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How To Write A Winning Scholarship Essay Part 2

Co-authored by Renae Hintze

College is expensive, but what if I told you that you could make up to $500 per hour in high school to offset the cost!?

Amidst your student’s busy life of after-school sports, school dances, sleepovers, and more…college is on the horizon. And it’s an expensive horizon.

While there ARE 11+ billion dollars in merit based scholarships out there that will actually pay for your student’s good grades and high tests scores, why miss out on the opportunity to get a piece of the 2+ billion dollar private based scholarship pie that are awarded based off essays?

These 10 steps + your application = BIG SCHOLARSHIP MONEY! So let’s go for it. Here’s how to write a winning scholarship essay in 10 steps.

Step #1: Get an Early Start

My essay isn’t due for 3 weeks, why would I start it now? 

Ah-HAH! I see you there, you last-minuter you. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to. And I’m telling you, DON’T PUT IT OFF.

If it helps, here’s an example of what can happen when you procrastinate. Here is one ASU student’s story:

“Once upon a time I took a class that worked with Photoshop. I had a project where I had to create a fake CD cover for myself. I put it off until the last day and I finished it the night before it was due and went to bed — that’s right, the project was DONE. And it was BEAUTIFUL.

My class was at 7:30 am the next morning (A little slice of college for ya) and I hadn’t printed it out yet. And here comes the lesson in timing: My printer broke. The short version of this is that I ran around the entire college campus trying to find a printer at 6:00 am in the morning to no avail.

My finished project received a non-negotiable 0.”

Soooo 2 things here:

  1. NEVER trust a printer to print when you’re in a rush
  2. But most importantly, mistakes happen when you wait till the last minute.

That being said, I recommend you follow a 3-week timeline for writing your scholarship essay.

Step #2: Read ALL of the Instructions

You may write a scholarship essay equivalent to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but if you didn’t follow the instructions, you’re not getting that scholarship. So remember: FORMAT MATTERS.

Here’s what I suggest — don’t just read the instructions… read them twice. Print them out and highlight important things to remember. 

Not winning an essay contest based on the sole fact that your essay didn’t follow directions just stinks. Don’t do it to yourself.

If the format isn’t specified, play it safe this way:

  • Double-space
  • Use Times New Roman
  • Use 12 pt font
  • Have one-inch margins all around
  • Write 2-3 pages

Step #3: Know your Audience

What do I mean by your audience? 

I mean the people you’re talking to in your essay. The people who will decide whether or not they want to give you their scholarship!

Here’s the thing. You want to be genuine about yourself and your passions, but AT THE SAME TIME, you want to make sure that what you DO share about yourself in your scholarship essay is something that your reader would be interested in. 

How do I learn what’s important to someone?

You need to research your audience and find out what they value.

Let’s look at an example. Say Nike offers a scholarship to the winner of an essay contest:

You can see that Response #1 does a good job of answering the prompt, but doesn’t really relate directly to Nike. Nike is an athletic company with the motto “Just do it.” They encourage their customers to push their limits in the athletic world.

Overcoming a fear (heights) that is central to who you are through a challenging sport (rock climbing) is something that directly relates to Nike’s values.

Where can you find that information??  It’s simple:

  1. Look up their website and take the time to review it. Focus on the about us page to get a solid idea of what they do and stand for.
  2. After you have a good idea of who they are, find their contact information and give them a phone call stating the following:

What will this phone call achieve?

  1. You will learn more about your audience. This allows you to tailor your scholarship essay specifically to what the company stands for. (Remember the Nike example?)
  2. Stand out by building a relationship with someone on the scholarship committee.

#2 brings me to my next point!

Step #4: Talk to someone who is part of the scholarship committee.

Now this is not always 100% possible. Some scholarships have rules that won’t allow you to talk to anyone on the scholarship committee.

If this is the case, skip this step and just talk to someone within the organization that helps you get a better idea of the company’s mission and values. With that said I always recommend at least trying!

If you do get a hold of someone, here are some important steps to follow:

Listen for Conversational Hooks

Conversational hooks are words or phrases said within a conversation that allows you to expand on the other person’s interest, providing a more in-depth conversation that builds rapport and trust.

Expand on the Conversational Hooks

If you listened for those conversational hooks you will be able to expand that conversation further in several directions. Try and hit as many conversational hooks with your response so it allows them several responses!

“Wow I love fitness as well! I actually am on the track and field team in my high school. As the team captain I really try to help my teammates and inspire them to be better athletes as well. What do you do to maintain your fitness and how do you inspire people and help athletes within the company?”

See what this does?

  1. It shows that you relate which builds rapport and trust with the scholarship committee member.
  2. It get the scholarship committee member excited to talk to you because EVERYONE LOVES TO TALK ABOUT THEMSELVES!

Keep the Conversation Going Until They Say They Have To Go!

Keep listening for those hooks, expand on them, and build that relationship!

The longer you can remain on the  phone with them talking about THEIR INTEREST, LIFE, AMBITITIONS, AND JOB the more you will be able to relate back to them. This makes you stand out to them when you submit your essay.

Almost done.

Write them an email or (better yet) send them a “Thank you” card thanking them for their time.

Gratitude can go a long way. Wait 24 hours and send them an email thanking them for taking the time out of their busy day to speak to you. Make sure to include something from the conversation that you two really connected on.

OR if you have their address, send them a handwritten card!

You now not only know your audience but have someone in the scholarship committee that is probably rooting for you!

Step #5: Brainstorm Ideas

Ideas don’t always come naturally. In fact, often times when we NEED a really great idea to come to us, this is when we draw a blank. Save time staring at your paper by using a version of brainstorming called “mind-mapping”.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Write the name of your scholarship at the top.
  2. Write down everything that comes to mind about it — this includes the person/organization giving the scholarship, what they do, what they are asking for, what YOU do, what YOU like, etc.

I made an example for you here, with the “L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Scholarship”,  a scholarship that asks students to write a short science fiction novel.

See how I connect different thoughts by drawing lines between them?

Your mind-map can be much bigger than this. But you can see now that I might choose to write my novel on a pilot traveling across the ocean, who is saved by pirates after his plane is taken down by a giant squid…where he meets a clone of himself!

Pretty exciting stuff, right?

Step #6: Pick a Topic You Care About

Scholarship essays are all about the person behind the essay.You want your readers to FEEL your passion about whatever it is you choose to write. And, they want to find someone who is passionate about the same things they are.

But be careful. Your essay is not a sales pitch. You need to be genuine about what you say, and this is why you need to care about the topic you choose. It will also make it easier to write!

Step #7: Create an Outline

This is something you need to do BEFORE you write the essay. And if you do, it will make writing the essay go faster!

I’ve created an example outline for you here. It shows you how you should think about structuring your scholarship essay.

Here also are some great scholarship essay examples from International Student that you can check out!

Step #8: Tell a Story

Tell a story? They want me to write them a book? 

No, but they don’t want you to write a resume either! People who review essays for scholarships go through hundreds and thousands of essays. You may be super accomplished, but so are hundreds and thousands of other kids.

That’s why you can’t just throw your achievements at your readers. Write something that opens a window into your life for them. Like the characters in a book, they need to feel that they are getting to know you better through your essay.

To help you stay on track, here are some Scholarship Essay Do’s and Don’ts.

Step #9: Double-check Your Essay

Ever typed a word into your phone and had it auto-correct to something you didn’t mean to say? It’s the same with your computer. Don’t rely on spell-check to free your essay of errors.

After you’ve finished writing, re-read your essay from start to finish, out loud. It may seem silly to read what you just wrote, but trust me, it’s a good idea.

Ok, but why do I need to read it out loud? 

Sometimes sentences you don’t remember writing can sound strange. Sometimes you may use one word so much that it sounds repetitive. You can catch these kinds of errors much faster if you see AND hear them.

Step #10: Have a Professional Review Your Essay

Are you still listening?? This step is important!

Think about if you were to enter singing auditions for American Idol, or the Voice. You could just wing it, but more likely you’ll want to practice singing in front of other people first. Why?Because you’re actually practicing your audition itself. 

In this same way, you want to practice having someone else read your essay and hear their feedback. It’s a lot better to have someone ELSE tell you where your essay needs work than the person who is no longer offering you a scholarship!

Who should you ask to review your essay? 

Ask a professional. What I mean is, ask someone who has experience with writing. If this person also seems to value the same things the people awarding the scholarship do, EVEN BETTER.

What kinds of people have experience with essay writing and/or scholarship applications?

  • Your English teacher
  • Your school counselor
  • An English tutor


There are over 2+ billion dollars in private based scholarship available. So believe me when I say there are tens of thousands of dollars to be had for everyone who puts in the work.

In conclusion, the following steps can easily make you $500 per hour to help offset the cost for college. Once more, to write a winning scholarship essay:

  1. Get started early (3 weeks in advance — I mean it!)
  2. Read all of the instructions (TWICE, and highlight!)
  3. Know your audience
  4. Talk to someone who is part of a scholarship committee
  5. Brainstorm your ideas
  6. Pick a topic you care about
  7. Use an outline
  8. Tell a story
  9. Double-check your essay for mistakes
  10. Have a professional review your essay

What scholarships have you or your student received and why do you think they were chosen? Let us know in the comments below!

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Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!

The following article is cross-posted from - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

  4. 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:

  • Passion
  • Leadership
  • Altruism
  • Achievement
  • Perseverance
  • Overcoming obstacles
  • Sincerity
  • Visionary
  • 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:

  1. Introduction: Your story about how you first got involved in the leadership/community activity.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!


Click here to read Part 1 of Joshua's series on How to Write a Winning Scholarship Essay: Thinking Like a Scholarship Winner.

JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.

For more articles like this one, check out Joshua's blog at

Image courtesy of user "J'Roo" at via Creative Commons License.