Be careful with sensitive political issues.

We almost didn’t include this tip, but it’s one that every applicant needs to hear. Unless the scholarship you’re applying for is sponsored by an explicitly liberal or conservative organization, you have almost no chance of winning if you write in a partisan way about controversial issues like abortion, affirmative action, the Iraq war or any other polarizing issues. Why not, you ask? Surely it takes guts and conviction to write such an essay, no?

Yes, it does. And let me be the first to say that I’ve got a ton of admiration for people, students and otherwise, who stick to their convictions and lay their neck out on the line with an unpopular opinion, regardless of who it might offend.

However, I didn’t write this book to tell you how to speak your mind. I wrote it to show you how to win money from a group of people who will sit in judgment of you and thousands of your peers (hey, we’re called judges for a reason). And I submit to you that essays about contentious issues usually don’t win.

More practically, consider this very basic truth: the more contentious the issue you choose to write about, the more likely it is that one or more committee members will completely disagree with you. Divisive issues divide, and in all likelihood, you’ve got no idea who’s even judging your scholarship application, let alone the personal and political beliefs of those people. But if a judge happens to hold beliefs that run counter to the ones in your essay, should that affect their judgment?

In a perfect world, absolutely not. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and if you happen to find one, email me and I’ll meet you there for margaritas for the rest of eternity. Remember Rule #2: Committee members are people just like you and me. They try to keep their emotions and personal beliefs out of their decisions, but it doesn’t always work.

Offend them with the content of your essay and you probably won’t win the scholarship. Again – I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s just how it is. It’s real life, it’s unfair, and that’s how it goes. Rather than pretending otherwise, I’m advising you to acknowledge this reality and go the safe route with safe topics when you have a choice.

Writing about hot-button, partisan issues is like serving veal as the main course at a banquet. Some people will love it, but others will scream and yell until you wish you’d just chosen the bland old chicken dish that everyone’s just lukewarm about. When it’s all said and done, you’ve got a better chance of winning the scholarship writing about chicken than about veal.

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