Whether it's for college admissions or scholarship money, chances are you will have to write at least one application essay. If you're a typical high school student, the college and scholarship application essays you write this year are likely to be the most difficult and high-pressure writing assignment you've had to date. To keep you sane and up your chances of success, we've prepared a few tips, culled from research and our own experience, to help you through whatever application process you're undertaking.
Know where you're applying, what their requirements are, and as much about their mission and what they're likely to be looking for as possible. Figure out whether you're a good candidate for admission or a college scholarship. Once you're able to point to specific reasons why you should receive an acceptance letter or a scholarship award, you'll have an easier time convincing others of the same thing. This leads to writing effective scholarship essays, as well as effective college application essays.
As clichéd as it is, the best advice you'll receive is to just "be yourself". Colleges aren't necessarily looking to admit the most indisputably brilliant students in the country, but rather individuals who will contribute to the campus community. Similarly, many scholarship providers may fantasize about having their name associated with greatness, but they are also likely to realize that there is no guaranteed recipe for greatness. Thus, they are more likely to award a person they feel they've gotten to know, respect, and possibly even like through a thoughtful, well-written, and on-topic scholarship essay, rather than the person who simply submits a résumé, however impressive it may be.
Not convinced that the application essay is a tool for learning about you, rather than merely a sophisticated torture device? Look at the subject matter of the typical application essay prompt: most often they're looking for an essay about your motivations, your experiences, or your passions. While it's tempting to go straight for the most impressive or altruistic thing you can imagine in order to impress a college or university, it's usually better to go with a topic that actually reveals something unique about your character. This definitely goes for scholarship applications, too. A seemingly mundane essay topic can be interesting if it's written well and it has a clear purpose. Likewise, if your essay demonstrates a reflection on, rather than simply a retelling of, the events that inspired it, it is likely to stand out from the crowd.
As far as writing well goes, proofread (at the very least, check spelling and grammar and take out notes to yourself or your parents before submitting) but don't adopt such a formal style that all personality is lost. Remember, your essay is a way for the college or the scholarship provider to get to know you, so you want it to be as much in your voice as possible. While you still want to avoid well-known grammatical faux pas, such as ending a sentence in a preposition or using "there" instead of "their" ("they're" should be right out, as contractions should be avoided in formal writing), you can easily go overboard. If you don't even use semicolons in your normal writing, don't try to overuse them in a scholarship essay. As long as an essay is written well and isn't offensively informal (avoid slang, cursing, and stories of sex, drugs, and bodily functions), your essay is probably professional enough for many admission offices and scholarship essay contests. While some competitive colleges or academic scholarships may require a more formal tone, the same essay-writing advice applies. Even when you're applying for a law scholarship, writing like a lawyer isn't necessarily the recipe for success.
While you will likely want to take your entire application packet and toss it over a cliff by the time you're done assembling it, taking the extra step to show you application essay to people and get feedback can make all the difference. This step can be terrifying—what if they hate everything you wrote? What if you have to redo the whole thing? But just think about what might happen if nobody reads your application essay aside from you and the admission officer or scholarship reviewer. What if you've misspelled your own name or address? What if you haven't clearly made the point you wanted to make? What if you inadvertently offend the person you are trying to impress? These are all real possibilities, and might get your application tossed in the reject pile without a second glance, especially if you face stiff competition.
If you're still feeling apprehensive about application essay writing, there's more help available in our Resources section and on the Scholarships.com blog. If you feel ready to conquer the world, head over to our college search or our scholarship search to start finding places to submit that application essay.
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