Let’s be blunt, shall we? Writing scholarship essays is tricky. First, it seems a little impossible you’ll write the winning submission, so your reluctance factor is high. Second, the prompts often ask you to address gigantic issues like social justice, the environment, national security, the education system and/or how you plan to change the world. Finally, you usually have less than 500 words to accomplish this.

But in order to get free money (and yay for free money!), these scholarship essays are unfortunately a necessary evil. So let’s dive into how to attack them.


Say you’re applying to the David-Putter Scholarship Fund, meant for students working toward peace and justice. Your best bet before you start writing is to do a little bit of research about Horace David and Norton Putter and how this fund came to be.

I don’t recommend repeating their mission back to the scholarship committee readers in your essay (first, you don’t have space for that and, second, they already know what their mission is), but it is helpful to make sure your interests and work are in line with their interests and work. There are thousands of scholarships out there that are available to students. Be sure you are applying to ones that speak to you, your work, your experience and your values.

If you are and you’ve familiarized yourself with their missions, try to highlight if there are keywords that seem essential to what they’re about. Can you incorporate them into your essay?


The sole purpose of this essay is for the scholarship committee to get to know more about you. So, regardless of your prompt, the goal here is to pack in as much you as you can. That means you should write about your life, your traits and values, challenges/obstacles, your drives, other essentials that make you tick, and what experiences you’ve had — all as they pertain to the prompt.

Now. There are very different kinds of prompts out there. You can be asked about:

  • Your specific course of study (“Explain the importance of English literature in today’s society”).
  • Current events or social issues (“Pick a controversial problem on college campuses and suggest a solution.”).
  • Someone who influenced you (“Who is your biggest influence and why?”)
  • Your background (“How has your family background changed how you see the world?”).
  • Your future plans (“Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”).

Many of these prompts contain the possible pitfall of writing about an event, subject or person that/who doesn’t necessarily pertain to you. Avoid that temptation.

For example, let’s say your prompt is, “Describe how you plan to improve social justice in this country.”

Begin by first explaining how social justice has impacted your life. What experiences have you had in this arena? What have you witnessed? How did that make you feel? Why is it important to you?

After you’ve explained who you are, you can get into how you plan to change the world. And by world, that means your world, what you’ve seen and what you think needs to change. Don’t feel like you have to talk about the whole world in general. Start with your community and explain how your efforts can be replicated in others.

Same applies for questions about the environment. Or education. Or if you decide to write about your grandfather. Write about these subjects as they pertain to your life and experiences. Injecting you should always be at the forefront of your mind.


You don’t have a lot of words to work with, and scholarship essay prompts often ask you to answer multiple questions. Scholarship committee readers are also reading a whole lot of submissions.

So you would do best to be clear about where you’re going very quickly. This is not the time for grand and wordy introductions or the time to go into lengthy anecdotes that finally tie in to your point after 300 words.

Instead, be crisp and speedy in your approach. If you’re asked to describe a change you’d like to make in the world, your first sentence should either list what change you want to see or at least lead directly into what that change is.

Here is an example:

“I knew the second  I saw the McDonald’s bag fly out of the car window and spew french fries all over the ditch. I looked at that trash and was reminded of how deeply I care for protecting the environment. So something needed to be done.  I knew I was the person to do it.”

From the first sentence, you know that the change the writer is going for will likely be an anti-littering movement. And that the environment is sacred to her.

She can then spend the rest of the essay explaining why it’s important to her (in which she can write about herself!) and then what she is going to do about it.


I know it’s so terribly tempting, but know this: manipulating an essay that answers one prompt in order to answer a different prompt almost always produces a weak essay.

Now, if you must write essays for prompts that are very similar (say, they’re both about the education), you should feel free to use sentences, possibly even paragraphs, from your original essay. Just make sure you constantly refer to the wording of the prompt you are currently trying to address. Are you specifically answering what is being asked of you? Only kind of? Scholarship committee readers will know it.

I always recommend starting with a new first paragraph in direct relation to the prompt at hand. Then, if there are parts of another essay that specifically apply, you can try reusing those. But that first paragraph should be fresh.

In addition, I recommend starting by opening a new, blank document for each essay. You can have other essays open beside it, but know that this essay is its own thing, so deserves a new perspective.


Generally, scholarship essay prompts are nearly impossible to answer thoroughly in a few hundred words. (that’s what makes them so difficult). That means, if they give you 500 words to work with, write 500 words. If they give you 1,000, write 1,000. Don’t think 300 words will cut it. Heck, it could take 10,000 words to answer how you’re going to change the world, right? So, honor the scholarship by reaching the word count limit.


Finally, know that these essays are tough. But if you follow these tips, you can produce submissions that stand out. For other tips on how to write well and produce essays that shine, click here. And, as always, know that I am here at tara@swayessay.com for help and guidance.