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Financial Aid Department

Scholarship Center

Application Tips

The Essay

The Essay

Scholarship donors and admissions officers want to know more about their applicants than just statistics and dry facts. Essays are an extremely important part of the admissions and scholarship selection process. The essays define who the applicant is, and highlight their accomplishments and education/career goals.


To begin, you are writing for a purpose; you are trying to convince either an admission officer or a committee, that by virtue of your merit (academic achievement, athletic prowess, leadership interests, etc.) they should either admit you into their school or award you money to be used towards furthering your education. In order to accomplish this, present yourself as clearly and completely as possible. Your personal essay should be dedicated to expounding your good qualities and achievements.

Committees and admissions officers are impressed with personal growth and individuality. If you think that cannot possibly mean you, think again -- it does. As a senior, you are not the same person you were as a freshman. You have matured socially, you probably have more family and/or work responsibilities, and you probably have become more involved in your academics and outside interests since your freshman year. If all of this weren't true, you wouldn't be thinking about attending college, and you wouldn't be reading this now. So think positively and brainstorm! Don't worry whether or not what you have to say is important enough or particular enough to catch someone's attention. If you are writing about something that you truly care about, it will be interesting and worthwhile.


Determine what kind of essay are you writing. If you are applying for admission to college, you may be asked to write on one or more of the following general topics:

  • Evaluate a significant experience or achievement that has special meaning to you.
  • Discuss some issue of personal, local or national concern and its importance to you.
  • If you could travel through time and interview a prominent figure in the arts, politics, religion or science (for example), whom would you choose and why?
  • Please discuss your reasons for pursuing a university education and explain why you want to attend (Name of College) to attain your educational goals. (Often this may be more particular, why do you want to enter the engineering school, how is the study of history related to your goals?)

You will want to tie together your desire to further your education and why that particular university is the best place for you to do so (even though you are applying to other colleges and universities). For example, you may want to write on a recent summit between our President and the President of Russia. You would first briefly discuss the importance of that encounter in world politics. Then secondly, you would state how this event relates to your interest in diplomacy (if that is true), and how, since their school has a particularly strong foreign relations program (if that is true), their school is particularly suited to filling your interests and career goals.

If you are applying for a scholarship offered by a private foundation, consider the source. For example, if the Daughters of the American Revolution offers scholarships, what do you think they might ask you to write on? They are undoubtedly a patriotic organization, perhaps you should brush up on your U.S. history and government. If you are writing on a specified topic (e.g., "The Importance of Education to Minorities in the 21st Century"), realize that you will need to do some research and reading. Whether or not you are answering a specific question, being aware of and tying pertinent news and events into your essay will be helpful to you.

Most scholarship committees want a personal statement highlighting your goals and why you are the best applicant for their scholarship(s). Do not begin your essay with, "I want this scholarship..." Most scholarships are at least partially awarded on the basis of need, and the fact of your application tells them that you want the award. Show them how the donor's scholarship is needed to bring you closer to your goals.

Hints for Writing Your Essay

Start in the middle and work your way out. Unless you know exactly what you want to say (which is unlikely for most writers), you will need to do some thinking, organizing, and reviewing for clarity and content.


  • List any and all positive and creative things about yourself and your high school career. Here again, focus on why and how you achieved your goals and interests, instead of just listing them. The essay is a chance to show them who you are as a person, not just what you have done.
  • What type of essay are you writing? Are you answering a specific question? Are you trying to describe your goals and interests? Who is your audience?
  • Prioritize: What are the most important facts about you that they need to know? Choose things that aren't reflected in other parts of the application.


  • Theme: begin to develop your ideas into paragraphs.
  • Continuity: use the same voice throughout the paper (be consistent with personal pronouns and verb tense) and make sure the end of one paragraph blends with the beginning of the next.
  • Clarity: use concrete language and examples, get down all the information you want to express, but don't get lost on tangents.


  • Does your introduction capture the reader's attention?
  • Are you consistent in your verb tense?
  • Are you clear and coherent?
  • Are you concise enough to adhere to limits of length?
  • Have you checked for grammatical and spelling errors?
  • Does the essay present you as you wish to be seen?
  • Did another person check your essay for grammatical errors?
  • Would you remember your essay if you read 200 others?
  • Does your closing paragraph present you as you wish to be remembered?

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of Recommendation

Beside the basic application form and essay(s), most, if not all, institutions and scholarship committees will require you to submit some sort of letter of recommendation. Letters of recommendation (endorsement or reference) may be from faculty, an alumna/us, an employer, a leader in your church, or a prominent member or your community. Colleges and committees request these letters so that they will have a point-of-view other than your own as to your greatest strengths and attributes.

“How do I get to know faculty?” you may ask. It is up to you the student to make a special effort. Taking more than one class from the same professor is a good idea. Participating in class discussion is helpful, but make sure the professor knows your name. Generally, you would want to ask faculty in classes where you have make the best grades. Even if other faculty knows you well, an instructor of a course where you earned a C might not be able to write a very strong letter.

Hopefully you will have had a chance to know at least one or two faculty members well enough that asking for a letter is a comfortable process. However, that is not the case for all students. Some may find that faculty members who they know best are part-time faculty who are not around when they need letters or the full-time faculty on sabbatical or have retired. Thus, you will be in an awkward position of having to ask a faculty member whom you do not know as well to write a letter. In such cases, approach the faculty member by explaining your situation and inquiring whether he or she knows you well enough to write a helpful letter. Listen carefully to the response. If the faculty member seems reluctant, you might want to consider asking someone else.

Avoid asking someone for a letter after class, in the hallway or via email. Instead, make an appointment to discuss your scholarship goal and the kind of help needed. Make the process of writing the letters as easy as you can. Faculty members may see up to 300 students a quarter. Hence, they may not remember the details of your experiences in their classes as well as you do. Provide a resume describing which classes you took from the faculty member in question, your grades, the topics of any papers you wrote and any other noteworthy events related to the class in which you participated. Even if you received an outstanding grade in the class, the faculty member may know little else about you other that the small sample of behavior observed during the class. It is essential to give the letter writer any materials that will help him or her write a more detailed letter, such as your resume, transcripts, a draft of your personal statement plus a written description of the scholarship (you can just copy the information that the awards committee sends applicants). Be sure to mark the deadline clearly for endorsers, so they will know when to complete your letter. Provide fully addressed and stamped envelopes for each letter that you request.

Give faculty members enough time to write the letters. Many students delay in completing their application forms and postpone the process until a vacation period. As many letters are due near the beginning of spring quarter, students often complete their applications over spring break. As they begin to organize their application, they approach faculty near the end of winter quarter. Do no assume that faculty members will enjoy spending their spring break writing your letters. Instead approach faculty at least six weeks before your first letter is due so that they may write the letters at their convenience. Some faculty members would appreciate it if you would leave a reminder message on voice mail several days before the deadline. Ask the faculty member if he or she would like you to do that. In addition, you will want to approach faculty early enough that, if they are not able to write a good letter for you, you can still ask other faculty members.

Thank your letter writers and keep them informed on your progress. Regardless of whether you receive the scholarship or not, initiating and maintaining follow-up contact with your references is both courteous and professionally smart.

Activity Sheet

Activity Sheet

The activity sheet should be a simple and clear list of the clubs, sports, hobbies, awards, volunteer or paid jobs which you have pursued throughout your high school years. Some schools will ask that you list the activities chronologically, others will ask that you list them in order of importance to you.

What the scholarship or admission committees seek to learn from this listing is how you have spent your time outside of class and the extent to which you have committed yourself to those interests. Do not forget to list things that are important to you, even if they are not organized into clubs or lessons. You may like to paint each weekend or you help teach Sunday school classes at your church. If it is important to you, and reflects part of yourself that the selection committees should know about, write it down. They won't know until you tell them.



Interviews are required by some scholarship committees, usually as one of the final stages of the selection process. An interview is more likely to be required if the scholarship is awarded for personal characteristics, like leadership or motivation, as well as strict achievement. The scholarship committee may want to meet you in order to give a personal impression to all the forms they receive.

The interview can be an opportunity to emphasize your interests and hopes for your college education. Being neatly dressed and prompt helps; it tells the interviewer that you care about receiving the scholarship. Beforehand, it might reassure you to look over the copies you made of your application. This will refresh your mind and help you focus on what you and your interviewer will most likely discuss. Even though the setting of an interview may make you nervous, remember that they are just trying to get to know their potential recipient better.