what to write about

Don’t trash-talk the scholarship committee.

Back when our scholarship committee was switching our scholarship over from postal mail to e-mail, I made a joke on one of our websites about the U.S. Postal Service. I know, I know – you’re thinking, “That’s impossible! How could you possibly find something negative to say about the U.S. Postal Service?” I don’t remember …

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Don’t write or ask the committee or granting institution for advice on how to write your essay.

About once a day, someone calls our office asking about our scholarships. “What do you mean by this question?” they ask. “How should I write this? What are you looking for me to say here?” The answer is always the same: Write it however you like. The company or institution giving the scholarship is going …

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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 …

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Avoid references to perfection.

Some of the most tired, overused phrases we see in essays is that of “striving for perfection,” “perfecting my skills,” etc. Leave perfection alone – you’re never going to achieve it. No one ever does. And even if they did, no one would recognize it. This may seem like nitpicking, but there’s already too much …

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Common high school activities: Don’t talk solely about participation in them.

This is an important tip that you’ll rarely hear, but it’s true. Common, high school activities are not going to set your essay apart from the competition. The Internet has opened scholarship opportunities up to thousands of applicants who wouldn’t have been there 10 years ago. And that means the less unique your essay is, …

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Don’t be preachy.

Scholarship essays are certainly about self-expression, and lots of applications ask open-ended questions about how you, the forward-thinking leader of tomorrow, might solve today’s problems. That gives you full license to come out with your ideas on how to change things, and in so doing, you’ll probably find yourself pointing out the flaws of society …

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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 …

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Don’t dwell on your GPA – it’s not a point of distinction.

Nothing angers the high-ranking students (and their teachers) more than this one, but Uncle Josh has some bad news for you, and you’re not going to like it. However, you do need to accept it because it’s true, and I know it’s true because I write the scholarship checks and your teachers don’t. Are you …

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Don’t forget what you do out of school.

This is closely related to the above item about family responsibilities, but a little different. Here, we don’t mean taking care of your family or working to do so; rather, we’re talking about outside interests of any kind. Maybe you’re interested in cars or nature or the environment or politics — something they don’t have …

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Don’t draw attention to your negatives; instead, don’t refer to them at all.

Have I mentioned that scholarship applications are the place to put your Best Foot Forward? Sure I have. They are the pre-college equivalent of a job interview. Usually there’s one scholarship available and lots of applicants, just as there’s one job opening and lots of applicants. Your job is to convince the people doing the …

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Don’t assume the committee knows your subject of interest as well as you do.

You may have deep, intricate knowledge of a particular subject. Maybe it’s current environmental issues, maybe it’s international news, or maybe it’s baseball. You may be tempted to demonstrate your specialized knowledge in a scholarship essay, but be careful. The committee may be old and wise, but they still may not have anywhere near the …

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If you mention a hardship, be sure it’s really a hardship.

If your parents were killed when you were a baby and you were raised in an orphanage, that’s a unique hardship. If you were raised in suburbia and had to share your 2,600 square-foot house with three raucous brothers, that’s not. If you had to get a job at age 8 to help your family …

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If you mention a hardship, say you don’t want special treatment (even if you really do).

Those who read scholarship essays and choose winners know this: there’s a fine line between a story of a person overcoming a hardship and a “sob story.” We think one of the differentiating factors is when the writer, either directly or indirectly, suggests that they do not want special treatment or consideration because of their …

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Use creativity in your writing, but not your format.

There are people out there, lots of them, in all fields and walks of life, who will give you a great many variations on this theme: If you want to stand out in life (or break through certain barriers, or win the big contest, or get that big job, etc.), then you’ve got to be …

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Have you done something unique? Bring it up!

If there’s one theme of this book, it’s that scholarship applications these days are beset with sameness. By and large, there are tons of kids who sound exactly the same writing the same old stuff and claiming the same achievements. That’s a little depressing, so let’s turn it around: Uniqueness wins scholarships. Are you an …

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Discuss your social organizations in terms of the service work they do.

This is more applicable to college students than high school students, since there’s really no high school equivalent of the Greek system of social fraternities and sororities. Simply put, social fraternities and sororities are primarily social organizations, but they also do a lot of charity work. Socializing is fine and dandy — everyone needs to …

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Committees like stories of overcoming adversity.

Scholarship essays are as unique and varied as the people who write them, and the winning essays even more so. But if there’s a common theme that judges seem to like (and seem likely to throw money at), it’s the theme of someone overcoming adversity in order to succeed in the end. Doesn’t everyone like …

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Committees like it when you’ve helped people.

Maybe it’s just human nature, but it does seem like most scholarships end up going to those students who, whether through school, a job, or work outside the classroom, spend time helping other people. Sure, it’s still possible to win plenty of scholarships if you don’t volunteer, but just take a look at the scholarship …

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Committees like passion about something, anything.

If you’re not passionate about your subject, it’ll show through in your writing. Passion brings the best writing out of you and those competing with you for the scholarship money. Therefore, if you have the choice, it’s best to write about something that you feel strongly about. Your most compelling writing will follow. There are …

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Avoid emphasizing commodity accomplishments.

We call things like honor roll and, for college students, the dean’s list, “commodity accomplishments.” We don’t mean to discourage them – we were on them when we were students – but they’re commodities. They’re a dime a dozen. As mentioned earlier in our previous statements about GPA, nearly everyone who applies for our scholarships …

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What to write about? Ask friends what’s impressive about you.

How do you know what to write about on a scholarship essay? If you’re the shy type who doesn’t know how to blow your own horn, then you’re going to find the scholarship application process painful, and especially so when you find out you didn’t win any scholarships because you were too timid to tell …

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