When you’re talking about your future plans, be specific, and speak in terms of how they’ll benefit others.

A rule of thumb in scholarship essays (and life, if you will) is that it’s better to be specific than to be general or vague. Society is accustomed to using vague labels for people and what they do: student, businessman, housewife, factory worker, etc. These labels are convenient for the normal conversations that fill our daily lives.

But your scholarship committee is a different audience. We want to know what’s different about you, and how you stand out from the millions of other people in this country alone who call themselves “students.” Even among those who have specific plans for their lives, there are big differences, and in a scholarship competition, it’s up to you to give the judges details about what you actually plan to be doing in the future, rather than just dropping a label on yourself. Let’s consider the example of students who aspire to be doctors.

If you tell the scholarship committee that you want to be a doctor, that sounds pretty good. If you say that you want to be a doctor who performs research that leads to new drugs to reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s, or that you want to work to improve dental health among inner-city children, or open a practice in the country in order to improve elderly care in under-served rural areas — that sounds exceptional.

The more specific you are, the more your essay is going to resonate with the committee, and it’s not hard to see why. Saying you want to be a doctor is nice, but it just doesn’t mean a lot unless you say why you want to be a doctor and what you’ll be doing once you’re in that career.

And now, on to the second part: It’s a good idea to talk about your future plans in terms of how you’ll be helping others. If you plan on becoming a teacher or a nurse or another job that’s strongly associated with community service, then this will be pretty easy; however, your future plans don’t have to be 100% charity work in order to do this effectively. Well-compensated professionals of all types are responsible for helping people in countless ways.

Of course, there’s an elephant in the room here that we need to acknowledge. For a great many people, the biggest (and sometimes only) reason for working toward a certain profession is the fat salary it promises. Many doctors and lawyers care less about helping people than having a Ferrari in the garage and a vacation house in the south of France. In that case, I say — more power to you, and I hope you get it all! (If you do, please remember little old Josh who helped you get there). But when it’s time to write about your career aspirations on your scholarship application, then you should lie.

Lie? Yes, lie. Remember again — this is not a book about morals and ethics. It’s a book about how to win. And in this case, honesty is not the best policy.

What’s wrong with expressing a desire to make a good honest buck? I mean, isn’t the desire to get rich at least part of the legendary American Dream? Yes indeed — I’m right there with you. But let’s have a practical moment here: Who’s reading these scholarship essays and deciding whether you should win?

You guessed it — mostly teachers and other education professionals. And as you know, teachers don’t exactly make boatloads of money. They gave up any dreams of big paychecks when they chose a more service-oriented, feel-good job. So a lust for money and material possessions is not going to resonate terribly well with these people.

Remember Rule #2: scholarship judges are normal people, and it’s normal to gravitate toward people whose interests are similar to your own. Therefore, we can assume that teachers will tend to empathize with students for whom wealth is secondary to service. If that doesn’t describe you, then do your best acting job, at least until you’re done with your application.

10 thoughts on “When you’re talking about your future plans, be specific, and speak in terms of how they’ll benefit others.”

  1. I’m still working my way through your website (and the college/scholarship process as a whole) but I wanted to say thank you for all the time and effort you’ve put into this valuable resource. And a special thank you on your advice on what to do if one’s career path is more profit-oriented than service-oriented. “Acting” is tough, but it’s nice to hear it from a reliable source.

    Thanks again.

  2. Hi again, Sarah. You’re very welcome, and I hope you find the site useful. I hope it helps you win some money! Come back with questions any time.


  3. It is quite a revealing point to me about lying to get something I really need.

    I hate that ‘…honesty,sometimes, is not the best policy’, BUT, hey!,this is today’s world, isn’t it?

  4. You’re right it is easy for someone who wants to be a doctor or a teacher to say how they plan to help others, but I’m majoring in Business Management and I’ll probably end up working in a cubical doing work that doesn’t involve people outside of the community at all. So any lies that I try to make up about improving my community are going to obviously be exaggerations. So what do you recommend?

  5. Diliara: You’re welcome! I hope you enjoy the site and that it helps you.

    Sammy: Yeah, I hate it, too, and that’s probably the most controversial point in the book. It’s true, though — sometimes you just have to make something up that sounds good.

    Anonymous: Well, things may not be as bad as you think. Yeah, biz management isn’t exactly the Peace Corps, but being a businessperson is nothing to be ashamed of. I’m a businessman, and that’s my opinion, anyway. Someone has to create the jobs that sustain everyone — especially in this economy. I think there aren’t many business who don’t involve the community and the outside world in some way — the interconnectedness of the business world has been on full display during the financial meltdown of the last few months.

    I would say that you probably don’t have to lie just because you want to go into business. What business do you want to go into, and why? If you’re looking for the moral high-road angle, there are plenty of business scandals going on right now associated with the meltdown (investment banks going belly up, credit default swaps, Bernie Madoff, the Big Three in Detroit, crooked mortgage brokers and lenders, an irresponsible Congress who dropped the ball on regulation and are passing the buck to others). As a judge, I’d be inclined to respect an application essay from someone who’d thoughtfully considered the subject and proposed different ways of doing business – or at least different ways of *thinking* about doing business — in light of the financial mess. Businesspeople may have played a large part in getting the world into the financial mess it’s in today, but they will also be the ones who get us out. It won’t be heavy-handed governments who care more about getting elected than actually fixing things, I’ll tell you that (and I’ll end there and leave my political biases out of this). 🙂 Anyway — so there’s plenty of future business heroes out there. Just tell us why and how you’re going to become one of them.

    Good luck to all of you!


  6. You said the candidates should show that wealth is secondary to service.. but what do you expect from the candidates??
    You said you are just like others who have the American Dreams..
    Don’t you think it will seems fake if the students say they would love to cantribute to the society rather than make money??
    If I want to be an accountant, how would I contribute to my community??
    Do you have any idea??
    However, you advice has help me a lot..

    Thank you

  7. Hi, My name us Azizbay I’m from Azerbaijan – Baku. Last year when I was writing essays I was trying to use the most rare words and synonims to make them more impressive but when I was giving it to my friends to read they could not understand it and in my opinion it was good I thought it made my essays special I thought that people (judges) who would read it are some scientists who would say: “Oh this guy is really smart” . But then I understood that “IT SUCKS” they will react just like my friends and throw my “SPECIAL” essay away. Girls, Boys never try that!!!

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