3 Examples of How to Write a Scholarship Essay — And Win

These three essays took home the OppU Achievers Scholarship for $2,500 in tuition money.

At OppU, we carefully review hundreds of essays to choose the next recipient of our scholarship. For the applicants, there’s a lot on the line—$2,500 to be exact. We’ve seen some good essays, but we’ve also seen some common mistakes.

When it comes to writing a good scholarship essay, nobody’s a natural. The essay questions can feel overwhelming, and there aren’t many resources to turn to for guidance. But all of this is actually good news: Since writing an essay is tough for everyone, getting just a little bit better at it will put you that much further ahead of the competition.

So how do you do that?

Below are three examples of real essays that won our scholarship. We’ll walk you through why we chose them, and we’ll teach you the lessons they offer to maximize your chance of landing a scholarship award of your own.

How to write a scholarship essay

To write a scholarship essay, follow these steps:

  1. Pick the right scholarship.
  2. Respond to the essay prompt.
  3. Write like your essay is being graded.
  4. Put the effort in.

Let’s look at each in detail.

1. Pick the right scholarship

One mistake that many applicants make is that they work hard writing their scholarship essays, but they don’t put enough time into deciding which scholarships to apply for. This is the wrong approach, and it’s unlikely to produce good results.

A scholarship review committee might read thousands of essays to choose a single recipient. They’ll look at tons of impressive candidates, but for them, what they want to find is someone who’s the right fit. What does this mean? Many scholarships are created with a particular population or cause in mind, so you might have everything going for you—straight As, extracurriculars, strong community service—but if your accomplishments aren’t the type of accomplishment they’re looking for, you’re not going to get the scholarship.

Think of it this way: A master painter won’t get a scholarship that’s intended for a photographer. A math genius won’t get a scholarship that’s intended for a history buff. A baseball player—no matter how good—won’t get a scholarship that’s intended for a football player. It’s that simple.

Instead of applying for a slew of scholarships that don’t match up with your particular talents, focus your efforts on the select few that do. (Find them by using any of the popular scholarship sites.) You’ll save yourself a lot of wasted effort, and you’ll free yourself up to devote extra attention to the scholarships that offer you the best chance of success.

2. Respond to the essay prompt

Before you actually write your essay, take some time to figure out what you’re going to write about. To do this, pick apart the essay prompt. What does it explicitly ask for? Is there anything else that you can discern by reading between the lines? Get an idea of what the review committee is looking for, and then give it to them.

Deciding on what you’re going to write about is just as important as the writing itself. No matter what the essay topic is, scholarship committees want to get to know you—and decide whether you’re the person they want to award the scholarship to. This is where the “fit” part comes in. If you feel like what the review committee is looking for isn’t what you have to offer, consider finding a scholarship that better matches your qualifications.

3. Write like your essay is being graded

Once you actually start writing, it’s important to follow the formal rules of essay composition. Remember the class you took on how to structure an essay? Do that. Is your grammar correct? Are you using paragraphs properly? Did you proofread for typos? Imagine that you’re turning in the essay to be graded.

4. Put the effort in

This might go without saying, but you’re never going to win a scholarship if you don’t put the effort in. If your essay isn’t going to stand out, it’s not worth submitting, so max out the word limit. If you don’t, you’re wasting opportunities to convince the review committee that you’re the right person to receive the award. (And make no mistake, other candidates will be using all of that space to make the case for themselves.)

Because scholarships are so competitive, it’s important to do everything you can to distinguish yourself. It’ll be work, but this is another reason why it’s so critical to pick the right scholarships to apply to. If you focus on five scholarships instead of 50, you’ll have far fewer essays to write, and you’ll be able to put your full resources toward each of them.

Examples of scholarship essays that won

Example 1

Stella Gitelman Willoughby, an incoming freshman at Berklee College of Music, received the OppU Achievers Scholarship in May 2018.

Stella’s essay

I am an unlikely achiever. I stumble daily—literally from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and seizures, metaphorically from autism, dyslexia, and a mood disorder. Every moment is unpredictable; I balance precariously. I fight to regulate my senses, emotions, and body in space. It is only once I fall that I can pick myself up, rebalance from my misstep, and move forward.

Through my music composition I steady myself. Rooted on the piano bench, rapt in sound, improvising melodies and harmonies, quickly notating ideas, I am in command. My dysregulation, stress, anxiety, instability—my obstacles—become music. I work my tension into minor triads or uncomfortable intervals, possibly a tritone. Gaining calm and control, I conclude the Largo movement and the music develops into a brighter Allegro, or Vivace. I might boldly attempt triplet passages, with accelerando.

My musical expressions, the embodiment of my challenges, have won awards nationally and internationally. I am an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award winner. Concert halls in Boston, Manhattan, St. Louis, Honolulu, Canada and Italy, have echoed with sounds of my compositions. I have received commissions from members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Canada and had my work played by members of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. My pieces have been performed at renowned venues such as Old South Church in Boston and Lincoln Center in New York. At each performance and with every award, I recall my unsteady journey to this blissful moment. I relish and savor the present.

My goal is to be a professional classical music composer. When I compose, I am at my best. I am smiling. I feel capable and confident. Since becoming a teen, my parents have instilled in me the need to develop self-advocacy skills, and work toward independence and financially supporting myself. Through music composition, I know I can succeed. I have already laid the foundation from which to build a career. For these reasons, I choose to pursue a degree in music composition.

Tomorrow I may wake up feeling physically or emotionally insecure. My joints or ligaments might feel particularly tight or abnormally loose, I may be overwhelmed by assignments, struggle with hearing loss I experience with seizures, or simply be over-stimulated by fluorescent lighting. Yet, I will seep into the piano bench. I will start anew, equipped with blank staff paper and a pencil. I know I can achieve; I’ve done it before. I will right, and write, my woes into wins.

Through my music I hope to bring beauty and joy to others, and inspire strength in them to confront their challenges. My dream is that one day a child will be so moved by my music that she will say, “I too want to write music!” Or, when someone needs cheering up, he will hear my music and say, “I feel much better.” Most of all, I hope that a person with similar struggles to mine will listen and say, “Wow, I now know that one day I too can achieve and excel at my passion!”

Why we liked it

Stella’s essay is a perfect example of how important it is to find a scholarship that matches your qualifications.

For the OppU Achievers Scholarship, we ask applicants to tell us about what makes them an achiever. What we’re looking for essentially breaks down into three pieces:

  1. Ways in which applicants have overcome obstacles
  2. Ways in which applicants have achieved success
  3. Ways in which applicants have helped others

Stella’s essay met all of these criteria. In the first paragraph, she lists the obstacles she’s overcome:

“I stumble daily—literally from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and seizures, metaphorically from autism, dyslexia, and a mood disorder.”

In the third paragraph, she provides concrete examples of her accomplishments:

“I am an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award winner…”

In the last paragraph, she tells us about how she hopes to use her success to help others:

“Most of all, I hope that a person with similar struggles to mine will listen and say, “Wow, I now know that one day I too can achieve and excel at my passion!””

Because of this, Stella succeeds in what she’s writing about, but she also succeeds in how she’s writing about it. The essay is grammatically flawless. It contains no typos. It’s written with elegance and illustrates—with concrete examples—exactly what we’re looking for: that Stella is an achiever who has overcome obstacles to make her dreams and the dreams of others come true.

Example 2

Anthony O’Leary, a senior at Kearny High School in California, won our scholarship in November 2018.

Anthony’s essay

William Samuel Johnson once made a statement, “He knows not his own strength who hath not met adversity.” I have spent one-third of my life in foster homes due to abuse by my parents. My mother had me at 15, and punished me for “ruining” her life. When she left, my father was a single parent and high school dropout with few opportunities, thus his anger was directed at me. My second trip to the child protective system was my last and I ended up in a loving home.

In looking back at the person I was at age 12, turmoil surrounded me. I heard that I wasn’t college material, I had no mother in my life, I had a father that was angry at me, I thought little of myself, and I had no contact with my little brother for a year. The easiest path would have been to choose anger and bitterness, and give up. Instead, I volunteered to help those agencies that helped me along the way. My character and strength developed out of my struggles.

During this time, a lot of agencies offered me support, so at age 13, I contacted them and offered my support. At first, I was nervous, but suddenly my problems started fading as I started volunteering. The community servant in me was born. I joined a panel of foster youth to help recruit advocates. I gave keynote speeches at fundraising events that raised more than two million dollars. Suddenly, community leaders wanted to speak to me and my story of triumph inspired others. At age 14, the mayor of San Diego appointed me to the San Diego Youth Commission. I founded my own organization, “Elevate Foster Youth,” which is designed to provide referrals or resources to foster youth. My current project is developing a music studio where foster youth can record their own music, expressing their innermost feelings about their lives. I was one of five students nationally to receive a $2,000 grant towards my work through a Power of Children Award. Later, I was interviewed by a local news station as a Voices for Children advocate.

My experiences have made me a better person. I have developed a keen sense of humor, which not only helped me through tough times, but it helps me each day in my interaction with others. I have worked with and met diverse groups of people from all walks of life, polishing my communication skills at every turn. When faced with obstacles that may seem impossible to many, I feel little trepidation and I am happy to meet the challenges. Personally, I have compassion for others and a desire to help those less fortunate. Finally, I am determined to succeed. I am excited to begin college in the fall of 2019 and work towards a career in a management field that will utilize my strengths. In thinking of that Samuel Johnson quote, I have met adversity and I am stronger because of it.

Why we liked it

Similar to Stella, Anthony responds to our essay prompt in a way that demonstrates that he meets all of the criteria we use to evaluate candidates. In the first paragraph he tells us about what he’s overcome:

“I have spent one-third of my life in foster homes due to abuse by my parents.”

In the third paragraph he tells us about what he’s achieved for himself and others:

“The community servant in me was born. I joined a panel of foster youth to help recruit advocates.”

Overall, Anthony’s essay provides a compelling account of the obstacles he’s overcome in life, the achievements he’s accomplished for himself, and the good he’s done for others.

Example 3

Jarai Njie, a pre-med student at the University of Florida, won the OppU Achievers Scholarship in August of 2018.

Jarai’s essay

Being born in America to West African parents meant that I had to grow up in West Africa as my parents didn’t have legal residential status. Growing up as a young West African girl in The Gambia, I experienced numerous stereotypes emphasizing what a female cannot educationally achieve.

This has always motivated me to pursue an education which will enable me to break such stereotypes. I’ve always been influenced and inspired by humanitarians all over the world, however, nothing inspired me more than being brought up in a country with a healthcare system that was as deteriorated as that of The Gambia’s. I was raised in an environment where the simple flu or stomachache took one’s life within a matter of days. I saw my sister experience two stillbirths simply because prenatal care is almost nonexistent in The Gambia. All these things motivated me.

The thought of young Gambian girls facing female genital mutilation (FGM) and confirming to early marriage plays a significant role in my life as I am only lucky to have escaped these circumstances. I have worked with the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital (RVTH) to raise awareness about FGM. RVTH frequently sent young educated girls like me to form a friendly relationship with underprivileged girls who were susceptible to FGM. My role during such missionary trips was to enlighten families about the medical risks and emotional trauma that FGM poses on girls.

At the age of 16, my parents raised enough money to be able to send me back to my country of birth, America. Upon arrival, I beat the odds of being another girl without a post-secondary education. While completing my high school education, I took seven AP classes every semester, competed in student congress debate (as I was fascinated by American politics), and I joined the student government in order to implement a non-profit cause; The Water Project. As the founder of The Water Project, I raised over $500 in order to enable access to clean water to a needy village in The Gambia.

As I speak today, I am a very proud African-American Gator studying public health with pre –med at the University of Florida where I continue to heavily indulge in community service work. As the treasurer of the African Student Union, my main purpose is to skew funds towards the needy in Alachua County. Every other weekend, we partner with the Ronald McDonald members to feed the homeless and needy.

As a college junior taking 18 credits and juggling two jobs my main goal is to pursue my best academic capabilities as I get ready for the real world. My mission in life will always be to join the helping hands of today as I contribute to a better tomorrow as I work relentlessly towards becoming a gynecologist to help underprivileged women all over the world.

I wish I could entirely express my life goals and experiences in only 500 words, however, one thing I can say is that I wouldn’t change my journey for any other as I am more than grateful for every learning experience that I have overcome in my life.

Why we liked it

Jarai’s essay proves that a good scholarship essay depends on two things: the candidate’s qualifications, and the candidate’s ability to communicate those qualifications. Her story was exactly the type of story we were looking for, and her essay provided all the material we needed to see that.

In the first paragraph, Jarai offers a quick description of the obstacles she’s overcome:

“Growing up as a young West African girl in The Gambia, I experienced numerous stereotypes emphasizing what a female cannot educationally achieve.”

She goes on to list all of her accomplishments: seven AP classes, student government, founded a nonprofit, active in community service. These are impressive enough on their own, but what made the essay stand out is that it captured the passion that Jarai brings to her work advocating for the causes she cares about:

“I was raised in an environment where the simple flu or stomachache took one’s life within a matter of days. I saw my sister experience two stillbirths simply because prenatal care is almost nonexistent in The Gambia. All these things motivated me.”

Bottom line

These three essay examples are very different from one another. However, what they have in common is that they all convinced us that the applicant was the right person to receive the OppU Achievers Scholarship.

Here’s how they did it, and how you can do it too.

1. The applicants found the right scholarship

All of the applicants did the work to find the right scholarship. When they submitted their essay, they were competing against many other impressive candidates. However, their unique qualifications matched up with the qualifications we were looking for.

2. The essays gave us the information we wanted

All of the essays responded to what we asked for in our essay prompt. This is critical. Even if you know all of the reasons why you’re the perfect candidate to receive a scholarship, it’s up to you to communicate that to the review committee. The winning essays did this.

3. The essays were well-written

You don’t have to be a Hemingway to write a good scholarship essay. However, you do need to write your essay in a way that meets the formal standards of composition, which the winning essays did. They adhered to a tight paragraph structure and contained no grammatical errors or typos. They stated a thesis (that the applicant is an achiever) and supported it with evidence. If these essays were submitted for a class at school, they would all receive an A.

4. The applicants put in the effort

All of the essays clock in at just about 500 words—the limit stated in our essay prompt. And while they didn’t win because they were long, the applicants did take full advantage of the word limit. They provided as much evidence as possible that they should be the ones to get the scholarship, and we agreed with them.

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Did you write a winning scholarship essay? What tips do you have? Let us know on Twitter at @OppUniversity.