As a selector for my university’s main scholarship competition, I read a lot of essays. Every applicant is required to write two for their packet, so I can’t tell you how many stories of overcoming adversity and ‘odes to my mom’ I have read. Based on that experience and having written essays for applications that have won full-tuition scholarships, here are my top tips for writing essays that win:
- Think outside the box
I have read countless essays on people whose parent or grandparent got sick and how helping them through that process made them decide to go into the health professions or how their mom is the most amazing person in the world because of her determination and kindness. I’m not saying these essays are bad, but they certainly aren’t unique.
If you get asked to write on adversity, focus on how it developed grit in you, include your failure in the situation, be real – that is going to make you stand out. If you get asked to write on someone who inspires you, look outside your own family (unless your uncle is Elon Musk – I mean, that is pretty inspiring). We all think somebody in our family is a rockstar, but unless they actually are, show that you’ve had the gumption to find a mentor, or that you appreciate someone who sought you out, or that you have a hero that has done something really big that has inspired you to dream big as well.
- There are points for style
Uniqueness really does catch my eye, and not just when it comes to the content of the essay. If I have an essay written in a unique style that still answers the question fully but gives me more of a sense of the personality and proclivity of the student, that makes a difference in how I think about that application. I’m not saying you need to write a series of haikus, but the applicants that take pains to hook me at the beginning and really develop a compelling story – even if they only have 300 words to do it in – definitely end up at the top of my stack.
- Writing is re-writing
My favorite professor in my undergraduate program famously said, “Writing is re-writing.” If you’re going to have an amazing hook at the beginning of your essay or develop that compelling story, it’s probably going to take you a few tries to do it. The analogy my prof used is in the diagram below:
The first two-thirds of your work is usually static, just loosening up the thought process – kind of like stretching or warming up – he exhorted all of us to write until we hit inspiration, scrap the static, and start with the good idea, so that we had the whole rest of the paper to develop it. In the same way, you need to write multiple drafts, until you come up with a good idea, then scrap the warm-ups and run with the gold.
- Grammar counts
Regardless of whether or not you got graded down for bad capitalization or punctuation skills in middle school, now is the time to prove you know what how to manage the English language. I don’t take points off because I’m a hard-to-please English teacher (or in popular parlance, a grammar nazi), I take them off because the rubric I score with tells me to. I literally read an essay last summer that had no capital letters in it. You aren’t texting, you’re trying to win. Show me that you’re worthy of whatever amount you’re going for, or at least that you’re going to succeed in college.
- You are not your own best editor
“Well of course what I meant was…” No. You don’t get the chance to explain yourself to a selector. You need to have at least one, preferably two, pairs of eyes look over your essay and read for clarity, organization, and flow. If they don’t understand what you’re saying or you have to explain it to them, it’s time to do some of that re-writing. The real key to this tip though, is to have someone read your essay who a) is a (much) better writer than you and b) is secure enough to tell you the truth and not just what you want to hear. Might I suggest your least favorite English teacher?
- Finish strong
Personally, I’ve always found the conclusion of my essay to be the most….
Wasn’t that frustrating? Didn’t you want to know what I was going to say? There are two things to think about in this regard: first, some essays have a strict word or character limit, so it’s important that you check and make sure you’re within those bounds – otherwise your best parting thought might be completely lost. Second, I’ve read essays that don’t literally end with an ellipsis, but they might as well have because there’s no closure. This is your last chance to convince me that you are the best. Make it count.
I hope these tips are helpful as you work on college essays, or proofread for someone who is competing for scholarships. Let me know if there are any other pitfalls you think are essential to avoid or gold-medal advice worth passing on!