Originally Posted: Jun 27, 2018
Last Updated: Oct 6, 2020
College application essays and scholarship essays have much in common. The writing prompts can be similar, the readers want to know who you are, and all essays can be repurposed or recycled. Even so, there are several ways in which essays that you write for college applications differ from those you write for scholarships. Colleges want to know who you are so they can judge whether or not you would be a good fit for their campus. Admission committees already have your grades, discipline history, and letters of recommendation. When you write your college application essay, colleges want to know who you are as a person. They have the brain; now they want the heart.
On the other hand, scholarship benefactors want to know who you are so they can judge whether or not your interests align with theirs. It may sound harsh, but it’s true. When scholarship committees read your essays, they are looking for ideals and convictions that match smartly with their own. They are also subconsciously looking for validation that they are generous and compassionate for their offer to go above and beyond by helping aspiring college students toward their vocational goals. After all, scholarship benefactors are offering free money so that we (people they don’t even know) can reach our dreams. Because of this slight but important difference in your audiences’ attitudes toward your essays, you will have to go about writing them in slightly different ways.
College admission essays
To write a college admission essay, you should be as creative as you can while remaining honest and genuine. If you don’t mean what you write as you write it, the admission committee will be able to tell. When you read an essay prompt, you may not immediately think of an astounding story that will leave your readers in awe, and that’s okay! Much more important than any individual story is what you learned from it and how you tell it. Always brainstorm essay ideas before you start writing, and expect the writing process to take several hours. College admission essays are usually fairly lengthy (anywhere from 650–1,000 words), so plan ahead and pay attention to your organization of ideas.
To put the creativity facet in perspective, my favorite college application essay that I wrote was a narrative concerning my fictional journey across Middle Earth on the back of a Giant Eagle (yes, that’s Lord of the Rings and yes, I’m a nerd). But even if creative writing isn’t your thing, don’t freak out. All you need is some solid imagery that will help your readers see what you say. Ask yourself what words describe the feeling of what you are writing, and match that feeling to an external object that you can weave through your essay. And don’t be afraid to ask your favorite English teacher to read over it before you hit submit!
Above all, make sure your essay is about you. There are some things you simply should not write about (like your mom or dad or second cousin three times removed) in your college essay(s). Colleges want to know about you, and if you can make your readers feel as though they would immediately recognize you if you walked through the door, you have done an excellent job.
Writing a scholarship essay is fairly similar to writing a college application essay in that you still want total creativity and honesty. Tell your story, authentically! The main difference is that you’ll probably change which aspects of yourself to highlight depending on the scholarship benefactor. If you’re writing to an organization that places a heavy emphasis on environmental protection, mention that time you learned something while picking up trash along the coastline. If the organization began in support of teachers, mention how much you appreciate building firm and lasting relationships with your educators.
A good rule of thumb is to always go to the organization’s website to read their mission statement, and plan your essay around that. I am certainly not telling you to lie or make up stories to fit the scholarship committees’ interests, but it’s important to write to your audience knowledgeably and to give your readers what they want (assuming that you want something from them).
Additionally, scholarship essays are generally much shorter than college admission essays. Many require a maximum of 500 words, and some are even shorter! But be careful not to let this lull you into a false sense of security. The shorter the essay, the more weight every word you write will carry. For short essays, it’s especially important to implement active verbs and to tie in colorful imagery. If your reader doesn’t feel something when they read your essay, you will likely be forgotten.
Both admission essays AND scholarship essays
My favorite thing about both college essays and scholarship essays is that they can be recycled. While it’s rare that any two prompts will be identical, many contain central themes and ideas that enable you to revise an old essay into a lovely new one. Most essays will center around what you want to major in, what vocation you plan to enter, and how you have proven yourself to be a worthy human over the course of your high school career.
While these subjects may get repetitive, it’s to your benefit that you are able to use the oh-so-handy copy and paste. I can’t count the number of times that I have copied whole paragraphs from a college application essay to use in a scholarship essay instead of having to rethink and rewrite. If you have already written the ideas once, there’s no reason for you to do so again! Even so, keep in mind there will always be things that you have to alter to account for a new audience with a new agenda. While there will be many common threads, be sure that they do not clash with your readers’ goals, and do not mix up school or organization names.
I’ve already said it’s important in both college admission essays and scholarship essays to stay both creative and honest, but I think it bears repeating: never lie in an essay, no matter how tempting it might be. If you do, you will likely get caught, and even if you don’t, you might have cheated another student out of their dream.
Related: Busting the Worst Admission Essay Myths
College application essays and scholarship essays have much in common, but the difference in your readers is a key factor of success. Write to a specific audience, and your readers will feel understood and accepted (which are good feelings for them to have, as they decide whom to give their dorms and money). Just remember to be authentically you, and you’ll be well on your way to the college of your dreams.
Looking for more scholarship and application essay advice? Find it in our College Admission section!