I remember the skies were gray and cloudy much like my college future. I stopped my high school counselor Mrs. Ford on the sidewalk. “I’ve applied for so many scholarships but haven’t gotten a single one.” I felt confused, inadequate, and like my past four years of straight A’s, soccer practice, volunteering, and student government were for nothing. In my mind, there was no way I was going to be able to afford college.

I share my story, because I hear similar stories from many students I work with. I recently polled a group of high school students and their parents asking, “Who gets scholarships?”

“The top one percent.”


“People who are really good at one particular thing.”

These are all true statements, but they are equally false. Yes, many of these students receive scholarships but so do students who aren’t particularly good at anything, have average grades, and who always get picked last in PE class.

And here’s the secret sauce, the one thing I wish I had known when I was 17 looking at my college future. Here’s the secret I’ve learned after reading many scholarship essays myself and sitting on committees who decide which students walk away with cash. No one cares that you have a 4.0. They don’t care that you are student body president. There are plenty of 4.0 student leaders who apply for scholarships. All we want from you is for you to tell us your story. Who are you? Why do you want to go to college? What obstacles have you faced in your life? How have they impacted you in a positive way? How are you going to use your college education to make a difference?

Stop putting so much pressure on yourself in high school. Yes, work hard and get good grades. Be involved in your community. But, know this: when it comes to scholarships, it’s who you are and not what you do that counts. Put that on the page.

Here are five quick steps that will have you on your way to scholarship success:

  1. Start with a strong first sentence that engages the reader’s senses and emotions. When I read scholarship essays, I may have a pile of 20 applicants in front of me. Without a punchy first sentence, I’m quickly taking large gulps of coffee and rubbing my eyes. It’s not that I don’t want to give you my full attention, but your first sentence must demand that attention.
  1. Share an obstacle you have overcome. You probably have one of two responses when I share this advice—you either clam up or get defensive.

If you clam up, it’s probably because you have something important to say. You’ve probably faced a significant obstacle that has shaped your life. It’s hard to get your story out there on paper. It’s personal. You don’t know who is going to read it. Maybe there are experiences you’ve hardly told anyone that should go on the page. Swallow hard, take a deep breathe, and begin to write. You need to be vulnerable and you may be surprised how your story unlocks healing for you and others.

If you get defensive, it’s probably because you don’t feel you have a significant obstacle to share. However, we all face obstacles. For example, when I was a freshman in high school I was on my school’s soccer team. I rode the bench all season. For a short, feisty girl with a strong drive to win, this was a painful experience. I had two choices. I could question the coach and grovel in my misery, or I could do everything in my power to earn my spot as a starter. I spent the next year playing club soccer year round and received a significant increase in playing time the next season. Now, this isn’t a tragic story, but it does say something about my drive, determination, and willingness to stick with commitments even when they are difficult. I want to give students like that dollars to go to college. My guess—you have a similar story. There’s your obstacle.

  1. Be specific. I often read extremely ambiguous essays that leave me guessing what the student is actually talking about. Don’t say, “Last year, my family went through a hard time. Things were hard, but we pulled together, and they are better now.” You just left a lot of blanks for me to fill in and didn’t make an emotional connection. Providing some specific details helps me to get on the same page with you. Now, you don’t have to go into details so deep that I feel like I am reading a tabloid. However, the more specific and clear you are, the better.
  1. Be concise. Many essays ask for around 500 words. You are going to have to sift through your story, and get to the most important stuff. I would start by writing all you feel you need to say first. Then, go back and pare down words and sentences. Try to combine thoughts, cut out unnecessary details, and deliver the true heart of your message.
  1. Share your dream. If you can clearly tell me what you want to do with your future and how that is going to impact other people, I get really excited to give you money. However, at the age of 17 or 18, I don’t expect you to know what you want to do with the rest of your life. You may not have a major picked out, a career in mind, or a clue where you are headed. However, you do know what drives you. You do know what activities make you feel alive. Even if your future seems ambiguous, be as specific as possible. Share with us your passions or directions you are thinking of pursuing. And here’s a little insider scoop—no one is going to follow up with you your senior year or five years after graduation to make sure you are accomplishing all you said you wanted to in your scholarship essay. The important part is that you have a vision for your education that goes beyond yourself.

So, take a deep breath. You can do this. If you apply these principles, next time you run into your high school counselor you will tell him or her, “I’ve applied for so many scholarships and I got more than one.” You are going to go to college.

Translate »