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Scholarship Writing: Dos & Don'ts List
See Personal Statement section for more essay writing tips


     X  Don't #1: Promote Religion or Political Views

Divisive issues divide. You don't want a scholarship committee member disagreeing with your political or religious views. 99.95% of the time, you have no idea who will be judging your essay. With America divided right down the middle, and in the context of our two warring major political parties, odds are that there will be someone opposing your political leanings. Avoid them at all costs.

DO: Go the safe route with safe topics in order to avoid offending anyone.  It is possible to demonstrate your passion without putting everything on the table.

     X  Don't #2: Talk GPA

Your GPA doesn't really matter that much. With grades across the United States (or around the world) fluctuating as much as they do, scholarship judges do not put emphasis on your GPA. You have already mentioned it in the question #4 (or whichever) on the application form.  Let it rest there.  

DO: Address the essay topic at hand honestly and thoughtfully.

     X  Don't #3: Play Sympathy Card

If you mention a hardship in your scholarship application, be sure it's really a hardship.  You have to remember that committees receive many applications from across the country, and from developing and war-torn nations around the world.  Some applicants tell the story of grueling lives of overcoming obstacles so compelling that they may make yours pale in comparison.  In any case, judges are looking for achievers who are focused on the positive, not essays that seek to manipulate their heartstrings.

DO: Just to clarify: if you don't have a story of being stolen from your village by Congolese rebel tribes at age 12, you are not necessarily cut off from the possibility of winning scholarships. You should definitely talk about challenges you have overcome.  Judges like reading about creative, bold and heartfelt solutions in personal stories.  Just be clear to avoid using the word hardship, especially if you are not sure.

     X  Don't #4: Be General or Selfish About the Future​

In life and scholarships, it's better being specific than general.

If you tell a scholarship committee you want to be a lawyer, that sounds good. But if you say that you want to be lawyer who practices human rights law so as to bring justice to leaders around the world who commit genocide and other human rights violations, or you want to open non-profit organizations in Third World countries that help provide educational resources for those seeking to practice public service law--that sounds extraordinary.

Note: Some people might advise you to outright lie about their aspirations to appeal to the scholarship judges because the latter themselves are usually educators and public servants, and so may not appreciate selfish rants about wanting an education to make a lot of money.

However, consider this: you are talking about your future. Sure, if you want to make boatloads of money someday, that's great.  In this case, you wouldn't be talking about something you would never do; instead, you'd either overdramatize certain truthful desires to highlight your goals, or ideally you would seriously reflect on your goals and consider expanding your list of potential aspirations (e.g. opening non-profit groups in Third World countries).

Just make sure that you stick to the truth without compromising your integrity as much as possible.  Besides, what's more important at times is not what you say, but how you say it.

DO: Stick with serving society as your primary goal here and be specific about it!

     X  Don't #5: Ignore the World Outside Campus

School-related activities on their own aren't enough to grab a scholarship committee's attention.

DO: Along with common activities, go beyond campus if you want to win the big scholarships.

     X  Don't #6: Forget Family

Your role in your own family is not as important as your school activities; it's more important. School will be over in a few years, but your family is around forever.  If you are so busy with family responsibilities that you can't involve yourself in student organizations, then you may have a stronger application than those who do.

DO: If this is your story, by all means, go into detail about how you spend time doing things for your family. Tell your story, regardless of where it takes place.

     X  Don't #7: Omit Important Details

If you have participated in a church youth group, that's great. What's better is giving insight into the activities you've done (this is a good reason to always go the extra mile in your endeavors)!! Did your group serve a homeless shelter soup kitchen for two years feeding (an estimated) 125 people daily?  Scholarship committees want to know how and why you arrived at a need, what was your action, and what was the impact of your actions.

DO: Write to make the committee's eyes burst.  Demonstrate your initiative, ingenuity, your concerns for society, and your leadership by showing the impact.  Preferably with specific statistics (number of hours worked, number of people in the audience at your workshop presentation, number of books collected by the campus drive youd organized etc.) to accompany your story.  Committees want to know the scope of your reach to determine your future potential.

     X  Don't #8: Preach​


Many scholarships are open-ended, thus granting you the authority to suggest solutions. Here’'s where you will point out social problems that demand solving.  Be cautious of sounding too preachy, or giving the impression that solutions to the world's problems are obvious or simple.

We live in a complex world where solutions are not easy to find, especially amidst competing interests.  Your maturity is invaluable next to your “intelligence.”

DO: Demonstrate your maturity by embodying the fact that the world is a complex and dynamic place.  If you address a real problem, avoid giving overly simplistic solutions.  Do your research first and acknowledge the complications.   Also, try to focus down your issue of interest, e.g., narrow down a broad topic like health care reform to medical insurance and treatment for children with preconditions, or a broad topic like immigration reform down to migrant workers’ rights.

     X  Don’t #9: Include Irrelevant Details

Avoid birth dates, school, and hometown, unless they are of particular importance.  Sticking to the prompt will work magic for you.

DO: Make everything in your essay relevant to the topic at hand.  A good strategy is after writing each sentence, look back at the prompt and ask yourself: does this sentence answer this question effectively?

     X  Don't #10: Vie For The Guilt Trip

Think of this idea in this way: many students (your competition) write that if they don't receive this very scholarship, they probably won't be able to attend college, or be able to pay the rent, and thus be kicked out into the streets.

The problem here is the unwelcome pressure on the scholarship judges who are human, and would abhor living with the knowledge that they got you tossed out of your apartment and onto the streets.  Although the judges have a heart, they are going to stick to their job, and that’'s to select the most qualified candidate.

DO: Avoid resorting to desperation.

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