Hayley Capp, winner of the 2013 QS Leadership Scholarship, shares her top tips on how to write a winning scholarship application essay.
There is no one way to write a winning scholarship application. If you gathered together all the scholarship entries that have ever won a prize, you would find it difficult to identify what made them the same. Each would offer a distinctive style employed by the author; a unique insight into his or her past, present and future aspirations.
This uniqueness is the key, and the first point to remember when you pick up your pen to write. Make your scholarship application essay exclusive to you, personalize it, delve deep into your passion and drive to study your subject, and create a response that could only ever relate to you. It is this individuality that stands out, and that’s exactly what catches a judge’s eye and defines a winner.
I won the 2013 QS Leadership Scholarship, so will base my guidance on my own thought process when shaping my application essay. However, the basic principles that I highlight with this example can be extracted and applied to other scholarship essay writing processes.
1. Read and re-read the essay statement you are being asked to respond to, and identify the key themes.
From my own example, the essay statement was: ‘Where I have demonstrated responsible leadership, or innovation, and how it made a difference either in my community or in my work’. I identified the key themes as ‘leadership’ and ‘community impact’.
2. Understand the meaning of the key themes.
After identifying the key themes, it is important to understand what each of these ideas really means, beyond the initial level. For instance, I acknowledged that the meaning of ‘leadership’ involved identifying the effects my leadership had – the actions taken and results achieved under my leadership – and not simply describing the position I held and my responsibilities. The more depth you bring to your understanding of the meaning of each theme, the more examples you will be able to identify to demonstrate your abilities.
3. Fill your scholarship essay with keywords/synonyms of keywords used in the scholarship statement.
Using the keywords from the scholarship statement throughout your essay will demonstrate your commitment to addressing the question being asked. For instance, I made a special effort to ensure references to ‘leadership’; ‘innovation’ and ‘impacting communities’ ran throughout my essay.
4. Make an engaging start to your essay.
If you are struggling to start your scholarship application essay, why not include a quote or statement that relates to your intended course, and which you can later link to the main body of your text. Showing wider knowledge and aptitude for your subject will help convince the judges that it is a worthwhile investment to support you in your chosen course.
5. Understand the criteria used by the scholarship committee to evaluate application essays.
Based on my own experience, I have outlined what I believe to be the key criteria used by scholarship committee judges for evaluating scholarship application essays on the themes of leadership and community impact. My advice would be to address all of these areas in your essay, whether the question explicitly asks for it or not.
What to include in scholarship essays about leadership:
- The extent of the leadership experience and degree of accomplishment. What were the results? Did you manage to grow a society from 10 to 100 members through your tenure?
- Why you got involved in the leadership experience. What was your initial inspiration and how did the experience make you feel? This is a very important aspect as it allows you to show your sincerity and demonstrates your passion.
- What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them? Inspirational stories of perseverance despite adversity make readers (especially judges) want to help you succeed. It also shows that you have great leadership qualities: the ability to adapt to new situations and the determination to not give up.
- What did you learn?How did these lessons shape you as a leader? Every experience brings new lessons and personal growth opportunities and the best leaders are humble and realize this. Speaking about these lessons indicates that you have truly reflected on your experiences and that you understand what leadership is. (In other words, you know that leadership isn’t just about getting a title like “President” or “Executive Director”.)
- What does this mean for the future? A scholarship isn’t just an award; it’s an investment in your future. So if you plan to continue being involved in your particular leadership activity in the future, tell the judges.
What to include in scholarship essays about community impact:
- How much time did you dedicate to the activity? The scholarship committee is likely to be looking for applicants who made a fairly long commitment to a community activity.
- Why was it important to you? Joy from helping others? Excitement of trying something new? Opportunity to form relationships with others? Having a genuine reason helps build a convincing essay.
- Why was it important to the community? Ask the question: What would be different for your community if you didn’t do what you do? It is most important to show that you recognize the real needs in your communities, and act to address these.
- What did you gain yourself through giving to the community? It is important to show that you understand how through giving, you end up receiving more in the end. Sharing what community service has taught you and how it helped you develop demonstrates that you have truly gained from your participation and suggests you will continue doing so in the future.
My final point of advice when writing your scholarship application essay or cover letter is to really show that you know who you are. What are the relevant past and present experiences that demonstrate your abilities and where are you headed? Use carefully selected language to emphasize your passion, ambition and enthusiasm and remember to adopt a positive mindset, in which you believe in all the great things you have done and plan to continue achieving in the future. If you don’t believe in yourself, why would the judges?
You can browse our various scholarship listings here, and QS also offers its own scholarships. Also, you can download our free guide for more advice on how to find scholarships to study abroad.
Hayley Capp is the winner of the 2013 QS Leadership Scholarship. Covering up to US$10,000 of course fees for a graduate program, the scholarship is awarded to the applicant best able to demonstrate his/her ability to use entrepreneurial and leadership skills to make a positive impact on a community.
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Eight Steps Towards a Better Scholarship Essay
Writing a scholarship essay can be very difficult – especially if you want to do it well. Your essay will need to wow the reader, and speak directly to the goals of that organization, as well as the objectives of that award. If done properly, you will very rarely be able to submit the same application to multiple awards – it is not a one-size-fits-all; most essays will need to be tweaked or completely altered to show the reader that you are deserving of the award above and beyond any of the other participant who also applied.
Read on to find eight steps to help you write a better scholarship essay so that you can get the money you need to fund your international education.
Step 1: Read the Essay Prompt Thoroughly
Many schools and other organizations that give out scholarships will give you a "prompt" or a question which the essay is supposed to address. Read the question or prompt carefully and try to "read between the lines." For example, the prompt you are to answer might be, "Describe a book that made a lasting impression on you and your life and why?" Ask yourself, "Are they really interested in my literary preferences or is there something more to this question?" More than likely, they want to get a better idea of who you are—not only what types of books you like but also what motivates you and what sorts of stories or topics interest you. They may also be interested in getting a sense for how promising a student you are based on the type of book you choose and what you have to say about it.
Tip: Always keep in mind that any scholarship essay question, no matter the topic, should demonstrate your interests, your background, and most importantly, highlight the experiences you've had that fit with the goals and mission of the funding organization.
Instead of being given a prompt, you might be asked to write an essay on the topic of your choosing. Although challenging, this is also an opportunity to demonstrate your creativity. Finally, if anything about the directions aren't clear, don't be afraid to contact someone at the funding organization and ask for clarification.
Step 2: Make a List of Important Points and Keywords to Include
Looking for sample essays?
Check out our Sample Essay section where you can see scholarship essays, admissions essays, and more!
Regardless of the essay prompt, you will want to make sure to include the important and relevant information about your experiences and background that makes you an ideal candidate for the scholarship award. To complete this step, it can be helpful to first research the organization to which you're applying and try to find their mission statement on their website. Circle a few key words from the mission statement and make sure to include those buzzwords in your essay.
Scholarship committees are not only looking for good students, they are often looking for a person that fits their organizational goals. You should gather your other application materials such as transcripts and resumes so you can review your qualifications as well as make note of what is missing in these materials that needs to be included in the essay.
For example, if you're applying for a general academic scholarship, you might want to talk about a specific class you took that really piqued your interest or inspired your current academic and career goals. The committee will see the list of the classes that you took on your transcript but they won't know how a particular class inspired you unless you tell them. The essay is the best place to do this. Your list of important points to make might also include:
- Any academic awards or other honors you've won.
- Any AP or college-level courses you took in high school.
- Any outside courses, internships, or other academic experiences that won't necessarily appear on your transcript.
- Why your experience and the mission of the funding organization match.
- What you plan to major in during college and how you think that major will be useful to your future career goals.
- Any special training or knowledge you have, or a project you completed in school or as an extracurricular activity.
- An example of how you overcame a challenge.
- Your financial circumstances that makes it necessary for you to finance your studies through scholarship money.
The challenge now is to integrate those points that you want the committee to know with an essay that answers the prompt. You can see our example scholarship essays to get a better idea of how to do this.
Step 3: Write an Outline or a Rough Draft
Not everyone likes to make an outline before they begin writing, but in this case it can be very helpful. You can start with your list of important points to begin writing the outline. For many, telling a story is the easiest and most effective way to write a scholarship essay. You can tell the story of how you found your favorite book, and how it has changed and inspired you. Start with large headings in your outline that describes the basic storyline. For example:
- High school composition teacher recommended book
- Read it over one weekend
- Made me see the world around me differently
- Inspired me to pursue a career in social justice
Now you can start filling in the subheadings with points from your previous list:
- High school composition teacher recommended book
- Favorite class in high school
- Class opened my eyes to new ways of thinking
- Teacher noticed my enthusiasm—recommended outside reading
- Read it over one weekend
- Was the first time I was so drawn in by a book, I read it very quickly
- I realized my academic potential beyond getting good grades
- Made me see the world around me differently
- Started to look for jobs in social justice
- Interned for a summer at a law firm doing pro bono work for the poor
- This was a big challenge because I realized you can't help everyone and resources are limited
- Overcame this challenge by knowing that small change can be big, and working hard in a field you are passionate about will inspire you everyday
- Inspired me to pursue a career in social justice
- The book is a constant source of inspiration and will keep me motivated as I pursue my career
- The book will always remind me how people with limited financial resources can still make a huge difference in others' lives
Step 4: Write a Strong Statement that Summarizes Your Points
You will want to include one strong thesis statement that summarizes all the major points you will make in your essay. It is often easy to start writing with this simple statement. Your essay doesn't have to begin or end with the thesis statement, but it should appear somewhere in order to tie all the individual sections together.
For example, your thesis statement might be, "You will find that various experiences from both my academic career and my personal life align very well with your organization's mission: shaping community leaders who are working towards a more just and sustainable world." Starting with this sentence can help you organize your thoughts and main points, and provide you with a direction for your essay. When you've finished your essay, be sure to reflect back on your thesis statement and ask yourself, "Does this essay further explain and support my thesis statement?"
Step 5: Fill in the Missing Parts
Now that you have a thesis statement, an outline, and a list of important points to include, you can begin to fill in the missing parts of your story. The first sentence is particularly important: it should capture the attention of the reader, and motivate him or her to continue reading. We recommend starting your story by painting a vivid picture of an experience about which you will be talking in the essay.
For example: "It is 6 am on a hot day in July, I've already showered and I'm eating breakfast. My classmates are all sleeping in and the sun has yet to awaken, but I'm ready to seize the day, as I couldn't imagine spending my summer any other way but interning at a local law firm that specializes in representing the poor. I work a typical 8-5 day during my summer vacation and nothing has made me happier. But I wouldn't be here if it weren't for one particularly savvy teacher and a little book she gave me to read outside of class."
Step 6: Rewrite, Revise, Rewrite
A good writer rewrites and revises his or her work many, many times. After getting a first draft on paper, take a day or two away from the essay and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Make appropriate edits for content, and pay attention to proper spelling and grammar. If need be, you might want to write an entirely new draft and then integrate the best of both into a final draft. Writing a new draft can inspire you to think of new ideas or a better way to tell your story. Some other tips to think about as you rewrite and revise:
- Make sure it sounds like your voice. You want the scholarship committee to feel like they are getting to know you. If you don't sound authentic, the committee will know. It is better to be yourself than to say what you think the committee wants to hear.
- Strike a balance between modesty and arrogance. You should be proud of your accomplishments, but you don't want to sound arrogant. Don't exaggerate a story; instead be clear about what you did and the impact it had and let that speak for itself.
- Check to make sure you are answering the prompt and fulfilling all other requirements of the essay as directed by the committee, such as font preference and word count limits.
- Don't just list your accomplishments; describe them in detail and also tell the reader how you felt during these experiences.
- A scholarship essay is not a dissertation. You don't need to impress the committee with big words, especially if you're not completely clear if you're using them correctly. Simplicity and clarity should be the goals.
- Make sure your essay will be read from the beginning to the end. Committee members won't dedicate much time to reading the essay, so you need to make sure they are given motivation to read the entire thing. If you are telling a story, don't reveal the end of the story until the end.
- Check to make sure the buzzwords from the mission statement appear. It is easy to forget the scholarship committee's goals as you write. Return to their mission statement and look for spots to place keywords from the statement. Be sure, however, that you're not copying the mission statement word-for-word.
Step 7: Have someone else read your essay
Ideally, you could give your essay to a teacher or college admissions counselor who is familiar with scholarship essays and the college admission process. If such a person is not available, virtually anyone with good reading and writing skills can help make your essay better. When your editor is done reading and you've looked over his or her notes, be sure to ask the following questions:
- Was the story interesting and did it hold your attention?
- Were there any parts that were confusing?
- Did you find any spelling or grammar errors?
- Does the essay sound like my voice?
- Does the essay respond appropriately to the prompt?
- Is there anything you would have done differently or something you thought was missing?
After having an editor (or two or three) look over your draft, it is time again to revise and rewrite.
Step 8: Refine the Final Draft
Once you feel satisfied with the draft, review it one more time and pay particular attention to structure, spelling, grammar, and whether you fulfilled all the required points dictated by the committee. If you are over the required word count, you will need to make edits so that you are within the limit. If you are significantly under the word count, consider adding a supporting paragraph.
Essay Writing Center
Misconception: No one actually reads your scholarship essay! – Wrong!
Fact: Your essay is the key to your scholarship application. It is an opportunity to demonstrate to the selection committee that you are a well-rounded individual, that you are more than your GPA, that you are a strong writer, and it gives you a chance to talk about your experiences and qualifications in greater detail than what appears on your resume or transcripts.