How to Write a Scholarship Essay

Financial aid typically comes in two forms, loans and grants. Scholarship money that does not require repayment, also known as a grant, may come from your school, the federal government, private individuals, foundations, nonprofits, or private businesses. Many grants require an essay as part of the application process, but this is not true for all scholarships. That said, writing scholarship essays can be one of the fastest and easiest ways to finance your education. Plus, any money you earn for tuition through scholarship essays does not get taxed. Think of scholarship essays as a short-lived opportunity, since you will no longer be eligible for many of the contests after you graduate. You’ll also need to pay taxes on prizes awarded after graduation.

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How Should You Prepare?

Before you begin your essay, make sure that you read the qualifications for the grant carefully. You don’t want to complete your essay, only to find out that you do not meet all the criteria needed to win the prize. Once you’re certain that you’re a good candidate for the grant, reflect on the application fields and the essay prompt. Do you have a few good stories that might fit the theme? Remember that each scholarship provider has unique expectations for a winning scholarship essay, so be sure to examine the prompt carefully. 

The length of scholarship essays vary, but they usually fall between 500 and 1,000 words, which can range from two to four double-spaced pages. Typically, the essay prompt includes a character or word count limit for the essay. You may be disqualified for writing too much or too little. If the prompt does not require specific formatting, write your essay in a neutral font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, to ensure that your application looks professional. 


Do some research on the organization, person, or team that will be evaluating your application. Look for special interests, political preferences, or hobbies, since that may influence the types of anecdotes you choose to include in your essay. Furthermore, if the grant has been awarded in the past, try to read the winning submissions to get a better understanding of what the judges like. Once you get to know the judges and the past winners, you’ll be ready to write down some ideas for topics. 

Let’s imagine that you’re responding to the prompt, “Tell us about a time you made a tough decision.”

Before you begin, list some adjectives that you want to focus on in your essay. Pick authentic characteristics that describe you. They should be directly related to the essay topic. For instance, you might want to tell stories that show you as dependable and honest. Once you’ve identified those positive (and true) characteristics, brainstorm a list of concrete examples from your life that both answer the prompt and show how you’re dependable and honest. 

Your list might look like this:

  • Gave up a trip to New York to care for a sibling
  • Returned a wallet that you found on the street
  • Helped a friend study during your lunch hour
  • Took the blame for breaking a window with a ball
  • Got an after-school job to help your parents

Now, knowing what you’ve learned about the past prize winners, pick the example that you think might appeal to these particular judges. Try to choose something unique! 

Write an Outline

Unlike a college application essay, which is more formal, a scholarship essay gives you the opportunity to be creative. You can include dialogue, vivid descriptions, and humor. As you think about the main points you want to make, you don’t have to limit yourself to a traditional five paragraph essay structure.  

No matter how you plan to tell your story, you can begin with an introduction and end with a conclusion. In your outline, be sure to include a bullet point for each paragraph you intend to write. An outline will help you organize your thoughts before you begin your first draft. 

Write a Draft

Using your outline as a guide, tell the story in your own words. While you have a lot of freedom when writing a scholarship essay, you may still benefit from a few rules:

  • Keep paragraphs a standard length (3-5 sentences)
  • Vary the syntax of your sentences
  • Use proper grammar and spelling
  • Be consistent with grammar and spelling choices
  • Punctuate dialogue correctly

Most importantly, if you’re writing about a real-life event, be sure to give the reader all the context and information they’ll need to understand your story. 


After you’ve completed a first draft, check over your application essay for typos. Correct any grammar or spelling errors, and revise any sections that seem unclear. Once you’ve prepared a second draft, have a family member or friend read the entire essay. Ask them the following questions:

  1. What do you think the prompt was?
  2. What adjectives would you use to describe the person in this college scholarship essay?
  3. Does the story make sense to you?

If you’ve done a good job with the writing process, your reader should be able to guess the essay question and adjectives after reading the completed essay. In the event that their answers do not correspond to the prompt and adjectives you chose, you may want to revise your essay. In some cases, the reader may identify parts of the story that don’t make sense. This should give you the opportunity to edit your essay, making it easier to understand. 

Find a new reader to evaluate your second draft. You can continue to do this until your personal statement fulfills your goals. 

Submit the Application

Give yourself plenty of time to complete the final draft of the essay and to fill out the entire scholarship application. Often, an application requires sections in which you describe your career goals, test scores, and high school GPA. If you’re applying for a graduate school scholarship, you may need to include information about your performance in both high school and college. Make sure to have all the documents and information handy, so that you can give accurate details. After all your hard work on the essay, give adequate attention to the rest of the application prompts. Proofread any short answers and make sure to showcase strong writing skills at every opportunity. 

Rather than cramming your scholarship essay full of every accomplishment you’ve experienced to date, try to tell one illustrative story well. When you follow this advice, you’ll give the scholarship committee a chance to learn more about your personality. In a sea of similar essays, you’ll stand out by being memorable and likable. Just be sure to follow the directions by answering the prompt as directly as possible. 

Here’s one last tip: the more fun you have while writing your essay, the more fun the judges will have while reading it. Good luck!