By Ikenna Odinaka (This article was originally first published on AfterSchoolAfrica website www.afterschoolafrica.com in September 2019. It is being republished by YOH to help reach those youths who missed this important article.)
One of the most valuable skills you can develop as a student applying for scholarship is to learn How to Write Winning Scholarship Essay. In today’s article, we deal justice to this topic of writing scholarship essay. At After School Africa, interviewed many scholarship winners and shared some of their insights on how to write your essay.
We would score them and give a justification for why we think this person should be shortlisted or not. It was really interesting you get to know people through these essays. I read some really good essays, but I read some really bad ones too, ones that you can tell that people didn’t put a lot of thought into it. If you think that nobody is going to read this scholarship application, somebody’s going to read it, so spend some time thinking through your essay.
Leticia, (Mozambican) Scholarship Winner and Canon Collins Scholarship Application Assessor
If your application makes it through the first stage, for most scholarship competitions, it is the essay that will make or break your chances of winning. The essay offers you the best opportunity to demonstrate to the scholarship judges why you deserve to win. The application form may get you through the first stages; it is the essay that will get you into the hall of fame.
One thing that mattered a lot in my application was my essay. In fact many foreign schools use a candidate’s essay a lot to determine the student’s qualification.
Ugo, (Nigerian) MasterCard Foundation Scholar at University of Toronto
If the essay is this important, you have to invest considerable time to write an engaging and compelling essay.
First, do not underestimate the time it will take you to come up with quality content. Don’t assume you can write a quality essay the night before deadline. Writing a quality essay takes time and effort. In this chapter, we will dive into how to write winning essays for your scholarship application.
Why do applications require applicants to submit an essay? It doesn’t matter what you are asked to write about, the judges want to answer the question: why should we award you this scholarship instead of the other candidate?
Whether you are asked to “explain in 1,500 words why you should be named the Fondation Rainbow Bridge Scholar at the HEC MBA Program, while identifying your post-MBA goals”, or “What is the effect of Climate change in sub-Saharan Africa?”, the judges are asking the same question (in their own language), “why do you deserve to win this award?”Your purpose of writing the essay is to show why you deserve to win.
A lot of students make the costly mistake of focusing their essay on how they are from a poor country, can’t afford quality education and need aid. While there are millions of people in such conditions across Africa, scholarship providers are not looking for people to get out of poverty. They are often looking for people who are the right fit for their institution or organization and /or have the qualities to give back and make a difference.
Then the other issue of concern is that you should know the objective; the reasons why you are applying for that scholarship. Many people, because they know that scholarships are associated with benefits (like the stipend allowances) will say their target is, “if I get this scholarship, it will help solve my financial problems”. No, this scholarship is not to solve your financial problems. It is meant to empower you with knowledge so that you can go transform your community. One has to know the short term, the mid term and the lifetime career that they would be pursuing after this scholarship. That’s what I think would be very important in the essay.
Mark David, (Uganda) Commonwealth Scholarship winner
In your essay they want to see that you are interested in giving back to Africa. I think I am passionate about how I want to give back to my community after studying at the University of Toronto and that’s probably what the scholarship officials saw. I love to teach. I used to volunteer to teach students and I put all that in my essay. So generally, extracurricular activities actually helped to beef up my essay.
Another thing that may have gotten me this scholarship is what Ugo mentioned and that was my desire to develop Africa in return from the scholarship. So I think thoughtfully writing my essay and putting all these necessary things in it went a long way.
Brorhie, (Nigeria), MasterCard Scholar at the University of Toronto
For most scholarships, you have to write a personal essay. You don’t just write these things anyhow… You have to tailor these statements along the interests of the university. I had to look into my background to see what I could write about that showed I had the right background, the right interest and that I was prepared to add value to the university while adding value to myself.
Afolabi Kazir, multi award scholarship winner
At this point, you already know the importance of getting informed on the objective of the scholarship you are applying for. You must apply this knowledge to write your essay.
You need to make adequate research; research extensively about the course you’re going to apply for. Research the importance of that course in your country. For instance, if you get the knowledge how will it help you to transform your community or the country? Then also one has to research about the university. So basically those can help one to write a successful and impressive essay.
In addition to Mark’s recommendations, do not start writing your essay without answering these five questions.
- What is this scholarship about?
- What is the mission of the organization?
- Why have the judges asked this question or posed this topic? What do they want to learn about me?
- Recognizing that the purpose of the essays is to share my personality, how will the judges get to know me through this essay?
- Why are they providing scholarship money?
Answering these questions gives you a broader perspective of why you are doing this in the first place. It will help you stay focused on what is important.
As you write your essay to show why you deserve to win, keep in mind that everything you include in your essay should demonstrate how you fit the purpose of the scholarship organization.
In applying for the scholarship, I had to write an essay on how my proposed course of study would help in the actualization of the Millenium development goals in my country. The task was therefore writing an essay that will show how knowledge gathered during my Physical Organic Chemistry course would help me in contributing my quota in achieving the MDGs in my home country.
Oluwaseun Mesele, (Nigerian) Winner Commonwealth Shared Scholarship at Cardiff University (Masters)
Here are fundamentals to guide you through writing your essay.
If you don’t know where you are going, you won’t know when you get there. Some applications ask you to write essay on specific topics like, “Why did you choose to study in UK?” In other instances, you are asked a broad question like “Write a personal statement about you.” In the first instance, you don’t need to think about a topic, but you need to develop an attitude or perspective for your essay.
In the second instance, you need to decide both the topic and the attitude. Let’s talk about attitude. Think of attitude as the angle you want to be seen from, and not about “putting up an attitude” about your interest in the scholarship. After someone has read your essay, how do you want them to perceive you?
Your attitude for an essay might be of a person who demonstrates personal traits that are similar to the traits of the person for whom the scholarship is named. For example, The Women Techmakers Scholars Program – formerly the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship is offered in honor of Anita Borg, “for her life time effort in revolutionizing the way we think about technology and dismantling barriers that keep women and minorities from entering computing and technology fields”. The attitude could be to express similar personality as Anita Borg; a vibrant and daring personality, who advocates for women in technology.
Your attitude might be to demonstrate commitment to lead and succeed in spite of uncertainties and circumstances. Whatever attitude you decide to adopt for your essay, make sure it represents who you are and fits the purpose of the scholarship. A Medical study award, for example, may not need a vibrant and daring candidate who lacks the self-discipline and seriousness necessary for rigorous medical studies. Instead a diligent, kind-hearted person, passionate about caring for vulnerable people will suffice.
If the essay does not come with a clear topic, adopting an attitude for your essay will guide you to come up with a topic.
If you cannot imagine a body without a skeleton, then you shouldn’t start writing your essay without an online. An outline is the blueprint for your presentation. Some people prefer to just write and worry about organizing their thoughts later. That may work for them. For most people, writing becomes easier when you first outline how to present your thoughts. You have an idea of where to go next once you start writing. It’s like a roadmap to lead you through the right twists and turns to your destination.
Writing an outline:
- Aids the process of your writing.
- Helps you organize your ideas.
- Helps you transition smoothly from one point to the next
- Presents your material in a structural and logical form.
- Shows the relationships among ideas in your writing.
If you hate sitting down and writing for three or four hours, creating an outline will break your writing up into bite-sized chunks. You can sit down, elaborate on a few important points; take a break. Come back when you are ready and continue where you left off.
An outline typically has the following components.
- Opening – a surprising revelation to establish your topic and core message
- Supporting point one
- Supporting point two
- Supporting point three
- Conclusion – Recap main points; summarize core message
This simple 3-part outline formula is seen to work well in novels, short stories, movies, plays, reports, business briefings, emails, memos, and many other forms of communication. You can’t go wrong using this format for your essay.
When writing your outline, feel free to adopt this format as you deem fit. It can expand to something easier to work with like the example below.
- Attention grabbing opening which introduces the topic and core message
- Tell a story.
- Make a point
- Tell another story.
- Make another point.
- Tell another story.
- Make another point
- Memorable conclusion which ties together all three stories to support the core message.
For short essays, tell one significant story and draw the lesson from that experience.
Some scholarship applications require you write several short essays for one application. Usually, the topics/questions are like sub-sections of one essay. It’s like a default outline where you just fill in the space. In that case, treat it as one essay.
Charles explains this from writing four essays for his Chevening Scholarship application.
The application requires four essays about 500 words each. When I was writing my essays I saw it as one long essay; I didn’t see it as four different essays. If you’re talking about academic background, you should be able to understand who you are, your vision and how your vision applies to that. There shouldn’t be a disconnection between you and what you are talking about. Leadership should link to networking; networking should link to your vision; your vision should link to your academics; and your academic can move back to leadership. It’s a cycle. I didn’t grade the essays but that was what I tried to do. [And it got me the scholarship]. And I noticed it goes for other scholars I’ve met.
Charles Adedugba, (Nigerian), Chevening Scholarship winner
Write your first draft
You have your topic, an attitude and an outline for your essay. Now is the time to start writing. Go with the flow. Write. Don’t bother about errors. Don’t hold yourself back. Don’t bother about the rules. Just write.
Tell the Story of the Person behind the Application
Remember when you were asked to write an essay in school on ‘The Effect of Urban Migration on Youth Development in our Society’? Remember how much you wanted to impress your teacher with grandiloquent expressions, to sound intelligent? If you do, then writing an application essay is not anything like it. If your teacher was honest, they’ll tell you how bored they were reading those class essays. The judges are also likely to be tuned of if you write that way.
Instead of playing the poor-me card or trying to impress with grammatical expressions, tell your authentic story.
In both my applications [Mandela Rhodes and Commonwealth Scholarships], I really tried to be genuine in who I was; my upbringing, my experience. I am from Mozambique. I grew up there. My father is Mozambican, my mother is Brazilian. I already have different upbringing. I was brought up in an interracial home, my father is albino, my parents both worked in education. I tried to convey the message of who I was as a person.
For me, honestly, in my personal story, I started off as a person who had low self esteem. I had this idea when I was a third year student at the University of Nairobi. I wanted to connect with and help young people. And this was as a result of volunteering in a slump within Nairobi where I saw young people in a poor environment and even families that cannot afford to provide food or quality education or even opportunities for themselves. My story is a story of a person who was suffering from low self esteem, who wanted to commit suicide but at a point came a mindset shift because I engaged young people and I could connect with them and I became passionate about them. There are people out there who are actually suffering from low self esteem and these are young people who really want to know where to go from here. When I apply for opportunities I don’t shy away from telling the judges about this story. I want them to connect with my story because if they can connect with me at a human level, they can connect with me at other levels.
Brian Chesoli (Kenyan), MasterCard Foundation Youth Advisor and multi youth award winner
Scholarship providers understand that your success in life will not be based on academic grades alone but on the kind of person you are, how you approach challenges, your work ethics and values. Your GPA may be an indicator of your potential, but you will have to figure out how to reach that potential. Go beyond academics and tell the story of the person behind the application.
Craft an Effective Opening
Your introduction should intrigue and encourage your reader to keep reading, while establishing your topic and core message. You can achieve this using any of the following triggers:
A surprising revelation;
Example: I am a literacy volunteer. I did not decide to do this work because studies report that 21% of adults (over 40 million) in this country are functionally illiterate or because 43% of people with reading deficiencies live in poverty or even because 70% of people with reading deficiencies have no job or only a part time job. My reason for becoming a literacy volunteer is much simpler. My Dad couldn’t read.
Example: By the time you are done reading this sentence, one child would have been sexually or physically abused somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
This example could also pass for ‘surprising revelation’ as well.
Make a thoughtful statement;
Example: Entrepreneurship is like changing a flat tyre while the car is in motion.
You can ask a thought-provoking question or tell a quick story. Whatever you decide, let it lure the reader to keep reading. You don’t have to write your opening first. You can start with the body and come back to the opening when you are done.
Craft the Body
Here are some helpful tips when crafting the body of your essay.
Show you have a Purpose beyond Earning a Degree
I’ve always dreamt of helping people and I have known that in whatever sphere of life I’m in and whatever university I finish from, my end goal would be to help people. Where I come from in the northern part of Nigeria actually requires much of these aids because there is suffering in the land. I see how difficult it is to access healthcare and the government is not doing much in that area. I made the scholarship officials understand that the scholarship would enable me reach this goal.
Don’t be afraid to write about your dreams and ambition; and how the scholarship will help you achieve them. Your dreams should go beyond self-centered ambition.
Emphasize your accomplishments
Don’t just mention your position or what you did. Point out how you did it, and highlight the personal traits it required to get it done.
So if I were to write this kind of leadership skills, I will say, during my time in school I was the president of GVC choir. [I would] Give statistics of the GVC choir. GVC is made up of 200 persons and I was responsible for running this society. During my time as the president, I executed two projects. One, a concert; two, a visit to a motherless babies home and this is what we did. You don’t have to restrict it to something formal. If you have something formal in that regard, very good. How you present it goes a long way to influence their decision.
Chuka Oham, Multi-scholarship award winner
Show Confidence in Your Abilities
Let the reader see you as someone who is confident in his or her abilities. Don’t come off as someone seeking for pity.
I’ve been opportune to study not just in Australia but also in the United Kingdom and there’s something these people value; someone who is confident. Confidence is about how people perceive your person from their first contact with you.
Most of the times I’ve interacted with people, they tell me time and time again, “if you’re going to send your CV, elaborate what you have done, and own what you have written on your CV”. They are telling you this because they want anyone who’s going to read your CV to see you as one who is confident in his [or her] abilities.
Experience Breeds Confidence
Applicants are usually caught up in the dilemma of how to present themselves; whether to be modest (unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities or achievements) or to be grandiose (overestimate ones personality and achievement).
This confusion comes when you have little to no experience to write about. The only option left then, is to overemphasize what you have done to the point of telling lies. Don’t do that. Don’t try to be someone else. The judges will find out and you will lose credibility.
Show confidence in your essay from confidence-boosting experiences. Charles offers helpful advice on this.
There are two ways to do it. It’s either you want to magnify the things you’ve done on paper; you want to write a compelling essay such that it really sells who you are. That means you have to magnify; you have to focus and emphasize certain things just to make it bigger. Sometimes, that could work. But what if you write in simple terms; but these simple things are magnificent on their own? I was watching an interview with Elon Musk. He was talking so simply, and slightly of the things he has done effortlessly. He didn’t try to magnify anything. As little as he was trying to say them, these were magnified on their own. That should be the aim.
When you’re talking, your impressions, the intensity of voice and everything can make someone believe or not believe you. But when you write, nobody is there to defend you. So normally when you write you want to make certain things more obvious than other things.
If you know you want to apply for a scholarship why don’t you spend time developing the experience you need to be worthy of that scholarship. When the time comes to write application for scholarships, the level you’ll draw experience from will be straightforward. I wrote my essays multiple times but they didn’t work. When it was time to submit, I just wrote things as they were. And that was it.
My advice to anyone; it’s definitely not easy. There should be a preparation. In fact the hardest part should be the preparation not the application. The hardest part should be that time you take to find your ‘why’ for pursuing this scholarship.
Craft a Compelling Conclusion
Re-emphasize the main point or circle back to the beginning and connect the dot. Let’s consider the literacy example in the opening. The body of the essay may have been about the student, her efforts as a volunteer, her feelings about the difficulties faced by those who can’t read, her recognition of the gift of literacy and her decision to pursue a teaching career as a result of her experience. This story dares for a conclusion that answers the question, “Did her Dad finally learn to read?” A possible conclusion;
Dad may never read a Shakespeare novel but we are thrilled at home that he can now read his sister’s letters from his hometown in Ijebu-Ode and doesn’t have to pretend to read the newspaper anymore. Dad never did learn to read fluently. But through his struggle, I learned that I want to give the gift of literacy to people who need it; the gift that no one has been able to give to my Dad.
The point is that we gained insight into this student’s life through her writing and she succeeded in getting the message across.
Revise your Essay
After you have finished drafting your essay, the next step is to revise. Go through your essay. Where you have told the judges something about you, can you explain better? Here is an example.
My family does not have enough money to fund my education. I had to work my way through the university.
Good information but lacks substance. You can add a little more detail.
My family does not have enough money to fund my education. I had to work at a local restaurant most evenings and did my schoolwork at night to get through the university.
This is better because it draws attention to the daily struggle of the student combining work and school.
Correct typos, check for grammar errors. Perfect your work in your eyes.
Get Third-Party Evaluation
Your work may look perfect in your eyes, but you are not perfect. It is important to get someone else to proofread and edit your work. Ask people to read your essay and give you honest feedback. Ask them to constructively criticize your work. You will get more insight.
Application needs to be properly prepared as most of the time if you don’t get a mentor to guide you in your application you make silly mistakes. While I was trying to apply for Nottingham there was this guy that helped me go through my essay. So I had him look at it to tell me where he thinks I need to improve and then he gave me feedback. I went back to do due diligence, submitted and got the scholarship. One needs to be very thorough.
I think what that comes down to is the kind of support you have around you. If you’re working on an application and are vetting it amongst five different people, you’re going to get a wider variety of feedback that will allow you to work on your application more. Applications are not about one aspect of you but about your entire self; what you as a person can bring to the table. I really want to encourage people to have a support group; vet your application amongst many different types of people.
I applied to Fulbright under research but I had people outside of that field like Arts, business, look at my application. I had them tell me very plainly what they thought; is it too much, is it too little? The more people you have look through your application and give you feedback, the better you’ll be able to edit and make your application stronger.
Florby (Haitian), Fulbright Scholarship Winner
Write your essays the best way you can. People advise that after writing essays make sure someone else proof-reads them, that is the best practice. If possible, get someone that has probably gone through the same process before to proof-read. These are things to help improve your chances.
Multi-Task your Essay
Because scholarship judges require essay to answer the simple question, “why do you deserve this scholarship?” the essay topics are often similar. You can modify an essay for one scholarship to fit another.
It matters to have a compelling essay in the first instance. There is no point recycling a mediocre essay. You need to take the time to write your essay. If you have followed the advice in this chapter, you should be able to write an essay you’ll be proud to submit.
When you are ready to apply for the next scholarship, see if the essay topic relates to the previous one. If it does, you can modify your essay to suit the purpose of the other scholarship.
If you can modify a single essay multiple times, you will considerably cut the amount of time you need to spend applying.
On a Final Note
Leticia scholarship application assessor for Canon Collins Scholarship shares some of what she learned from the perspective of a scholarship application evaluator.
We had to read all of the applications and the essays that they sent and review all of the supporting documentation that needed to be sent. We would score them and give a justification for why we think this person should be shortlisted or not. It was really interesting you get to know people through these essays. I read some really good essays, but I read some really bad ones too, ones that you can tell people didn’t put a lot of thought into it. If you think that nobody’s going to read this scholarship application, somebody’s going to read it, so spend some time thinking through your essay.
The first [mistake applicants make] might sound a little bit obvious, but please spell-check your essay. It’s as basic as that, because the person assessing your application won’t focus beyond the fact that your essay has so many spelling mistakes and some words are together. Formatting is important.
Another one about the content is about telling a personal story. Pay attention to what they’re asking you to answer in your essay, make bullet points [outline], and make sure that all of your paragraphs cover each of those aspects. Make sure that there’s a personal touch because something needs to stand out and something needs to make the person reading pay attention to you instead of the other person. Try to really tell your personal story and why you deserve to get it.
Be humble, but at the same time brag a little bit about how amazing you are. It’s a fine balance. I guess that’s two mistakes. One is the formatting; the second one is, not answering what the essay question was supposed to be about.
Last but not least, understand that applying is a process; it’s a Journey, it’s about putting your best foot forward and painting a holistic picture of yourself. –
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