How to Conquer the Scholarship Essay

The good news? There's a ton of free money you can score for college! The bad news? You'll have to work for it. But we've got some great advice on how to master your scholarship essays.

You’ve probably heard this a million times if you’re a junior or senior in high school, but I’m going to say it anyway; apply for scholarships! You’ve worked so hard in high school trying to get top-notch grades, participating in sports and myriad activities, all while trying to maintain your sanity. If this sounds anything like you, I have very exciting news: you can get a significant amount of money to go to college through scholarships. But before you get that money, there is a common and foreboding hurdle every college-bound student must jump over—the scholarship essay. The desperate 500 words or so that sum up your very essence and could mean the difference between affording your dream school or not. No pressure. 

Who am I kidding—of course there’s a lot of pressure that comes with scholarship essays, but that’s the point. The college, or whatever organization that is offering the award, does not want to give it to your average Joe student, but someone who proves to them they deserve it. That is your prime job in writing your essay—to show that you deserve it and that they are wisely investing their money, because that is precisely what they are doing.  They are giving you a portion of their money in the belief that it will help you further your education in the pursuit of your goals and dreams. 

The trickiest task of writing this essay, however, is to make yourself look as good as you possibly can, all while maintaining a humble manner. Are you the president of five school clubs, captain of the soccer team, and/or a first-place spelling bee champ? If you are . . . write about it, even if you think you sound like you’re bragging. But don’t just tell them what you do; tell them why you do it and how it has changed you and/or your community for the better. 

When I was a senior in high school, I was writing an essay for a full-tuition scholarship at my first-choice school, and I almost didn’t include the charity work I did with orphanages and children’s homes around the United States. I thought I was making myself sound too good, but under my mom’s advice I included it. The admissions board that interviewed me later brought it up and asked me to talk about it, which lasted like five minutes alone. They could see the passion I had for it, and that alone almost single-handedly won me the scholarship. Include anything that sets you apart from the crowd in your essay, even if you feel like you’re bragging about yourself. They want to see everything you do; otherwise, you might be costing yourself a lot of free money. 

Related: Secrets from a Scholarship Application Reader

In terms of the essay, whether it’s for a scholarship or for college admission, the thing that will attract them the most is voice. Depending on what you’re applying for, the board making the decisions could read up to thousands of applications. Not only do you have to make yourself stand out in terms of content, but also in the way you write it. The essay almost always comes before any type of interview to make a final decision, so this is the way they get to know the real you. It is important to learn how to put yourself into a paper without having to be constantly talking about yourself. This might sound contradictory, but use your experiences to shape what you write so the board gets an understanding of your perspective. Out of all of the scholarship essays I’ve written in the past two years, this is my best advice for you:

1.  Know what the scholarship board is looking for

Go over the prompt and any other information they give you multiple times to make sure you really understand what they’re trying to get from you. As you get further into the writing process, go back to the prompt again. The last thing you want is to realize you’ve completely veered off topic three-quarters of the way through the essay.

2.  Don’t try to get too fancy

I understand that you’re trying to impress whoever is reading your essay, but don’t get caught up in trying to use an overly expansive vocabulary. Use your words wisely and maturely, but don’t use 20 words that you would never use in everyday language just to prove a point. (Anyone can Google synonyms to find a more difficult-looking word that they really don’t understand, and the board knows that).

3.  Make it personal, but also relatable

The whole point of the essay is so the readers can get to know you and your personality. So as I mentioned before, make it personal and share your experiences. However, if you can somehow make your story come across as relatable, it will be more memorable.

4. Change your environment if you’re stuck

Everyone gets writer’s block occasionally. If this happens to you, try changing your environment. My essays were normally written in multiple locations, which helps new and fresh ideas come to mind. Sometimes sitting in my room got old after a while, so I would go to my favorite coffee shop for something different.

5. When you think you’re done . . . start over

Yes, you read that right. I’ve almost never submitted my first try at a scholarship essay. It does take longer if you write more than one draft, but it’s so worth it. And I don’t mean just editing it and changing a thing here and there. I mean sitting somewhere new and completely starting over, writing from a different perspective or about something else.  You’d be amazed at what you can come up with.

Good luck on your scholarship ventures! (And don't forget: you can search for them here!)

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

college affordability college costs financial aid scholarship essays scholarships

About Adrianna Johnson

Hey everyone! I'm Adrianna and I am attending Anderson University in South Carolina, over 900 miles away from my hometown. I'm so excited to venture on the journey that college is going to take me on, and I hope I can share a bit of that journey with you. I love getting out and exercising, cooking, and of course, writing!


Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
CollegeXpress Logo


Are you our next winner?

Register now for our scholarship giveaway

College Matches