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Avoid Scholarship Rejection — Write a Winning Essay

Suzanne Shaffer


College is expensive and families are always looking for ways to pay for higher education. According to Sallie Mae’s 2021 How America Pays for College study, 72% relied on scholarships and grants. More than half of families (56%) used scholarships and half used grants (50%). Among families who relied on scholarships, 28% report using a state scholarship; another 29% used outside scholarships from companies or non-profits.

Why do we love scholarships and grants? Because unlike loans, this money does not need to be paid back. In case of institutional scholarships and grants that can be renewed each year, a student will have to fulfill requirements such as maintaining a certain GPA.

There are all types of scholarships available for students who need help paying for college. There are no-essay scholarships, scholarships based on your GPA alone, scholarships that only require a creative entry, scholarships based on a simple tweet, and even those that simply require a daily entry to win a sweepstakes. The bulk of outside scholarship opportunities, however, require an essay and in some cases letters of recommendation.

Scholarship judges know the importance of the essay when it’s a required part of the scholarship application. One judge told Monica Matthews, author of How to Win Scholarships, “The essay is very important unless the scholarship is awarded strictly on some other basis, such as financial need. The essay is the best way for the scholarship committee to hear your ‘voice’ and to get a sense of who you are — what are your interests, passions, hobbies, skills, goals and dreams.”

Another judge shared her experience reading essays stating, “There is no single factor more important to the judges than the scholarship essay. Since less than one percent of private scholarships include personal interviews, the essay is the only way an applicant can express themselves to the judges. Scholarship essays allow students to define themselves for the judges and target their audience.”

Knowing this and hoping to capitalize on some of that money awarded by companies and non-profits, your student should learn how to craft a winning scholarship essay and avoid rejection. Here are six steps to follow!

1. Know Your Audience

Knowing the background of the organization awarding the scholarship can help when writing the essay. Students should be able to find this information in the “About” section of the website. This information can help especially if the essay topic relates to the mission of the company or organization. Placing a few key elements or values that align with the student’s values and beliefs can be helpful when asking them to fund your student’s college education.

If the scholarship judge feels your student is simply applying for the scholarship without taking the time to learn about who they are and what they stand for, it’s likely their essay and application will end up on the rejection pile.

2. Draw the Reader in With a “Hook”

The point of the scholarship essay is for the judges to get to know your student. They want more information than the basics. The essay helps your student communicate their thoughts, feelings and opinions. The goal is to get the judges, who have read other essays, to want to read this one.

Students should begin their essay with a “hook,” drawing the reader into the essay. The essay should engage the reader in the first few sentences. Starting a scholarship essay with “I need this money because…” will not draw the reader in. Every student applying obviously needs the scholarship money. The judges want to get to know your student and the hook is the best way to entice them to read more.

3. Share Real-Life Experiences

The judges only know your student by the information they provide. Your student needs to create a descriptive picture by using real-life situations and heartfelt emotions. The essay should communicate who the student is on a deeper level and feel genuine and true.

Kathleen Kellogg, the Pride Foundation’s communication and outreach manager, helps read essays from applicants each year and says that the scholarship essays that stand out to her include "details that paint the picture of their lives." The most successful essays are "less about something you do and more about who you are as a person.”

4. Read Essays of Previous Winners

Reading the essays of previous scholarship winners will help your student get a feel for what type of essay the judges chose as winners. Many companies and organizations like to share the essays of previous winners and post them on the scholarship page on their website.

This is not an invitation to copy ideas or plagiarize the essays but a good way to determine if there is an overall trend or content in the winning essays to help your student better write their own.

If the organization doesn’t post past winners, your student can read some winning scholarship essays posted by the College Essay Guy.

5. Completely Answer the Essay Question

Essays should be on topic and completely answer the essay question. Avoid rambling, embellishing the truth, and repeating obvious information. Your student should be careful to answer the question that is asked.

A good way to test this is to give the essay to someone to read without them knowing the topic or essay question. After reading, ask if they can tell your student what the essay was supposed to be about or what was the original question. If the essay doesn’t answer the question or stay focused on the topic, there’s a good chance the application will be rejected.

6. Follow All Instructions and Proofread Before Submitting

Judges confess the greatest frustration in reading essays is when students either fail to follow the instructions or fail to proofread, missing grammatical errors and typos. Word count, formatting specifications, and other restrictions should be followed exactly. Proofreading is essential and should always be a part of the essay process.

Be careful to avoid filler to meet the required word count. Take the time to add good content if necessary or delete unnecessary content if the essay is too long. An essay that doesn’t meet the word count is an easy excuse for the judge to reject the entire application.

The scholarship essay is a way for the judge to get to know your student. When the essay draws them in from the beginning, shares personal experiences, and follows all the guidelines, their chances of winning will be greatly increased.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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