Need Money for College? You Need to Knock Your Scholarship Essays Out of the Park!

A strong scholarship essay can make all the difference between getting those dollars and paying for college yourself.


Rising seniors, you can start the first day of school countdown now. It’s also time to get started on your college application and scholarship essays (if you haven’t already). Odds are pretty good that if you are applying to college, you are going to need to write an essay—maybe 10!

So say goodbye to excuses. The 2016 Common Application went live on August 1. Many colleges have released their personal statement and supplemental essay prompts too. Start writing!

You should master the college essay first, but you’ll find most scholarships require an essay too. A strong scholarship essay can make all the difference between getting those dollars and paying for college yourself. Luckily, the process for writing both college and scholarship application essays is largely the same.

What are scholarship essays?

There are two main categories for scholarship essay questions. The first is “personal,” which includes prompts such as “What is unique about students born in 1994?” “Why should you get this scholarship?” The second is “issue,” with prompts like “Why is free expression through independent media important?”

Scholarship organizations ask for personal essays because they want to know who you are and why they should invest in your future. They achieve that through your essay—a story about you, your abilities, your beliefs.

Just like the college essay, it is critical that you understand the prompt and what you are trying to achieve before turning your ideas into an actual story. Read and reread your prompt(s), and then talk about them with at least one other person.

Once you are certain you understand the prompt, you can begin the brainstorming process. Even if you have a particular essay topic in mind, it’s still a good idea to write down several idea options.

Ask yourself these questions to get started: Describe a time when you learned something meaningful about yourself. What did you learn? What experience led up to this insight? How have you continued to apply that insight to your life?

Here are a few more tips for generating scholarship essay ideas:

  • Keep a journal. Journaling is like talking to yourself on paper. Think of your journal entries as though they were quick snapshots from your cell phone. Their purpose is to jog your memory and remind you of an experience, not to capture it in spectacular detail. It will help you have ideas when you look at the scholarship prompt.
  • Create or update your résumé. Having a complete and thoughtful résumé in high school is beneficial in three ways: It will help you keep track of your activities and accomplishments when it’s time to apply for colleges and scholarships. You’ll have something to give your recommendation writers so they have a “cheat sheet” about you. And, of course, you’ll be ready to go if and when you need to apply to an actual job or internship.
  • Start with a cliché. When in doubt, go for the obvious. Start brainstorming with a cliché, like I play to win or I give 110%. You never know where or when the story will emerge.
  • Focus on you! Never lose sight of the fact that your essays should be about you. Whether you write about shopping for sneakers with your little brother or building houses for disadvantaged residents of rural Arkansas, the topic is secondary. You are the subject of your college or scholarship essay. Choose a topic that will allow you to share something genuine about yourself and help you achieve your goal of getting into college and/or securing some much-needed scholarship money to help pay the bill.

Once you have a few topic ideas, make sure they illustrate what you want readers to know about you. The best college essay and scholarship topics share something meaningful about you that readers could not otherwise find out.

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About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and training company that follows three principles: process, plan, and schedule. Wow also specializes in professional development for consultants, teachers, and high school counselors who work with students applying to college or grad school and teaches college and grad school applicants how to write effective personal statements and supplemental, fellowship, and scholarship essays. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to the college application essay. We work with students and professionals around the world and are staffed by a small team of experts who understand the writing process inside and out.


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