College Scholarship Essay Writing Guide

By Jacqueline DeMarco · October 30, 2023 · 8 minute read

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College Scholarship Essay Writing Guide

Scholarships can be a great way to get help paying for college, but unfortunately the competition for these awards can be intense. Many college scholarships require writing an essay as a part of the application process.

Writing an exceptional college scholarship essay stand out is just one thing that can help set your application apart from the rest. Continue reading for tips on crafting a strong college scholarship essay.

1. Plan Ahead

Let’s start with one of the most practical tips for writing a scholarship essay. The first step to success when writing a college scholarship essay is to not procrastinate. Plan ahead to make sure there is plenty of time to write the essay, review it, and edit it.

It’s also important to write down the deadline and to set reminders as that deadline nears. If you’re applying for multiple scholarships consider setting up a tracker with important deadlines and application requirements so you can stay on top of the needs for each application.

Allowing enough time to write and edit can help you improve the quality of the essay, instead of trying to cram at the last minute.

2. Write to Your Audience

All scholarship providers are looking for students who meet certain criteria. Often this criteria includes students who have experiences or interests that match the mission of their organization.

Spending some time researching the organization offering the scholarship can help give essay writers the ability to customize their essay to their unique audience. If their writing can illustrate an alignment of values, their essay may be more memorable.

3. Read the Instructions and Follow Them

Before starting an essay, students should take their time to carefully read all application instructions and make a plan to follow them. No matter how strong an essay is, if the applicant fails to follow the instructions they may find themselves disqualified from the competition.

4. Pick a Topic You Care About

Because scholarship application essays can feel like a lot of work, it’s helpful if the writer chooses a topic they are really passionate about. Their essay will come across as more genuine and meaningful if they care about what they are writing about which will make a stronger impact on the scholarship committee than if they chose to write about a more generic topic.

5. Crafting a Strong Introduction

The introduction is the first chance the student has to capture the attention of their essay reviewer. It’s a good idea to spend some extra time crafting a compelling introduction so that the reader is interested, and excited, to finish the essay.

6. Pay Attention to Style

College scholarship essay reviewers will be more impressed by essays that take spelling, grammar, and general style into account. Read and re-read your essay to ensure that the tone of voice is consistent and there are no grammatical errors. Get some other opinions on the writing too. Consider asking teachers, counselors, or trusted friends or family members to review the essay before submitting it. A second set of eyes can go a long way in catching spelling, grammar, or style issues.

7. Follow a Pre-Planned Structure

To avoid having a messy essay, starting with an outline can help. Sit down and create a pre-planned structure before starting to write the actual essay. It can be helpful to think about how to incorporate the following messages into the outline.

•  Who are you? And why are you who you are?

•  What have you accomplished?

•  What are you hoping to accomplish in school and after school?

•  Why do you need a scholarship?

•  How will a scholarship make a difference?

8. Show, Don’t Tell

Another key scholarship application essay tip is to show, not tell. What do we mean by that? Instead of telling the reader exactly what they need to know, show them what they need to know.

For example, if a student wants the reader to know they are committed to their community, instead of saying “I am committed to my community” they can show this by saying, “I volunteer at my local dog shelter and beach clean up organization to help improve the life in our community for all residents and pets.”

9. Sell Yourself

It’s important to use the space in a college scholarship application to highlight achievements and how the scholarship will make it possible to achieve future goals. Pick a few select accomplishments or traits to focus on so the essay isn’t too heavy handed, but don’t shy away from being complementary.

10. Reread and Spell Check, Spell Check, Spell Check

We mentioned paying attention to spelling and grammar earlier, but as a friendly reminder don’t forget to do one last spell check at the end. This is one of the most important scholarship essay writing tips to keep in mind.

Our eyes get used to seeing what we type, so print out the essay and review it on paper to catch typos you may have missed on the screen. This is another time it’s a good idea to ask for a second set of eyes to look at the essay and to flag any errors. Be especially careful to double check the spelling of the name of the scholarship or organization.

Alternatives to Scholarships

Scholarships generally don’t need to be repaid and finding this free money for college can be an incredibly helpful resource for students trying to pay for college. Spending time applying for scholarships is well worth it. In addition, students may also rely on alternative funding sources to pay for college.

Some common funding sources include grants, federal student loans or private student loans. To apply for federal financial aid, students will need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) each year. This application will allow students to find out if they qualify for federal grants, scholarships, work-study and federal student loans. Some colleges use information provided on the FAFSA to determine institution-specific awards. Continue reading for more information on alternatives to scholarships.


Similar to scholarships, recipients of grants don’t usually need to pay back the money they’re given. Students can check with their college’s financial aid office to learn more about available grants and can fill out the FAFSA annually to see if they qualify for any grants.

Financial Aid

Alongside grants and scholarship, students can also consider pursuing other types of financial aid such as work-study jobs designed to help students earn money to pay for school. Those who served in the military or are the spouse or child of a veteran may be eligible for aid and students who are studying internationally may qualify for unique types of financial aid.

As mentioned, to apply for federal financial aid students will need to fill out the FAFSA each year they are in school.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans come from a variety of different financial institutions and they can help fill any financial gaps left after using financial aid and federal student loans to pay for college. To apply, students will need to file applications directly with the private lenders.

Private student loans don’t necessarily offer the same benefits as federal student loans — like deferment options or income-driven repayment plans. For this reason, students generally consider private student loans after thoroughly reviewing all other options.

Federal Student Loans

Whether someone is an undergraduate or graduate student, federal student loans — which are funded by the U.S. Department of Education — usually have better interest rates and terms than private student loans do and they come with unique federal protections like income based repayment plans.

The Takeaway

Scholarships are a great way to get some financial relief when paying for school, but students shouldn’t expect scholarships to cover all of their higher education expenses. Many students will use a combination of scholarships, grants, savings, and student loans to pay for their education.

When federal student loans and other sources of funding aren’t enough to fully foot the bill, private student loans can be an option to consider. SoFi private student loans have absolutely no fees and allow borrowers to select one of four flexible repayment plans.

SoFi private student loans offer competitive interest rates for qualifying borrowers. Find out if you prequalify in just a few minutes.

3 Student Loan Tips

1.   Can’t cover your school bills? If you’ve exhausted all federal aid options, private student loans can fill gaps in need, up to the school’s cost of attendance, which includes tuition, books, housing, meals, transportation, and personal expenses.

2.   It’s a good idea to understand the pros and cons of private student loans and federal student loans before committing to them.

3.   Even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid, you should fill out the FAFSA form. Many schools require it for merit-based scholarships, too. You can submit it as early as Oct. 1.


How do you start or address your scholarship essay?

To start off a college scholarship essay, it can be helpful to address: what, what, when, where, and why. This way the reader will know the basics of who the student is and why they are applying for the scholarship.

What is the most important thing to avoid in a scholarship essay?

Unnecessary mistakes are the most important thing to avoid when writing a scholarship essay. Double check for spelling or grammatical errors, make note of any key deadlines, and be sure you are fulfilling all application requirements.

How long should scholarship essays be?

All scholarship essays will have different length requirements. Double check the desired word count for the essay before submitting it.

Photo credit: iStock/InspirationGP

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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