When it comes to writing scholarship essays, what makes them stand out as scholarship-winning essays? Number one, you have to answer the question. Whatever the scholarship organization asks—whether it’s about your leadership in the community, obstacles overcome, or your thoughts on climate change—they want to hear your direct answer to the question.
Secondly though—and just as important, you have to add substance and depth to your essay by using vivid, personal examples. For example, let’s say a scholarship essay asks you to “describe an example of how you showed leadership. How did it impact your community and how did it influence your goals for the future?”
In answering this question, let’s identify a few pieces that will help share a more effective story.
- Read the question carefully and think about the personal stories you could share to support your response.
- List out all the main points you want to make in your essay and make a note of the stories that correspond with each point; try using bullets for this exercise.
- Look at your points again (eliminate any that you feel might not be quite as effective in getting your point across with passion and purpose) and rearrange them in an order that makes sense (imagine you’re telling a story in answering the two questions).
- Consider starting with a descriptive personal anecdote that describes the specific example of leadership you choose to write about, or you may want to start with describing your community prior to your impact to show how you changed it (think: the exciting, heart-pumping first scene of a Hollywood blockbuster).
- Once you start this exercise, you’ll be able to craft an outline from the points you’ve listed and then write with a level of detail and personal description that helps paint a clear picture for your audience to understand your message.
Let’s say your example of leadership deals with your role as an officer in a club helping to plan an annual assembly for your school. Using the points above, you may come up with an example intro snippet like this:
“Standing on the sidelines of my school’s gym, I sweated slightly as the crowds of 9th-12th graders—my peers and friends—noisily entered the double doors from either side. The embarrassing scenes from last year’s failed assembly were still firmly engrained in my mind. Was it our principal’s fault for not checking the script of the students’ skit? Was it our advisor’s fault for not warning the students about pulling off a responsible assembly? Or was it the students’ fault for not thinking that their ideas of humor may not be well-received at an all-school assembly? Whatever the case, it seemed to me like a strong failure of leadership that caused such a disastrous showing. And now, with the seats of the gym fully packed, my greatest test of leadership as a club officer was about to be put to the test.”
This example intro is one possible way to start a scholarship essay about organizing an assembly at your school. In one intro paragraph, the writer has already provided some background context for understanding his or her current state of thinking. Perhaps more importantly, the writer has set up the story such that he or she will be able to further explain briefly what exactly happened at last year’s assembly. In the body paragraphs of this essay, he or she will also be able to explain how he or she exercised greater leadership in making this year’s assembly that much better.
To conclude, the writer may return to the scene first described in the opening intro. He or she may say simply that the next 25 minutes turned out to be the greatest and most successful assembly the school has ever witnessed (perhaps according to the principal or club advisor for added credibility). Then the writer might use that opportunity to highlight the key lessons of leadership that impacted his or her community and follow with a statement about how this experience shaped their plans for the future (thus answering the two questions). In order to have a fuller answering of the questions though, the writer may weave in his or her thoughts on leadership, its impact on his or her community, and its influence on his or her future throughout the body paragraphs. However you choose to write your essay, these are some ideas for answering the essay question(s).
One final note: if you’re still confused about how to write a compelling scholarship essay, imagine some of the top movies you’ve seen. For this example, let’s use The Bourne Identity (2002). Apologies if you haven’t seen it; we’ll try to refrain from giving away too much. For a Scholarship Junkie, here’s what’s important to note about the story-telling in The Bourne Identity:
- The first scene shows a man floating face-down in a stormy body of water. A fishing boat spies his seemingly-lifeless body and hauls him aboard. On the boat, they discover that he has no identification and that he has bullets lodged in his back. When he suddenly awakes, he’s confronted with a strange fishing crew of which he has no memory, nor even his own name.
- The movie then switches back to a short period earlier and resumes the story-telling from there. By the end of the movie, your questions about the first scene are more or less answered.
The takeaways from this movie example, though, are that
- the viewer’s attention is immediately hooked when they see a bullet-riddled and lifeless body get hauled aboard a fishing boat in the middle of a stormy sea, and
- the questions about his situation and his subsequent inability to answer those questions in that moment provide the perfect segue to explaining the rest of the movie.
As such, use the tips listed above as much as you can in formulating the most compelling scholarship story you can share, but if you are ever in need of inspiration for capturing your reader’s attention, just think about your favorite movies and consider how they set up the story-telling. You just may find the right formula for you to write a scholarship-winning essay.