Now that you know how to think like a scholarship winner, it’s time to start writing like one. But we can’t just start writing, which is a big mistake I think some students make. Like anything important in life, you shouldn’t just jump head first into it. You need a plan.
As we learned in the previous article, you need to market yourself in a way that is conducive to the scholarship judges. So we need to learn how the judges are thinking, find what they are looking for, and emphasize those relevant qualities and experiences we have into our essays.
So how do we know what the judges are looking for?
Read the Scholarship Criteria Carefully
This should be obvious, but there are still students who don’t study this carefully enough. Most scholarships provide at least a few points or brief summary of the type of students they are looking for, both on the application form and on the website.
For example, the Loran Award states that their overall criteria are leadership, service, and character. In the application form, two of the three essays ask you to talk about a community service and leadership experience. As a result, most students just answer the questions normally, and hand in the application.
But hold on, there is a third criteria: character. In fact, the organization specifies the idea of “moral force of character”. What does this mean? If we do a bit of searching, we find a few character traits that are relevant: “honesty, integrity, courtesy, tolerance, maturity, and compassion”. Knowing this, we can then plan our essay to include specific experiences that emphasize some of these character traits, which is much superior to an essay which neglected them. These three criteria for the Loran Award were here for a reason, and ensuring that all three criteria were met in your essay answers is imperative.
So read the scholarship criteria carefully, and take advantage of all the information available. Make sure you address all of the criteria in your essays.
Read the Profiles of Past Winners
A lot of websites for scholarships post profiles of the recipients. By looking at which of the scholarship recipients’ experiences or qualities are highlighted, we can get a sense of the type of things the judges are looking for.
For example, I took a look at the profiles of the 2008 recipients for the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership and tried to look for some common terms. The three most common terms that I found among all of the recipients’ profiles were “create”, “founder”, “initiate”, and “start”: all terms that are essentially synonyms of the same concept. From this, it is easy to see that the TD Scholarship judges looks for students who have taken the initiative to turn an idea into a reality.
With this knowledge, we now know to focus our TD Scholarship essay on our experiences that involved us initiating or creating something, whether it be a youth group, conference on social justice, or an event that celebrates art in the community, etc. These essays are never long enough for us to tell our life stories, so it is important that we mention the right experiences that maximize our chances of being awarded.
Analyze the Essay Question: What is it Really Asking?
At this point, you should have a general idea of types of things the judges for your particular scholarship are looking for, and have a basic idea of which experiences / qualities from your life you wish to draw upon.
The next step is to analyze the particular essay question(s) you need to answer, and further narrow down which specific experiences and qualities are most important to use in each of your essays.
In general, most Canadian scholarships will ask for essays about the following two topics (or some alternatively worded form of it). Here we will analyze these common questions, what they really mean, and how to tackle them:
(1) Leadership: Describe an important leadership experience or important initiative you undertook. What were your successes and failures, and how did they affect your development as a leader?
Most scholarship essay questions on leadership tend to look a bit like the above question. Based on this type of question, and my experiences, it is my opinion that scholarship committees evaluate leadership essays on five major criteria. You generally want to address all of these things in your essay, whether the question explicitly asks for it or not:
- The extent of the leadership experience and degree of accomplishment. Essentially, what were the results? Looking at the actual accomplishment is an easy way (though not necessarily accurate) to measure the success of your leadership. For example, a youth group that has a 100 members sounds a lot better than a youth group with 10 members. It shows that you can organize large numbers, are a strong motivator for your peers, etc. Don’t be afraid to be passionate about your accomplishment (but in a non –arrogant way of course). If you’ve done a lot, say so in detail!
- Why you got involved in the leadership experience: What was your inspiration and how did it make you feel? This is a very important aspect that I feel is the most neglected. Scholarship judges want real students with real feelings and experiences. Sharing your initial inspiration and how it made you feel is crucial. It shows that you are sincere and real. It shows you are passionate. If your inspiration made you cry, angry, frustrated or upset, and it ultimately made you get involved – say so!
- What obstacles did you face? How did you overcome them? Everyone loves a story of the hero overcoming obstacles and achieving victory at the end. You will see this all the time in the best movies and novels. Why? Because it is inspirational. And inspirational stories make anyone reading (in particular, the judges!) want to help you succeed. It shows that you are so passionate about your experience that you were willing to persevere and continue pressing forward despite adversity. This shows that you are genuine about your cause. It also shows that you are able to adapt to new situations, and that you don’t give up. All of these are qualities of a great leader.
- What did you learn? How did these lessons affect you as a leader? No one is born a leader, and no one ever stops growing as a leader. Every experience brings new lessons, and the best leaders are humble and realize this. Being able to recognize that you’ve learned about leadership in your experience shows that you are an active learner, and are cognizant of what’s going on around you. What did you learn about motivation? Leading by example? Communication? Teamwork? Integrity? Vision? These are all qualities of a leader that you learn and improve on by experience. And as such, you want to make it clear that you have gained these qualities through your experience.
By speaking about these lessons, it shows that you have truly reflected on your experiences. And in particular, it shows that you understand what leadership is. Leadership isn’t about the title of “President” or “Captain” or “Executive Director”, and the judges want to see that you know that. The judges want to know how your experience has changed and improved you as a person and as a leader.
- What does this mean for the future? So you’ve done some amazing things as a leader and learned a lot – but what’s next? A scholarship isn’t an award – it’s an investment in your future. Scholarship judges want to invest in students who will continue developing as leaders and applying what they’ve learned. If you the initiative you started is continuing, or you plan on continuing being involved in your particular activity in the future, it really helps to tell them. Nothings says more about you and your genuine interest in your experiences than the fact that you will continue to stay involved.
(2) Volunteering / Community Service: Describe your most important contribution to your school or community. Why was it meaningful for you and your community?
For students who are involved in a lot of community leadership activities, it might be easy to fall into the trap of answering it like the leadership essay. But be aware, the two types of essay questions are often asked separately for a reason. The leadership essay is about leadership: the skills you learned, how it has affected your growth, and what you will do with those skills in the future. The community essay is about community service: why the community needed it and how you fulfilled that need, that you learned the value of service, and (I guess a theme that is common to both) what you learned along the way. I highly suggest you address the following four criteria in your community essay:
- This is an activity you dedicated a fair amount of time to. The scholarship judges are looking for students who made a fairly long commitment to a community activity. To say that your one month stint at the local hospital was your most important contribution to your community seems a bit farfetched, and suggests you did not have anything more meaningful to mention. Not to say that one month or less at a certain community service is not meaningful (because that is not true whatsoever!): my point is more geared towards how your essay will be received. From the perspective of the scholarship committee, if one month appears to be your longest commitment, your story simply isn’t very convincing. Between two activities you could talk about, I would almost always choose to mention your activity that you had a significantly longer dedication to.
- Why was it important to you? Whether it be a specific moment that got you involved and/or something personal you gained while being involved, it is important for you to share why it is important that you continue to be involved in this community service activity. Having a genuine reason (that makes sense!) for why you remain involved in the activity goes a long way to building a convincing essay. It might be hard for you to figure this out initially, but that’s okay – set some time to really think about why you are doing these great things you do, and brainstorm ways to put it into words. It might be the simple joy you get from helping others, the excitement of trying something new, or the opportunity to form relationships with others. There are many reasons why there is value in community service, and everyone’s reasons are all true and admirable.
- Why was it important to the community? Simply put, what would happen to your community if you didn’t do what you do? Servant leadership is all about using your leadership skills to help those in need. Being able to respond to those in need in your community is a true sign of altruism, and proof that you have a higher level of observation and willingness to act. It’s admirable for anyone to provide help to others, but it’s even more impressive to see that you recognize the real needs in your communities and do something about it.
Imagine you are a scholarship committee and there are two candidates. Candidate 1 has collected 10,000 cans of food for a local food bank that is already brimming with donations. Candidate 2 has raised $1,000.00 for a forgotten homeless youth shelter that is in terrible shape. Both candidates have done amazing and truly admirable things. But which of the two candidates has really thought about the needs of their communities and acted upon it?
- Do you really understand the value of community service? It’s unfortunate that a lot of students simply see community service as a hoop they have to jump through. Or as a bullet point on their resume or student application. To be fair, I was also in that mind set early in high school. But as I got older and more involved in the community, I realized how valuable it is. In my honest opinion, I feel that the education I received through my involvement in the community was more important than my formal education.
Almost everything I have learned in school I could have learned from a text book. Conversely, you can’t learn leadership, communication, team work, conflict resolution, and a myriad of other skills from a text book. These are things you have to experience, and you don’t really experience these on a deeper level in school. Not to say that school isn’t important, but just to illustrate that your education outside of school is just as, if not more, important.
Sharing what community service has taught you and how it helped you develop demonstrates that you have truly gained from community service, and suggests you will continue doing it, whether in the same or different forms. It shows that you realize that by giving, you end up receiving more in the end.
Theme-Specific Scholarship Essays
Some of the scholarship essays you will write may be “theme-specific”. For example, an environmental scholarship might ask you about your most important environmental contribution. Maybe the multiculturalism scholarship wants you to describe your most meaningful contribution to the promotion of cultural diversity.
Just realize that these are simply alternative forms of the two major topics of leadership and volunteerism we discussed above. The only difference is that the activities you choose to answer the essay questions will need to also fit the bill of the theme at hand. All of the other areas you should address remain the same.
A Check List of Scholarship Themes
The following is just a list of important themes and character traits that you should try and highlight about yourself in most scholarship essays. I’m not saying you need to cover all of these (decide what is appropriate for the specific essay), but most strong scholarship essays will cover a combination of these. We have already discussed many of these themes, so most of these will be familiar:
- Overcoming obstacles
- Long-term / Future
Time to Begin Outlining Your Essay
At this point, you should have a pretty clear idea of which specific experiences, stories, ideas, and lessons you want to mention for each of your scholarship essay questions. Brainstorm and write those down on paper.
Now it’s time to develop an outline for your essay that incorporates all of these things you’ve written down. Not saying this is what it has to look like, but if you’re having writer’s block, a basic type of outline could be:
- Introduction: Your story about how you first got involved in the leadership/community activity.
- Body: A description of your efforts in the activity, the results of the activity, the lessons learned, proof that you understand what leadership means / you understand the value of the community activity, etc.
- Conclusion: How will this experience affect you in the future? Will you be continuing to do this? What’s next? What final thoughts can you take away from this?
At this point, simply organizing bullet points in order for each section of the outline is great. Even just topic sentences or the main ideas are good enough for now.
Feel free to be creative with your outline, but just remember that clear and concise is much better than ambiguous and creative. You don’t want to confuse the judges.
You can now begin writing out the actual essay if you like, though I suggest you first read Part 3 of this series, which will help you figure out how to word and write your essay.
Remember, how you write it is as important as what you write!
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Read the other parts of the How to Write a Winning Scholarship Essay series here: