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

By
Matt Pelkey, CFEI
Matt Pelkey is a Certified Financial Education Instructor (CFEI). As director of education for OppU, he has successfully implemented personal finance courses, scholarship opportunities, and financial literacy resources for students and adults of all ages.
Updated on March 18, 2021
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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 four simple steps:

  1. Pick the right scholarship.
  2. Give them what they want.
  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. Give them what they want

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 for. 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

Kaycee Hailey, a senior at West Charlotte High School, received the OppU Achievers Scholarship in February 2019.

Kaycee’s essay

“Are you nervous or scared?”

These questions were asked of me in the eighth grade, a time when all of my conversations with peers were centered around high school. I knew that this question, asked by a close friend, had a hidden message that she was unwilling to say. Unluckily, others were undeterred by the need for tact.

“Are you afraid you’re going to get shot?”

This question was asked because of the school I was assigned to attend. West Charlotte High School was known for being low performing, crime-ridden, and segregated by race and class. West Charlotte was unlike any school I had attended. I have witnessed multiple students getting dragged out of the cafeteria in handcuffs or surrounded by cops on campus for dubious suspicions of crimes. My peers have been subjected to baseless bag checks in the middle of class. I can recall countless times when student movement has been prohibited on campus due to threats to our safety. During a rare field trip opportunity, my peers and I were followed by a dozen police officers because we looked “suspicious.” In the classroom, we experience inferior conditions when compared to students at different schools in our district. Few advanced courses are offered, and teacher turnover is rampant as educators quickly become frustrated with the conditions of our school.

I knew that I wanted to change the circumstances around me. First, I strove to be a model student. I took advantage of the limited course offerings at my school and filled my schedule with International Baccalaureate classes. As an IB ambassador I prepare underclassmen to do the same. Next, I wrote about my experiences of educational inequity in the largest publication in the Carolinas. My writing has brought me to the stage of the largest theater in Charlotte. I have represented my peers on several news platforms. I have spoken on panels with Board of Education members, civil rights activists, local politicians, and leaders of educational organizations such as Teach For America. As a speaker for the local organization Community Building Initiative, I promote partnerships between companies and Title I schools. All of this work is fueled by my desire to create a more equitable education system.

While I am proud to be a representative of my school, I know that most of my peers also have compelling stories to tell. This year, I established my school’s student-led newspaper. This newspaper has given my peers a place to share their creative writing and art. I also include a student assignment spotlight, to ensure that my peers are getting recognition for their hard work in the classroom. This newspaper encourages my peers to develop their writing skills and identify their academic interests. I take pride in knowing that my contribution has shown my peers that they have powerful voices that deserve to be heard. Obtaining higher education will allow me to continue uplifting voices and fighting for educational equity in a professional setting.

Why we liked it

Kaycee’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 components:

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

Kaycee’s essay met all of these criteria. She begins by listing the obstacles she’s overcome:

“I have witnessed multiple students getting dragged out of the cafeteria in handcuffs or surrounded by cops on campus for dubious suspicions of crimes. My peers have been subjected to baseless bag checks in the middle of class. I can recall countless times when student movement has been prohibited on campus due to threats to our safety. During a rare field trip opportunity, my peers and I were followed by a dozen police officers because we looked “suspicious.” In the classroom, we experience inferior conditions when compared to students at different schools in our district. Few advanced courses are offered, and teacher turnover is rampant as educators quickly become frustrated with the conditions of our school.”

She then provides concrete examples of her accomplishments, and she includes links that document them:

“I took advantage of the limited course offerings at my school and filled my schedule with International Baccalaureate classes. As an IB ambassador I prepare underclassmen to do the same. Next, I wrote about my experiences of educational inequity in the largest publication in the Carolinas. My writing has brought me to the stage of the largest theater in Charlotte.”

Next, she details the work she’s done to help others, again providing documentation with a link:

“I have represented my peers on several news platforms. I have spoken on panels with Board of Education members, civil rights activists, local politicians, and leaders of educational organizations such as Teach For America. As a speaker for the local organization Community Building Initiative, I promote partnerships between companies and Title I schools. All of this work is fueled by my desire to create a more equitable education system.”

Because of this, Kaycee 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 Kaycee is an achiever who has overcome obstacles to make her dreams and the dreams of others come true.

Example 2

Ian Tapu, a law student at the University of Hawaii, won our scholarship in November 2019.

Ian’s essay

I intimately understand that for far too long, underrepresented groups, especially Pacific Islanders (PI), have been conditioned to believe our only connection with the law is the criminal justice system. It is not surprising to accept this truism when it is our bodies that are disproportionately criminalized and as a result overly represented in the prison population. At a time in which immigrants are hotly political and contested, I am an achiever because I was raised by immigrants from Samoa and Tonga.

When I started law school, I noticed there were no student organizations that supported or advocated on behalf of PI students and as a response, I founded the first- ever Pacific Islander Legal Association. Within three months of our formation, I organized the first-ever Pre-Law Symposium for Pacific Islanders. The goal of the two-day symposium was to demystify the application process and empower PIs to see they have a space in the field of law. The symposium included two keynote speakers — a Samoan First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and the first Samoan judge in the United States — a panel of PI law students, a panel of PI legal professionals, a resume and personal statement writing workshop, a practice LSAT exam, a campus tour, and an admissions and financial aid informational session. What started as an endeavor with the hope of attracting 15 participants, ballooned into a movement with 77 attendees that hailed from a swath of island nations including New Zealand, Marshall Islands, Tonga, Fiji, Pohnpei, Samoa, Guam, and Hawaii.

My advocacy for my community then found its way to the state legislature. As the President of the Lambda Law Student Association, I pushed for a new bill that would create a third gender option for driver’s licenses. I organized student participation, set up lobby days at the state Capitol, and testified in front of and held meetings with various state politicians which eventually led to the passing of the law. My advocacy was rooted in cultural values and particularly in recognizing that Polynesians have always acknowledged the beauty and power of genders beyond the binary and Hawai‘i, in particular, is the number one state in terms of the highest percentage of the population that identifies as transgender.

Because of my work with the legislature and in law school, I was able to intern with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City advocating for LGBT rights and published an article in the Hawai‘i Bar Journal on the importance of cultural competence in working and interacting with transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. I have one goal as a gay Pacific Islander — to utilize the law as a tool for empowerment instead of oppression. If our peoples were able to traverse the largest ocean in the world and connect the smallest land masses, then why can’t we as Pacific Islanders now be that bridge that utilizes the language of law in order to uplift our communities?

Why we liked it

Similar to Kaycee, Ian 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 intimately understand that for far too long, underrepresented groups, especially Pacific Islanders (PI), have been conditioned to believe our only connection with the law is the criminal justice system. It is not surprising to accept this truism when it is our bodies that are disproportionately criminalized and as a result overly represented in the prison population. At a time in which immigrants are hotly political and contested, I am an achiever because I was raised by immigrants from Samoa and Tonga.”

He then details what he’s achieved for himself and others:

When I started law school, I noticed there were no student organizations that supported or advocated on behalf of PI students and as a response, I founded the first- ever Pacific Islander Legal Association. Within three months of our formation, I organized the first-ever Pre-Law Symposium for Pacific Islanders. The goal of the two-day symposium was to demystify the application process and empower PIs to see they have a space in the field of law. The symposium included two keynote speakers — a Samoan First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and the first Samoan judge in the United States — a panel of PI law students, a panel of PI legal professionals, a resume and personal statement writing workshop, a practice LSAT exam, a campus tour, and an admissions and financial aid informational session. What started as an endeavor with the hope of attracting 15 participants, ballooned into a movement with 77 attendees that hailed from a swath of island nations including New Zealand, Marshall Islands, Tonga, Fiji, Pohnpei, Samoa, Guam, and Hawaii.

Overall, Ian’s essay provides a thorough 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

Keniece Gray, an incoming law student at Georgetown, won the OppU Achievers Scholarship in May of 2018.

Keniece’s essay

My experiences overcoming adversity in order to access high-quality education and professional opportunities while living in one of America’s most impoverished and segregated cities has equipped me with a skill that enables achievement in unlikely circumstances, mental tenacity. This tenacity has empowered me to exceed the mediocre expectations that society has set for people raised in communities like mine, places plagued by high crime and poverty rates and low levels of education and hope. As one of the few people in my community with access to academic and career opportunities in communities of wealth, I feel obligated to push for equity in such spaces. This sense of obligation motivates me to leverage my platforms of privilege to provide members of under-served communities with resources they need to excel in academia and the workforce.

My position as a minority in terms of age, race, gender, or geographic origin in the classroom and workplace has often made me the target of discriminatory behaviors. While in college, I depended on the mental toughness I acquired growing up to handle persistent encounters with racism, sexism, and classism I faced as the only African –American student in the college’s combined master of accountancy program. Instead of allowing the discrimination to decimate my academic success, I employed strategies that I learned from mentors and inclusion training such as focusing on my strengths and seeking professional help to cope.

In 2017, after graduating and becoming one of less than 35% of people in Cleveland, Ohio, with a college degree, I amplified my commitment to helping other students of color excel academically and professionally. I relied on what I learned about pipeline development while completing seven internships and studying abroad to found Journey to the Board (JTTB), an organization providing underrepresented students with critical career skills. To date, JTTB has sponsored more than 25 student memberships in professional organizations and three passport applications to encourage study abroad. While serving as the International Second Vice President of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., I spearheaded efforts that raised more than $75,000 for minority student scholarships. In 2018, after becoming a member of the nation’s relatively small percentage of Black homeowners, I began educating millennials of color about saving for home ownership and avoiding predatory lending. Last year, while serving as the board development chairman for the local Boys & Girls Club Young Professionals Board, I created the inaugural board diversity assessment that is now being used to ensure board representation is reflective of the Club’s population. Now, I am preparing to attend law school this fall to disrupt the pervasive racial and gender biases in the legal industry and learn how to harness the law for social change.

My story is a testament that the power of the mind is not a joke. I hope that my work inspires individuals from similar backgrounds as me to believe that they too can defy stereotypes and optimize opportunities. More importantly, I hope my story influences others to reach back while climbing forward.

Why we liked it

Keniece’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. Keniece is exactly the type of candidate we were looking for, and her essay provided all the material we needed to see that.

In the second paragraph, Keniece describes the obstacles she’s overcome:

“My position as a minority in terms of age, race, gender, or geographic origin in the classroom and workplace has often made me the target of discriminatory behaviors. While in college, I depended on the mental toughness I acquired growing up to handle persistent encounters with racism, sexism, and classism I faced as the only African –American student in the college’s combined master of accountancy program.”

She goes on to list all of her accomplishments: seven internships, 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 Keniece brings to her work advocating for the causes she cares about:

“I hope that my work inspires individuals from similar backgrounds as me to believe that they too can defy stereotypes and optimize opportunities. More importantly, I hope my story influences others to reach back while climbing forward.”

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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