The write stuff

Strong scholarship essays part of mastering the 'scholarship game'

Strong scholarship essays part of mastering the 'scholarship game'

November 23, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Scholarship essays can make or break your success at securing money for college.

Not an Ernest Hemingway? You don't have to be a great writer to write a great scholarship essay - the most common component of scholarship applications, said Ben Kaplan, author of "How to Go to College Almost for Free: Ten Days to Scholarship Success" and other books for scholarship seekers.

Kaplan, who interviewed dozens of scholarship winners and judges while researching his books, said the task of crafting a top-notch essay starts with a little research. Look at past winning essays to get a "road map" of what works, he said.

"It doubles and triples your chances of winning," said Kaplan, 27, of Portland, Ore. "Winning scholarships is a game, and the best way to master the scholarship game is to learn from those who play it well."


Scholarship sponsors often post winning essays on their Web sites. You also can make a phone call, write a letter or send an e-mail to request copies of past winning essays. Focus on the way winners communicated their ideas to judges, and think about how you can share your ideas in as effective a manner, Kaplan said.

Essay ABCs

Like all essays, scholarship essays should have a clear topic that's not too broad, be organized - with a clear introduction, thesis statement, supporting body paragraphs and conclusion - and use active verbs. A clear and concise thesis is key to writing a cohesive essay of any kind, said Ronald L. Ballard, English and philosophy professor at Hagerstown Community College. He said writers might develop a thesis through a process called freewriting, during which they spend an uninterrupted 45 minutes or so putting their ideas on paper.

"All the best essay writers are into that," Ballard said. "You can pull a thesis out of it."

The thesis will drive the essay's outline - its organizational plan, he said. Writers should stick to that outline "so they're not just flying everywhere," agreed Rebecca Elgin, adjunct humanities professor at HCC.

Mine your vocabulary for the best words to convey your ideas, Ballard said. Use more powerful verbs than forms of the verb "to be," he said.

"You should have a stockpile of words," said Ballard, who recommended keeping a dictionary and thesaurus on hand.

Start editing your work by reading it out loud - a technique that will highlight poor word usage and other essay flaws, he said.

"If you read it out loud you'll see all these obstacles you've put up in front of the reader," Ballard said.

It's important to proofread your essays for such errors as misspellings and grammatical mistakes - "those little nit-picky things that make the writer look like he didn't take a lot of time, wasn't careful and didn't care," said Penn State Mont Alto assistant professor of English Peggy Russo, who used to read scholarship application essays at the University of Michigan. "You have to proofread and proofread and proofread and get rid of every little possible mistake. Two of those mistakes will get you put in the 'no' pile."

Get personal

Most scholarship essays are special in that they require the writer to recount a personal experience that relates to the essay topic, according to information about scholarship essays on the Essay Info Essay Writing Center Web site at The site recommends brainstorming essay ideas for at least one week prior to writing the essay, asking yourself such questions as:

· What are your major accomplishments, and why do you consider them accomplishments? The most interesting essays often are based upon accomplishments that might have seemed inconsequential at the time but take on greater meaning when placed within the context of your life.

· Does any attribute, quality or skill distinguish you for everybody else?

· Have any books, movies or pieces of art influenced your life in a meaningful way?

· What was the most difficult time in your life, and why? How did your perspective on life change as a result of this experience?

· Have you ever experienced a moment of epiphany?

Kaplan said it's crucial to include anecdotes and personal experiences in answers to essays and other questions in order to make an emotional connection with judges.

"Paint a portrait of who you are, not just what you've done," he said. "Judges award scholarships to people, not rsums."

"Show rather than tell" by using specific examples to illustrate your ideas, Kaplan said. Focus on the qualities and values that we look up to in society, including hard work, responsibility, civic duty and teamwork, he said. Strive to bring out these positive qualities about yourself when describing your accomplishments and affiliations. For example, write about how you demonstrated individual initiation when you spearheaded your science club's drive to raise money for new microscopes.

And avoid clichs such as "I'm a people person," Kaplan said.

Elgin said it's often difficult for teens to "sell themselves" through scholarship essays because they don't want to sound vain, but they must emphasize their best character assets, athletic and artistic skills, and involvement in their community to make a strong impression upon scholarship judges.

To maximize scholarship opportunities and save valuable time, Kaplan said, leverage other work that you're doing for scholarships. For example, turn a high school English paper on "The Fountainhead" into an essay for the Ayn Rand Essay Contest.

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