The scholarship essay might be the most important part of a scholarship application. It's important to know how to write a scholarship essay so that you can make your case and convince the judges that you are the best person for the award. Don't skimp on the essay or try to rush through it. Spend lots of time planning, writing, and then rewriting to increase the chance that your application will win.


How to Write a Scholarship Essay: The Start

The first sentence of your scholarship essay is the most important sentence you'll ever write. Why? It's the sentence that determines whether you've grabbed the attention of the reader or not. Remember that the person reading your essay is going to have a say in whether you get a scholarship. If you bore him or her, it's likely someone else will get the money.

Aside from grabbing the reader's attention, the introduction to your essay provides a general guideline of what the rest of the paper will be about. Often, it contains the thesis, or purpose of the essay, in the last sentence.

What are a few good ways to get someone's attention and make him or her want to read? Here are a few options:

  • Tell a story. Start your essay off with a bang by sharing a story from your life.
  • Provide an example. A picture is worth 1,000 words. Show the reader what you're getting at, rather than telling him or her.
  • Ask a question. Although not everyone likes rhetorical questions, when writing an essay, they can be an excellent way to bring the reader into your argument.

Often, it helps to write the start of your essay last. That way, you can look back over the body and conclusion that you've written and use them as a guide to craft an introduction that fits with the rest of the essay, and that's as attention-grabbing as can be.

Use Proper Formatting

It's not just what's in your scholarship essay that counts. It's how the essay looks. The people who award scholarships are going to look for students who can follow directions, which means sending in an essay that is formatted based on the instructions provided.

Since there's not one universal scholarship essay format that everyone uses, check to see if the scholarship you're applying for has specific formatting requirements. If the scholarship application doesn't specify how to format your essay, it's best to err on the side of caution and use a conservative font and margins.

Times New Roman, Arial, and Calibri are a few examples of acceptable fonts, if the essay's instructions don't specifically tell you which one to use. These three fonts are easy-to-read and look professional. Whatever you do, stay away from a goofy font like Comic Sans or a font that looks like cursive or script.

Size matters. Size 12 is the ideal font size to use. It's neither too big nor too small to read.

The spacing and margins you use determine how easy the essay is to read. Unless the instructions say otherwise, use double spacing and 1-inch margins.

Margins that are bigger than 1-inch will make it look as if you're trying to pad the essay. Smaller margins will put too much text on the page.

Tips to Make Your Scholarship Essay Stand Out

For every fantastic essay award judges receive, they have to read dozens of cookie-cutter ones. You want to make your essay the one that stands out and makes the judges take notice. As US News and World Report puts it, an excellent essay can mean the difference between a thanks but no thanks email and some actual money.

Follow these tips, and you'll never submit a dull, lifeless essay to a scholarship committee.

Make It Personal

The judges who read scholarship applications want to get to know you. They want you to convince them that you are the perfect person to give the scholarship to. It's your job to win that money to pay for college.

Here's how to write a scholarship essay that stands out: writing about something you care about. Whether it's the work you do tutoring ESL students, the time you spend coaching elementary soccer students or the hours you've put in in the dance studio, a great essay will be on a subject you know about, care about and that reflects who you are.

Think of the why, more than the what when writing your essay. Show the judges why you love tutoring, dancing or whatever it is that you do. Describe mentors or others who have influenced you along the way and explain how those people have been a good influence on you.

Include lots of detail in the essay to back up your points and reflect on who you are. If you're writing about overcoming a challenge in your life, describe the problem, how you felt at the time and what you did to move past it. The more detail you provide, and the more detailed your examples, the more likely you'll be to win the scholarship.

Make It Relevant

You need to shape your essay to meet the specific requirements and expectations of the scholarship to which you're applying. Although it would make your life a lot easier if you could just use the same essay over and over, you need to follow directions.

That said, if the application asks you to describe your goals for the future, don't send in an essay that talks about a time you faced a challenge in your life. If the application is looking for a student with excellent grades, don't talk about how you failed your last math test.

If you can, find out who past winners of the award were and see if you can look at their essays. You don't want to copy their work, but seeing what a winning essay looks like can help inspire you when writing your own.

Make It Right

You've written a fantastic essay that you're sure will knock the socks off the scholarship judges. The only problem? It's riddled with typos and grammatical errors.

Read over your essay before sending to make sure it flows well and to correct any misspellings or other errors. Better yet, since it's been scientifically proven that it's difficult for a person to catch all his or her mistakes, have a friend or teacher read the essay and offer guidance or point out any errors.

Make It Accurate

Attention to detail is one thing judges look for in a scholarship application. The instructions provided in the scholarship application aren't just suggestions. They are what the committee expects to see in your essay and other application materials. Judges are likely to assume that if you don't know how to write a scholarship essay accurately that you might not have what it takes to be successful at their university.

Make sure you follow all the instructions given when you write your essay. Ask the teacher or friend who is reading your essay to keep an eye out for any instances where you might have veered away from the instructions. Most teachers know how to write a scholarship essay and depending on their willingness to help might be willing to offer a couple pointers.

Although you might be advised to “think outside the box” and “challenge expectations” when creating your essay, rest assured that those directives don't include ignoring the instructions.

Scholarship Essay Dos and Don'ts

When writing your winning scholarship essay, keep the following dos and don'ts in mind. You don't want to miss out on money for college because you've made an easy-to-fix mistake.

  • Do: Follow the directions.
  • Do: Make an outline or plan before you begin writing.
  • Do: Ask someone to proofread and edit your essay before you submit.
  • Do: Write a new essay for every scholarship application.
  • Do: Research the scholarship thoroughly before applying.
  • Don't: Wait until the last minute to plan and write your essay.
  • Don't: Use cliches.
  • Don't: Be vague.
  • Don't: Use a lot of filler or empty words to increase your word count.
  • Don't: Pick a boring, uninspired topic.

Scholarship Essay Examples

While you want the essay you submit to be your own work, it can help to look at examples of essays submitted by others. Reading other people's essays can help you see how to format your own and what judges are looking for in a successful essay. Learning from others' successes is an important part of learning how to write a scholarship essay.

Personal Essay Examples

A personal essay should be exactly that, personal. It should reflect on something you're passionate about and describe to the reader exactly why you're so passionate about it.

The University of Chicago Law School provides a few samples of personal essays submitted by students who were accepted to and graduated from the program. Look at their essays and note how their writing reflects their love for a particular subject.

Michigan State University's study abroad program also provides a few examples of personal essays that helped people get scholarships to participate in the program. Read the essays and note how each student tied their experience into their current desire to study abroad.

Sample Essays for Financial Need

Sometimes, a scholarship is meant to help students who have demonstrated financial need. Your essay will need to reflect your need to convince the judges that you're the best student for the award.

Your financial need doesn't have to be the sole focus of the essay. In this sample, for a scholarship at the University of Minnesota, a student includes a paragraph at the end explaining why she would benefit financially from the award.

Other sample scholarship essays make the financial need the underlying theme of the essay. In this sample essay from San Diego State University, a father of two who can't work due to injury fully describes his situation and the way going to college would improve not just his life, but his family's life as well.

Leadership Essay Examples

Many scholarship committees want to award students who have demonstrated leadership skills and abilities. If you're drawing a blank when it comes to how to describe your leadership experience to a reader, take a look at the first paragraph of this sample essay from a fictional student. It highlights the student's leadership role as a pastor before segueing into other topics.

In this collection of essays, the second essay specifically tackles the subject of leadership. The writer spends the essay describing what he or she thinks makes for a great leader. It's an interesting take on the subject, as it asks the student to go beyond just describing an experience.

Community Impact Essay Examples

Many scholarships look at community service or volunteer experience when choosing a winner. Some scholarships are based solely on a person's dedication to his or her community. If you are applying for that type of scholarship, reading a few good scholarship essays that focus on community is ideal.

Here's a sample from Cook Honors College. What makes this essay interesting is that the writer admits to not being into community service at first, then goes on to show how her time volunteering helped to shape her.

This sample provides examples of poor, fair and good community service essays. Read each one to see how they are different. When writing your own essay, be sure to take pointers from the “good” one, not the fair or poor ones!

Career Goals Essay

Many scholarships are career specific. If your goal is to be a doctor, you won't receive a scholarship designed for pre-law students or liberal arts students. For that reason, many scholarship applications ask students to reflect on their goals in their essays.

In this sample essay from a graduate student, the writer describes how he or she has spent the past decade working on reaching his or her career plans. This sample essay, from an aspiring doctor, is helpful because it shows how to write a compelling essay even after your original plan has veered off course.

Future Plans Essay

A future plans essay is similar to a career goals essay but focuses more on the big picture. Here's a sample essay from a first-generation college student. She describes her career goals but also focuses on what going to college means for her and how it will help her achieve some other life goals.

The winner of the 2012 Mary Cone Barrie Scholarship wrote this essay, which details not only her goals to be a teacher, but how she plans on using her teaching skills to help provide educational opportunities for those in her community.

Scholarship Letter Template

In some instances, a scholarship application might not require an essay, but an accompanying letter. Approach the scholarship letter like you would an essay, and clearly make your point, using descriptive language and specific examples. Here's a basic template to help you map out the letter:

  • Salutation: You can use “to whom it may concern,” but finding out the name of the person who will read your letter will make your application stand out.
  • Introduction: Introduce yourself and state what you're applying for or why you are writing.
  • The body of the Letter: Why are you the best person for the scholarship? Make your case in the body of the letter, but keep it short. Use no more than three paragraphs.
  • Conclusion: Thank the reader for his or her time, add in one final point about why you're a great candidate for the scholarship, then sign off.
  • Sincerely. Use a professional closing, such as “Sincerely,” then sign and type your name at the bottom.

Where to Get More Help

Looking for more tips and advice on writing your scholarship essay? There are a lot of resources available to you, both online and off. For starters, you can check out our guide on how to get a scholarship to figure the types of scholarships available to you.

Online, there are resources such as EssayEdge, which matches you with a professional editor, for a fee. If you're not sure where to start looking for scholarships, ScholarshipOwl can help point you in the right direction. Keep in mind that you do have to pay for the service, but if you win any scholarships, the fee can be worth it.

In real life, you can meet up with a few friends and offer each other advice and proofreading help, especially friends that already know how to write a scholarship essay properly. Your teachers can also be useful resources for essay help. They've seen lots of essays in their days, so they know what stands out and what doesn't.

If your school has a writing center, take advantage of it. The tutors who work in writing centers are trained in the ins and outs of grammar and can help you craft an essay that stands out from the pack.

Most importantly, give yourself plenty of time to write, proofread, and rewrite your essay. A rushed job will be obvious to the judges and can end up costing you a lot.

And remember, taking the time now to learn how to write a scholarship essay could pay dividends because it could help you score more scholarships.