Scholarship essays should be a parent and teen effort

3 Things No One Tells Parents About Scholarships Essay’s..And #3 Matters Most

When I was in middle school, I had an english teacher take an interest in a project I was working on. I was writing an op-ed to the local paper, and I wanted it to come out well because it was of particular interest to me. Specifically, a casino was being proposed near my home.  I wanted to convince local voters to vote no on the ballot measure to allow it. I was 13, and while I had taken a  writing class, I did not consider my writing up to par. But Mr. Huff cared enough to make three good points to me that stick in my head today when I write to convince others on a topic;

Know your audience

Focus on the topic

Offer a solution

more after the jump…


Where Most People Fail With Essay’s

Here are some facts that most parents of college bound teens already know:

  • Our kids have never  known a day without the internet
  • They have learned to converse in 140 characters or less
  • They often converse better in message format than face-to-face
  • While they are quick to take a “selfie” and brag on-line, they sometimes can’t translate that same self-confidence in real life, or on paper

Every year, I take the time to interview between 3 and 5 scholarship judges from various foundations.  I also sit as a judge on two different scholarships.  I also try to interview around 10 scholarship winners annually. Each year I learn new information, while reaffirming some very basic truths about scholarships no one likes to discuss openly. But its important for parents to know what their kids are submitting to scholarships and to help them in crafting their personal narrative. Every year, thousands of scholarship applications end up in the “NO” pile, even when they have great credentials. Often, the cause of the rejection is they lost the scholarship judge once they started reading the students essay. While there could be any number of reasons, three reasons stand out that are totally preventable and have nothing to do with grammar and sentence structure. Oddly enough, they relate to the same three pieces of advice Mr. Huff gave me all those years ago;

Not targeting the essay (knowing the audience) Not addressing the question (staying on topic) And being a whiner over being a winner (offer solutions)


1) Target your message by knowing your audience

A mistake some students and parents make is not thinking about their audience. Thinking about the audience is a something we always tell students to do when it comes to public speaking. For example, a group of evangelical Christians are unlikely to be receptive to an avowed atheist attempting to prove philosophically why god doesn’t exist. To most people, it would just seem like a dumb idea or just plain rude. Paying attention to who makes up their audience, does matter.It seems simple; however many fail to apply this same logic to their written speech.

In an age where 140 characters or less can get you fired, and a Facebook post can get your discharged from the US Marine Corps, we still haven’t learned to think about our audience when we write. There are consequences to what we write that often last, because what’s written online or on paper is more permanent. Spoken words that go unrecorded are hard to retrace and verify. However, what your student writes write on paper, on twitter, on Facebook, on a blog, all have an effect on their intended outcome. No matter what your teen learned in their AP classes, the truth is people very rarely want to hear an opinion contrary to their own. Believe it or not I have learned this is just as true for scholarship committees. It’s important to keep in mind that scholarships and the people who support them are usually formed to support students who have similar interests.Whether it is in career choice, opinion on social values, or in extracurricular activities, scholarship judges don’t want disharmony; they want unanimity.


It’s true that some large companies offer scholarships as a form of tax break and good PR; but more often than not, board members, judges, and the staff of these scholarships are focused on promoting their own interests. Writing an essay that is counter to a scholarship’s interests is a surefire way to get your child’s application tossed. When your college-bound teen applies for a scholarship, they are asking someone to give them money. That request is based on the effort your student has put into being a good student, good citizen, and submitting a solid application package. The money is a form of reward and encouragement to keep them on the right track. Or at the very least, a track the scholarship committee agrees with. So it begs the questions; what is the point of submitting a complete application package, earning great grades, and volunteering 20 hours a week, if your college-bound teen is planning to tick off the judges with their essay?

For example, it seems obvious that writing an essay to an Association of Candy Manufacturers about how processed sugar is unhealthy for people is a bad idea. Or writing an essay to United Bowling Congress about how bowling is not a “real” sport and is boring is another essay faux pas. But you would be shocked to find out applicants send such essays every day. Some students may think they will be respected for having a strong opposing opinion; I assure you they wont. Their application will simply get tossed in the “no” pile.  So your college-bound teen should know the audience and tailor their essay to fit the right message. Or at the very least, try not to offend the judges.

 2) Answer The Question

Mr. Huff always said to stay on topic. Focus in on the writing goal and nothing else JR! It makes sense when you think about it. Why write about air quality when the paper is supposed to be about flying kites? But parents would be surprised how often essays their teens send out don’t even come close to responding to the essay request correctly. It would seem a basic thing to expect, that applicants address the question that was asked by the scholarship application.  When they ask someone to write their opinion on a nurse’s role in the US health care system, that’s the question that judges want answered. They don’t want a page long diatribe about how women’s role in health care is taken for granted, or how nurses unions are driving up the cost of health care; they just want your teen to focus on the question itself.

This goes hand in hand with knowing the audience. Essays are usually used to find level of education, ability to communicate, and the mindset of the applicant.  Missing the target and not answering the question reflects poorly on all three of those criteria.  Scholarship essays that go off on a tangent in trying to meet a high word-count and don’t address the question are just fluff, and the judges will see right through it. However every year college bound-teens will do their best to BS their way through an essay because they find the work a chore. It never ends well. Really.

 3) No One Likes Whiners: Solutions over Sorrow

I know it’s a harsh title. But its true, and you know it. So let’s not sugar coat it. Anyone who has seen the classic tale of Oliver Twist may have figured out that charities, are rarely universally charitable. They often help the kind of people they care about most, or support the causes they prefer and will often focus on one type of help over others. For example, Salvation Army thrift stores usually don’t do political advocacy, and breast-cancer awareness organizations rarely build parks.  People who get involved with smaller scholarship organizations are almost always volunteers. At best, they get a free meal during the judging and get to spend time with friends during committee meetings. That is what I receive when I judge at one scholarship. At another, I don’t even see the other judges because it is all done online. So when we get down to judging, many look for people who mirror themselves in drive and determination. After all, actual judging panels (as opposed to essay graders) are made of people who are respected in their profession or community. So it has to said that much like job interviews, projecting confidence matters.


Some students have been known to use their essay to list a long line of the hardships they had in their life. Single parent-household, disability, lack of money, etc. While understandably hard on a teen, simply detailing their sorrow does nothing to convince a committee member that they are a good investment of their capital.  In addition, that long list makes it seem like they are whining about their life, and that hardship somehow entitles them to something. Quick newsflash; it doesn’t. A large percentage of the planet lives in some form of hardship and toil, and so no one is really unique where difficult conditions are concerned.  So, the question becomes what to do about the hardships your child has endured?  The answer is to be solution oriented. Your college-bound teen needs to describe what they did to overcome hardships or succeeded in spite of them. Here are two examples of brief essays; decide which you as a judge wish to award a scholarship to.


Say Hello to Janice

Janice (name changed to keep her anonymity) comes from a single parent household and has 3.7 GPA and was accepted to the state flagship university, and a few other private liberal arts colleges. She suffers from Hypothyroidism, which can cause severe weight gain, and make standing for any long period difficult. It is not a fatal condition, or overly debilitating but it difficult and can sap energy and be painful in some cases. Her EFC is zero, but even with full federal and state financial aid her mother will still have to pay up to $7k per year out-of-pocket. The scholarship asks her to describe a hardship she has faced in her personal life and how she has overcome it. Here are two essay statement examples for her situation, the first statement is part of the real example. (I wish I were kidding.)

A major hardship in my life was growing up without father. My mother worked most of the time and wasn’t able to help me out with school. Her job does not make a lot of money, and she is unable to pay for my education if I cannot find more aid. Without her help, I will have to work. The job will likely be in at a McDonald’s, which requires standing. That would not only be uncomfortable due to my Hypothyroidism, but takes me away from studying also.  This is why I need this scholarship so badly. I would rather spend more time studying and not working.

Did that in any way impress you? Of course not. I was shocked that someone would even consider putting those words on paper. But she did, and she also got tossed into the no pile.  Yes, it’s not great she has to endure a more difficult life. However, most judges are not inclined to award funds to someone seeking to make things easier. But what happens if we pivot a little, and put the onus on her battle with her condition. Now, let’s try this again…only with a bit of confidence and drive;


I have wanted to be a member of my HS track team ever since I was in middle school. But when it hurt just to stand, and I gained 10 pounds in two weeks, I knew something was wrong. My doctor diagnosed me with Hypothyroidism soon after my symptoms began. The doctor told me I would likely never be allowed to run high school track.  But I decided then and there I wasn’t going to let my condition make my decisions for me. I researched my condition and found solutions to help me cope. I pursued therapy, ate well, and stayed physically fit to help reduce the effects of the condition. By dealing with my condition head on and not ignoring it, I am healthier, and I was allowed to join the track team six months later.

In around 130 words, I summarized a hardship, a solution, and the path she took to the goal.  It didn’t ask you to feel sorry for her, or her personal issues and focused only on the hardship and how it was dealt with. Remind your teen to never simply list their problems and hardships with no context or explanation on how they overcame those hardships.  They need to show that they are confident in the path they have chosen is a positive one.  Students that can do this will be more likely to win-over scholarship judges.


Summary Tips

Remember that with any essay, your student should summarize the main points if they have the space and word count to do so. So here is a quick bullet list of how to approach a scholarship essay.
1)   Play to the room by knowing the audience. This doesn’t mean your student should lie. Rather, it means they should omit extraneous data and opinions that are negative.

2)   If your child truly has a strong opinion and cant keep it to themselves because they don’t agree with a scholarship foundations philosophy, then don’t let them waste the time to apply. It will accomplish nothing.

3)Research the scholarship fund. Take the time to visit their website, look at their board members and do a social search on them to get a better perspective on their core interests and motivations. Often board members for small to midsize funds are also judges.

4)   Stay on point. Most scholarships have a word count limit. So don’t waste time with fluff. If you can’t write the essay without filler, than review the way you are answering the essay question.

5)   Be solution oriented. People like solutions, not problems. Everyone has problems, yet not everyone has a solution. It’s why we pay consultants, and why you bother reading this blog. You want solutions to problems. The people who can solve problems are the ones who get the attention.

6) Pay attention to the question. If they ask you to write about something, stick to that subject and don’t drift off course.



4 thoughts on “3 Things No One Tells Parents About Scholarships Essay’s..And #3 Matters Most”

  1. Essays in your title should use the plural, not possessive S (ESSAY’S should be ESSAYS); very good article, but grammar/spelling also counts.


  2. These are excellent scholarship essay tips, JR! I would add that many scholarship providers publish winning essays on their websites. Reading over these can give students a feel for the type of students the judges are looking for. This is one more way to gain an edge over other applicants.


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