are applying for financial aid and how it will benefit them. So what’s that all about? How do essays affect student aid? And most importantly, what should students do to make sure they are submitting a standout college essay?

We asked Brenda Major, director of admissions at Eastern Illinois University (www.eiu.edu), to fill us in on what she looks for in an exceptional financial aid essay.

Q: What should students do in order to have a standout college essay?
The applicant should thoroughly review the criteria, including recommended length (or number of words) and, most importantly, be sure to respond to the exact question or topic. Always ask someone to review the essay before submitting it. It is also helpful to read the essay aloud.

Q: What resources can students use?
Students should seek assistance from a guidance counselor, English teacher, parent, or even a good friend who will be honest and objective.  Sometimes it is helpful to review the application with someone who can ask the applicant to explain in their own words, what is required.  If you can articulate what you plan to write, it makes the writing flow more smoothly.  

Q: Is there anything students should avoid?
Students should be wary of brief responses that do not give the reader insight into the applicant. This may be the applicant’s only opportunity to expound on their passions, goals, etc. However, the applicant should also be careful to address what is being asked.  Avoid going off the subject,
i.e. writing on and on about something that becomes illogical or uninteresting to the reader.  

Q: After students submit college essays, what exactly are they used for?
We require them for both admission and scholarship consideration. The essay can tip the scales in favor of one student over another. Many scholarships have specific criteria, based on the donors’ background or passion. The donor may wish to provide support to a student with similar interests.

Q: What advice do you have for students about to write their essays?
Adhere to deadlines, and don’t procrastinate.  Apply early for optimum consideration and seek multiple sources of financial assistance.  

Van Munster agrees with Major’s suggestions, and adds that it’s “similar to high school English classes…the writing process is important in creating a standout essay for both admissions and aid.” As a music performance major, Van Munster understands how difficult it can be to get the motivation to put together a quality essay.

“It’s not easy by any means, but it’s worth it. You have to remember that you are your greatest advocate, and that the officials reading your essay will have no idea who you are. This means that how you present yourself in writing will directly impact their first impression of you, and that makes all the difference.”

That’s why making multiple drafts, asking for peer reviews and discussing the criteria with an Admissions Counselor will increase your chances of hitting all the right notes. It’s a lot of work, but if you cover your bases, you’re more likely to be considered for additional financial aid. This means less stress, more money and more fun. Happy writing!

Sarah Girouard is working toward a master’s degree in inclusive adolescent education at Nazareth College (www.naz.edu).




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