Recently, Wow Writing Workshop judged a local scholarship essay contest. The prize: a small cash reward for college, the opportunity to win more prizes at the regional and national levels – and bragging rights that might help the winner get even more cash to help defray the cost of tuition.
We’ve judged many contests just like this one, and we are perplexed by the quality of the essays every time. Many are uninspiring and don’t make us want to read beyond the first line.
You might not agree with our assessment; perhaps we seem too harsh. But we are your audience; we help select the winners. So what we think matters.
Our task is to find out who you are and why you deserve this money.
There is a lot of cash out there – to the tune of about $3.4 billion. There’s also great competition, so you are going to need to work hard if you want to stand out from the crowd and secure scholarship dollars.
How can you wow us and other judges? Start by taking the same advice we give our college application essay students. Respond to the prompt by telling a story about yourself in your own words and your own voice. This is not a literary essay; no one expects the work of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. We just want to get to know you.
Wow’s 7 Tips for Writing Outstanding Scholarship Essays:
- Answer the question. If you cannot respond to the prompt, you should not be applying for the cash. Ask yourself, “Do I qualify for this scholarship?” If not, find another one.
- Share a specific story. Instead of writing, “I feel connected to the community,” describe a specific experience. Tell us about the time you marched in your city’s Memorial Day parade or your relationship with your elderly next-door neighbor.
- Set yourself apart. If you write scholarship essays in your language arts class, make sure your story sounds different from the student sitting next to you. Sometimes we can identify essays by school or class because the examples and structure are so similar.
- Use your own words and your own voice. Some of the best essays are written in the simplest language. You should sound like yourself. You don’t need to be the finest writer in your school to stand out.
- Know your audience. The essay reader probably has a stack of applications similar to yours sitting on her desk. How do you want to be remembered?
- Keep it short. Unless you are asked to write 1,000 words, 250 to 600 will always do.
- Plan ahead. Leave enough time to dot every i and cross every t. Mistakes matter. When you think you are done, proofread your work; proof it again; have someone else read it; and then review the essay one last time before you send it in.
Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches college-bound students and graduate students how to write college admissions essays, personal statements and scholarship essays; Wow offers Wow Online – College Essay, the first self-guided online tutorial for writing college essays. For information on these and other services, go to Wow Writing Workshop or call 800-497-WRITE.