scholarship essay
Crafting a strong scholarship essay is not easy, but you'll get there with some practice and by revising your copy. Source: Chris Delmas/AFP

Studying abroad can be a costly affair for international students, but scholarships can offer some respite. Scholarship applications typically require students to write a scholarship essay to show the admissions committee why they deserve funding.

While competitive, the essay gives you a platform to demonstrate your strengths, goals and accomplishments, both in and out of the classroom.

It requires plenty of thought to produce a winning scholarship essay, but with the cost of tuition rising each year – one academic year’s tuition fees at a US university can range from US$40,000 to US$52,000 while fees at a UK university could start from £9,250 up to £30,000, depending on the course major — the results may be well worth your effort. 

If you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get busy, here are 10 tips on writing a scholarship essay:

scholarship essay

The scholarship essay gives students a platform to demonstrate their strengths, goals and accomplishments, both in and out of the classroom. Source: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP

Scholarship essay tip 1: Highlight what makes you unique

There is no perfect scholarship essay or writing formula, but the vast majority of winning essays give the scholarship committee a good idea of what drives you, your passions and what you want to do with your education. 

In short, write about who you are to the scholarship judges. Make them believe in you and your story.

Scholarship essay tip 2: Read the statement and identify key themes

Your scholarship essay prompt can be either a sentence or a question. From there, identify the theme and what you should expand on. This could be about leadership, your impact or even the community. 

You could write about certain experiences and accomplishments, how and why you chose to be involved in these activities, the challenges you faced and how you overcame these, as well as lessons learnt from the experience.

The more you understand these themes, the more examples you can include to showcase your skills and abilities and how you used them.

For example, 2013 QS Leadership Scholarship winner Hayley Capp‘s essay statement was: “Where I have demonstrated responsible leadership, or innovation, and how it made a difference either in my community or in my work.”

Capp founded a branch of Enactus – “where people either work with social enterprises or to create a social enterprise, using business and entrepreneurial skills to develop solutions to social problems and make a difference to communities” – at her university during her undergraduate studies.

In her scholarship essay, Capp used her experience of collaborating with Enactus members in Uganda to design strategies for addressing high youth unemployment levels.

Scholarship essay tip 3: Be passionate

Some essay prompts will give you free rein to write about any topic, which will give you the advantage of writing about something that you enjoy or that means a lot to you.

For example, your prompt may ask you to describe your proudest accomplishments. You can discuss your volunteer experiences, or perhaps about looking after your sick family member despite having a busy schedule. An understanding of your family circumstances can give the admissions committee a holistic view of you as sports, extracurricular activities or even community service can be a privilege that requires resources an applicant may or may not have access to. 

Because Joy Zhou’s supplemental scholarship essay asked her to describe an experience with an extracurricular activity of her choosing, she wrote about how she managed to found a Science Olympiad club in her high school despite numerous challenges, including objections from the athletic director.

“Try to go with something that you have been doing for a long time and think if there is something quirky or different about your experience in it, or there is some aspect of that experience that you can use to sum up the entirety of your experience doing the extracurricular activity or if there is a passion burning, you can write about that too,” Zhou advises.

Vanderbilt University awarded a full-tuition scholarship to Zhou.

Scholarship essay tip 4: Learn what moves the judges

Why are the judges or universities giving this scholarship? You have to dig deep to understand their motivations behind the scholarship, and what their mission is, be it to increase equity or the university’s competitive advantage.

Take a look at previous scholarship winners and read their essays or excerpts, and you will have a better idea of what appeals most to the scholarship committee.

Having a better understanding of what the scholarship committee is looking for will give you a better shot than writing an essay by shooting in the dark.

Scholarship essay tip 5: Create a strong hook

The beginning of your essay should have a strong hook. A powerful opening sentence will help you draw a reader in and convince him or her to read the rest of your essay.

Ritesh Verma wanted to be a millionaire so he studied stock patterns and professional trades and even made some money over two years. He felt he was ready to go even further so he asked his parents to fund an Ameritrade account but “the stock market took it within a week”.

He began his essay with, “It was ironic that my life shattered into a million pieces, or so I thought. What’s this dream? Well, I had a vision myself as a millionaire, realising that millionaire stock trader lifestyle that’s our ties across the internet.”

His essay helped him win a scholarship worth over US$100,000 to study at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Scholarship essay tip 6: Be aware of the word limit

Many scholarships will have a word limit, so stick to it — it’s there for a reason. If you exceed the word count, your scholarship essay, however great and well-written, may be disqualified.

You can keep track of your word count when using Microsoft Word or Google Docs. There are also apps to help you keep track of your words, including letter counter.

Scholarship essay tip 7: Plan, plan, plan

Your main goal is to make your scholarship essay stand out from the competition. One surefire tip is to plan what goes into your essay.

Create a structure (introduction, body and conclusion) that works for you — a winning scholarship essay may vary in structure, so you need to decide what would work for you that suits your content and writing style.

Scholarship essay tip 8: Persuasive writing

This might be of interest to you if you have not heard of the persuasive “writing triangle” before: ethos, pathos and logos. A great scholarship essay uses this triangle for maximum persuasive effect because these three techniques are excellent for pulling in the reader’s attention.

Ethos uses credibility or reliability to establish your knowledge on the subject matter. Your life experiences – which most scholarship essays ask about (luckily!) – are a form of ethos, so use this to your advantage.

Pathos makes use of emotional appeals like creativity and imagination. For example, you may be asked to talk about an imaginary future and how you will make this a better one with your invention or strengths.

Finally, logos refers to using logic to make your points more factual. Your scholarship essay can include key statistics about a related social issue that you want to discuss.

Scholarship essay tip 9: Be realistic and specific 

Why do you deserve a scholarship? This can be a challenging question to answer, particularly for a need-based scholarship, as you may struggle to decide how honest you want to be about your financial or family circumstances that have led you to apply for a scholarship in the first place.

It’s important to note that you should never lie in your essay. If you know what you want to get out from your scholarship is funding for your studies, state it in your essay. Explain how the scholarship can help you to achieve your goals.

Scholarship essay tip 10: Revise

Above all, make an effort to revise your scholarship essay. Take breaks whenever possible and look at your essay with fresh eyes. This way, you will find more ways of revising your essay to ensure the final copy reads and flows well.

Find someone you can trust – your teacher, friend or advisor – to read your draft. Sometimes, they will find mistakes you have missed and can give you feedback on how to improve it.

All in all, we understand writing a scholarship essay is not easy, but with these tips, we hope that you will have an easier time doing this. All the best!