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How to Write Great Scholarship Essays -- with Examples

by Will Geiger, on Jul 23, 2021 11:06:54 AM

scholarship essays

Writing a powerful essay is important not only for getting into college, but for winning scholarships. Scholarship essays come in many different forms as all scholarships are different.

Some scholarship essays may be for specific organizations like nonprofits and companies that want to help students pay for college. Other scholarship essays are for specific colleges and universities that offer merit scholarships to incoming first year students. Whatever the case, a strong scholarship essay is an important way to distinguish yourself from other students in the scholarship review process.

Essays -- including Scholarship essays -- are especially important as more and more colleges go "test-optional" and do not require students to submit ACT or SAT scores. For test-optional colleges, essays become even more important parts of the admissions and oftentimes, the merit scholarship selection process. Note that every college is different and some test-optional colleges may still require test scores for merit aid. It is always best to double-check each college's specific policy to be sure. 

Keep on reading to see three awesome examples of scholarship essays that worked with expert analysis on why they worked. Afterward, we will recap some of the best practices that you can use when you are writing your own scholarship essays.

Table of contents (feel free to click below and scroll ahead)

  1. Questbridge Scholarship
  2. Providian Medical Scholarship
  3. Emory University Dean’s Achievement Scholarship
  4. How to write successful scholarship essays

Questbridge Scholarship

Questbridge is a national nonprofit organization that connects low-income students with some of the most selective colleges in the country (think schools like Havard, Princeton, Caltech, and Yale).

Students who win a Questbridge Scholarship win a full ride to the college that they are matched with. As you can imagine, this makes it one of the most competitive scholarships out there. Below, you will find the Questbridge prompt, as well as Story2 student Stacy’s scholarship essay.

Questbridge Scholarship Prompt:

This biographical essay helps us become acquainted with you in ways different from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It demonstrates your ability to organize thoughts and express yourself. We are looking for an essay that will help us know you better as a person and as a student.

We are interested in learning more about you and the context in which you have grown up, formed your aspirations, and accomplished your academic successes. Please describe the factors and challenges that have most influenced you. How are they shaping your future aspirations?

When I was eight, I emigrated from China to the United States with my family. For years, I struggled with my identity as an immigrant, and being called an “F.O.B.,” a derogatory term for fresh off the boat, I felt more alienated than ever. I found it difficult to transition from Chinese to English, and my pronunciation had a strong accent, causing me to refrain from speaking in school. However, my father motivated me to overcome the language barrier. Even in his final stage of cancer in 2008, he continued to encourage me every day. Despite his shaking hands, he would practice English vocabulary with me to show me that even under the worst circumstances, one can overcome challenges. Never once did he show signs of pessimism about death. Instead, he remained positive, and his embodiment of optimism taught me to persevere and to have a strong work ethic. In my father’s final moments, I promised him that I would always try to face challenges directly and commit to my studies.

Remembering my vow, I have since dedicated much of my time to academics. To improve my English, I created hundreds of flashcards in middle school and prepared for the Specialized High School Admissions Test by studying review books in the library every day. My hard work paid off when I was admitted to Brooklyn Technical High School, a specialized high school. In a class of 1,300 students, I was selected to be in a research course called AP Capstone where students write college level research papers and propose real-world solutions to the issues they investigate. I wrote two seven-page research papers on the effects of emotional intelligence on college students’ academic performance and the ethical perspective on traditional Chinese medicine. To improve my writing, I also took advantage of rigorous courses at Baruch College and studied journalism over the summer after my sophomore year. One of my personal goals is to publish a book. In the past few months, I have been collaborating with a friend to write a children's book on tolerance of racial differences. We hope to submit it to the Diverse Minds Youth Writing Challenge and get it published so it can educate children about racial diversity.

In addition to writing, I aspire to enter the business field and become a successful entrepreneur. The seed of entrepreneurship was embedded in me at a young age: both my father and grandfather owned a grocery store in China. As a result of being exposed to their work on a daily basis, I developed an admiration for the risk-taking and innovative aspects of running a business. With my father’s help, I started to sell toys to children in my neighborhood. That week, I went home, grinning ear to ear with cash in my bulging back pocket.

As I grew up, however, I came to realize that entrepreneurship was more than just about making money. It was about defying challenges and translating one’s passion into practical inventions to improve society. As an immigrant from a low-income family, I have personally experienced the inequality of the American education system. To address this pressing issue, I hope to create a startup company that collaborates with non-profit organizations such as Henry Street Settlement to provide mentors and customized prep books for high school students who cannot afford after-school tutoring. Alongside this initiative, I aspire to create a free entrepreneurial program that teaches high school girls the confidence and skills needed to become the next generation's leading CEOs. By offering opportunities and resources for girls of different backgrounds, I hope to instill a passion for entrepreneurship at an early age and increase women's representation in the business world.

Story2 coach explains how this essay works

  • Notice how Stacy uses the discussions of her father, grandfather, and first-generation, low-income background to provide context for the stories that reveal her own work ethic. Her essay uses these influences to help us make sense of her actions, but it isn't primarily about the influences.
  • While Stacy does dwell in the language of her thoughts + interpretations at times, she uses concise descriptions of past and present actions - writing a book, improving her English throughout middle + high school, and selling toys to her neighbors in China. This makes the case for her future as a socially conscious writer and entrepreneur. Both of those goals take grit, and Stacy has demonstrated that she has plenty!
  • Stacy gives abundant evidence for her ambition, grit, and methodical approach to tackling difficult tasks:
  1. practicing English vocabulary with her sick father
  2. taking advantage of free library resources to gain entry to a specialized high school
  3. voluntarily enrolling in a college program to improve her writing
  4. collaborating on a book with a friend

Her specific references to the Diverse Minds Youth Writing Challenge and the Henry Street Settlement also show that she's committed to helping others, and has done the research to make good on that commitment.

  • QuestBridge is a scholarship program for low-income, high-achieving students: everyone who applies has something in common with Stacy: low-SES, first-generation, etc. Stacy makes herself stand out with careful + compelling references to her family life and the specific details of her unique situation.

Providian Medical Scholarship

Sponsored by the medical equipment company of the same name, The Providian Medical Scholarship supports students currently enrolled in high school or college with a $500 bi-annual scholarship. Let’s read Story2 student Kim's winning essay below.

Providian Medical Scholarship Prompt:

To apply for the scholarship, you must submit an original essay of up to 1,500 words that describes how medical equipment technology has changed the face of a college course and curriculum. Entries can also include a look toward the future and how this area of study will continue to evolve and advance.

Rows and rows of bodies lined up in a pristine white setting, with autonomous machines whirring around completing complex surgeries. Due to the exponential development of current medical technology, this futuristic snapshot could soon be taking place in hospitals everywhere.

The journey to this point in our scientific advancement hasn’t been immediate. Starting with the Arthrobot, the first robot to assist in surgery, researchers have been gradually inventing the means to transform medicine into the technologically integrated field it is today. Just a few months ago in late 2016, researchers developed a new algorithm to determine and segment clusters of brain white matter fiber bundles. That in itself is already a feat, as previous modeling could only do so with knowledge of the count of bundles. With the results from this algorithm, physicians are able to diagnose neuropsychiatric diseases including schizophrenia, autism and depression faster and more accurately than before.

Data can now be mined from files uploaded in all of recent history, streamlining the process in which students, and professionals, can narrow down hypotheses and carry out treatment. Just last summer, IBM’s Watson correctly diagnosed a leukemia patient in Japan after months of doctors attempting to find the accurate solution. In just 10 minutes, Watson was able to sort through 20 million research papers on cancer, proposing a treatment plan that has thus far proved to be more effective.

Does this mean that physicians will be out of jobs, replaced by the same AI that they had thought of and trained? Absolutely not. STAR, one of the recently developed systems that bested doctors in the spring of 2016 in mock intestinal anastomoses, required human assistance in 40% of the procedures. Even the most advanced system for surgery, at this moment the Da Vinci Surgical System, is not autonomous at all, requiring a physician to be at the control board at all times. However, it is important that both students and educators recognize the importance of understanding how developing technology works, so as to better use it in both patient care and their education.

We are already far past the days when biomedical engineering was just a novel major. At Johns Hopkins University, where I will be attending in half a year, students have access to their own Da Vinci Surgical System in the Swirnow Mock Operating Room, where they can both watch as surgeons from the hospital practice their skills, and hone their own. At New York University, professors have started integrating web-based learning tools such as WISE-MD and The BioDigital Human to help students gain access to training tools previously unused. A key aid that is beginning to gain popularity is the surgery simulator, which can use force-feedback simulation, 3D models, touch-sensitive simulated reactions, or a combination of the above in order to familiarize students with anatomy and medical procedures.

But this new technology does not just affect how students learn their curriculum, it also affects the information they learn in their curriculum. Increasingly, computer science and engineering fields are becoming important supplementary areas future physicians should be familiar with. Universities like the Massachusetts Institute for Technology are beginning to offer courses like Medical Artificial Intelligence, which combine the newest developments in AI with their practical uses in a medical setting.

This shift towards computer controlled healthcare is something the next generation of students looking to go into the field must embrace. On the current trajectory that surgical systems are on, it is probable that the next step for medical equipment technology would be towards semi-autonomous surgical systems that can work effectively without nearby human assistance. Soon healthcare could be transformed so that physicians and patients will be able to connect even when not in the same immediate vicinity. What this means for undergraduate courses of study is the increasing focus on sociology and differing cultures that may come into play when interacting with patients an ocean away. Our pivot towards the softer sciences is reflected in the recent rewriting of the MCAT exam, which now tests, in addition to physics, chemistry, and biology, psychology and sociology.

Not only are pre-physician students being affected by the changing landscape of their professional worlds, other fields are being affected as well. As technology advances, nursing students will be expected to know how to operate the same machines and computer systems that physicians will be using. Pre-vet students will face increasing pressure to develop similar methods fit for their animal patients. Even students who may not be pre-health could see an increasing demand for their talents to be applied to the medical field, as cheaper and more cost-effective ways to treat the growing elderly population are sought. This could affect students in disciplines ranging from mechanical engineering to computer science. Even community colleges like Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Minnesota and Cuyahoga Community College in northeast Ohio have started offering courses that deal with the physical manufacturing of medical equipment.

As our generation enters secondary education and the workforce, we will only continue to innovate and bring about life-changing technology. I am confident that by the time I will be retiring, computer algorithms will have mastered the art of diagnostics, and patients will have instantaneous access to their physicians, even when geographically separated. Most importantly, college courses will no longer be taught out of textbooks and slideshows. They will be learned through all five senses - the most important being touch. What this brings about is a cohort of future health professionals that will be able to experience the field before patient contact, honing practical skills repeatedly to ensure they’re prepared the first day of the job. While the exact path can not be predicted, I do know that medical equipment technology will not cease to continue innovating, improving the lives of patients for decades to come.

Story2 college coach explains how this essay works

  • This is the type of essay that does require some research. Kimberly did a great job of researching the medical technology field. Take a look at some excerpts from Kimberly's essay:
    1. Just last summer, IBM’s Watson correctly diagnosed a leukemia patient in Japan after months of doctors attempting to find the accurate solution.
    2. Starting with the Arthrobot, the first robot to assist in surgery, researchers have been gradually inventing the means to transform medicine into the technologically integrated field it is today.
    3. STAR, one of the recently developed systems that bested doctors in the spring of 2016 in mock intestinal anastomoses, required human assistance in 40% of the procedures.
    4. Universities like the Massachusetts Institute for Technology are beginning to offer courses like Medical Artificial Intelligence, which combine the newest developments in AI with their practical uses in a medical setting.

Kimberly doesn't just "name drop" these course names, technologies, and news stories. It is clear that they are part of deep research into the topic in the prompt and the fields of technology and healthcare.

  • This essay is also constructed with incredible care. Much like a good doctor, it doesn't jump to any outlandish conclusions, instead building towards reasoned claims through an in-depth discussion of the relevant evidence.
  • Kimberly also does a great job of connecting her essay to the actual organization awarding the scholarship. Providian manufactures and sells medical technology and equipment, and Kimberly has made it clear that she sees such equipment playing an increasing role in healthcare and that this is both good for patients and is something that would-be physicians "must embrace."
  • Finally, this is an extremely specific scholarship, and all of the applicants can be expected to have an interest in the medical field and some knowledge about medical equipment technology. Kimberly differentiates herself through the sheer amount of detail she uses to respond to all aspects of the prompt. She pulls from recent news stories, research into contemporary college course offerings, and deep background knowledge to discuss the impact of medical technology on both courses and curriculum and more peripheral areas of medicine, including elder care. It is clear from her response that Kimberly is an exceptionally thoughtful candidate!

Emory University Dean's Achievement Scholarship

The third scholarship essay is from Abdullah and was written for an Emory University scholarship opportunity. Many colleges require students to write an essay for college-specific scholarship opportunities, so this is something that you may encounter in your own scholarship search.

Emory University Dean's Achievement Scholarship Prompt

In 500 words or less, give a specific example of a time since you have been an Emory student that you created and sustained meaningful relationships and how that involvement and/or other leadership qualities made a difference for an organization, activity, and/or community in which you were involved.

9:00pm Friday: I am sitting with a dictionary and a Kaplan SAT Reading Comprehension book, deciphering what “dogmatic” means. Exhaustion came upon me, and I was about to crash. I received an email from Kaplan about a company that helps students tell their stories, and how they were looking for student ambassadors in local high schools. I tried the service myself, and was fascinated, so I applied for the position and recruited 20 of my friends to try it for free with me.

“I switched countries like closing some unfinished books.” I told my story at a high school event fall of my junior year, prompting Paul, my senior classmate, and many others to ask me after the event how I overcame the language barrier and spoke out. “Have you heard of Story2?” I replied, explaining how to choose a specific impactful moment and describe it vividly, “less of an essay, more of a story.” Many of them now attend University of Georgia, Kennesaw and Georgia State universities. Paul now attends Stanford.

Two years later… 8:30pm Monday: I am sitting in the Atlanta Marriott, counting down each second till sunset. Ramadan during the summer is grueling, but I was willing to sacrifice comfort to meet Carol, CEO and founder of Story2. A red-headed woman approached and excitedly called, “Abdullah, is that you?” We talked so much on the phone before that we felt comfortable skipping the introductions. The first thing I asked was “What’s one of the most inspiring stories you have helped tell?” She told me about a student who characterized himself as a “ghost” in the classroom: a person who was constantly ignored by his peers – and Story2’s role in helping him to find his voice in English.

We lost track of time, and it was soon time to breakfast. So, we chose a restaurant, ordered New York steak (a first for me), and discussed music-production, Buddhism, and yoga.

Story2’s mission is to help students tell their stories to get into college. It’s 8:33pm the week after Christmas. I called Carol in New York and suggested developing Story2 services to help college students get into grad school and their first job: “Story2 helped my high-school friends get into college, let’s do something for college students!”

I ended that phone-call as the Story2 Social Media Associate and college ambassador.

My relationship with Carol has helped Story2 empower more students to tell their stories. Carol pushes me to advocate for myself, honestly, as a refugee and someone who has survived the trauma of political exile. I learned, and now I teach. Story2 is a means for me to give back. Now, I am connecting Story2 with Emory PHMO to take future physicians with me on my journey to communicate authentically with patients--and one another--to understand their needs as people.

Story2 college coach explains how this essay works

  • Abdullah doesn't waste any time telling his readers that he took the initiative to reach out to Carol, set up a meeting in Atlanta, and advocate for a role as a Social Media Associate and college ambassador. He shows that he's a go-getter through his actions, which included trying out Story2 late one Friday night, recruiting his friends, setting up a meeting with Carol during a time of fasting, and working that long-distance relationship into a job!
  • Scholarship essays are also about giving the scholarship committee reasons to believe you will continue to make positive contributions to the community. Abdullah is clearly a valuable member of the Emory community, and Emory would do well to make it easy for him to continue as a student there. He clearly demonstrates his value by making an explicit connection between his past accomplishments (getting his high school friends involved with Story2) and the proposed future contribution to Emory (connecting Story2 with Emory PHMO to help future physicians communicate more authentically).
  • Finally, many deserving students will be applying for this scholarship; Abdullah stands out through his effective use of story and the focus on his own actions. He mentions some of the attributes that make him deserving - refugee status, English Language Learner - but he doesn't dwell here, instead pivoting towards what he's done and what that says about the type of person he can be counted on to be.

How to write successful scholarship essays

You are probably already thinking about how you are going to write your own scholarship essays! Feel free to refer back to these scholarship essay examples and the analysis as you continue to write your essays. Below are some tips to help you write scholarship essays that will connect with scholarship essay readers.

Start with the right scholarships

Find scholarships that are aligned to your experiences, interests, and background! The more specifically aligned the scholarship is to you, the better the chance that you will have to win. Ultimately the scholarship committee is looking to support a specific type of student for their scholarship and you will want your story and voice to come through. Starting your scholarship writing process with scholarships that are aligned to your interests, experiences, and background is the best way to ensure that your essays can be as personal as possible. 

Keep your audience in mind

Always keep your audience in mind. Kim’s Providian Medical Scholarship essay is a great example of a student who was mindful of the organization offering the scholarship. Knowing that Providian was in the medical device industry, Kim was able to specifically target her response. This essay probably wouldn’t work for other scholarships, but that created an opportunity for Kim to write a stellar essay.

When in doubt you should revisit the website of the scholarship awarding organization. This will help you understand the purpose and mission of the scholarship.

Find stories to connect with your reader

Students respond to the scholarship essay prompt by focusing on stories that reveal their character and strengths. So once you have an understanding of the organization awarding the scholarship, you can begin to brainstorm potential stories that will reveal your unique treats to the scholarship reader.

Build out your stories with details, dialogue, and description

The most effective stories will leverage your own personal experiences. And the most effective way to show the reader this is through particular moments that illustrate a time and place in an authentic way. Details, dialogue, and description are tools that you can use to build out these moments for the reader. 

One strategy to use your unique voice is by telling your story out loud. This will allow you to use your actual voice and convey the moments in your story in the most authentic possible way.

Map your story 

Once you have identified potential stories and built them out into specific moments, your next step is to ensure that the essay is clearly structured. Every story should have a beginning, middle, and end. At Story2, we refer to these as the Magnet, the Pivot, and the Glow. The "Magnet" is the beginning of the essay that is meant to hook the reader. The "Pivot" is the turning point of the essay where you reveal your unique character. The "Glow" of the essay is the final action that leaves the reader wanting to know more about you.

Proofread your essay

Once you have completed a draft of your scholarship essay, you should be sure to carefully proofread the essay. Better yet, you can have a trusted outside reader give the scholarship essay a second read. Keep in mind that additional readers are useful for proofreading and general feedback, but you should maintain ownership over your voice in the essay.

One of the best strategies for revising your essay is something that we call "focus out". When you "focus out" you replace general statements and cliches with specific details, dialogue, and description. 

Recycle your stories

Don’t be afraid to recycle scholarship stories. I know that I just said that specifically tailored essays are the best and that’s true. However, some scholarship essay prompts are similar to essay prompts you encountered during the admissions process. This means that you can reuse the same story in multiple scholarship essays. Use this to your advantage so you can save time and submit your very best stories.

Go to College Admission Essays Made Easy.

For more info about college admission and scholarship essays and interviews, sign up for self-paced courses and our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform FREE. Want to stay up to date on the latest tips and resources? Follow us @story2 on Instagram!

Will Geiger is co-founder of Scholarships360.org. A graduate of Wake Forest and Penn, Will was previously Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College where he personally reviewed over 10,000 admissions applications and essays and oversaw the merit aid program; Associate Director of College Counseling at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut; and Marketing Manager at Story2.

Topics:college admissionsscholarships

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