Storytelling and Scholarships

October 5, 2018

I’m restless. I’ve been here for hours—I can feel it in my back and in the heaviness of my eyes. It’s a quarter after 11 and I should really be asleep. But the scholarship essay is due tomorrow, and no matter what I write, I can’t help but feel like it’s pointless. Who’s ever going to pick this boring piece of crap?

Odds are, it'll never be picked.

I used to write my essays by the book, following every rule and guideline. I’d spend hours making them perfect. And I never once won a scholarship. 

Then in my second year of college, I studied abroad and as I was applying for yet more scholarships, I decided to take a risk and write a story rather than an essay. Spoiler alert: the risk paid off.

Humans love stories. We’re crazy about them. It’s why we love watching movies, reading books, going out with friends, and listening to music. We are constantly telling stories about our lives and the lives of others. There’s a reason why storytelling is one of the most compelling forms of writing.

So if you want your scholarship essay to be noticed, to be remembered, and to have a better chance of being chosen, don’t just answer the prompt—tell a story, your story.

That being said, writing a scholarship essay as a story can be difficult at a first glace. In most cases, you don’t know who will be reading your piece, which means you can’t identify your audience. There are often word limits and, if I’m being honest, the prompt questions can suck. They’re typically vague and idealistic and go something like:

“How will your studies contribute to your immediate or long-range career plans?” or something along those lines. 

Instead of answering the prompt with a standard, by-the-book short answer like: “As an English major, my long-term goals for my career include...” (See, you’re already asleep)

Engage your audience with a story.

“‘What are you going to do with that?’ is what people ask me when I tell them I’m an English major.”

This is the opening line I wrote the summer for a scholarship that I later received. The rest of the piece followed along similar lines; I wasn’t just answering questions, I was the protagonist of my own story. 

And people eat that up. 

It’s finding that balance between communicating professionally and creatively.

I’ve also found that writing a scholarship essay like a story is much more enjoyable and much easier to write. For the scholarship above (which was only two pages double-spaced), I spent about two hours total writing and editing.

The Reality of Scholarship Essays

Scholarships are highly competitive and there are often many people who deserve to get them. However, usually only one or two applicants are selected, and without an interview process, that means you are judged entirely from a piece of paper. The essay is your one shot to show them you deserve the scholarship. Sell yourself with your story. 

Sometimes, you could be the most qualified candidate, but if you have a poorly written essay, you won’t be picked. Experience and qualifications are also important factors for earning a scholarship, and often, someone will receive the scholarship based on merit and achievement alone. But often, as unfair as it sounds, it is whoever has the best-written essay who wins the scholarship, not necessarily who deserves it more.

Among hundreds of applications to review, if you don’t take a risk with your writing, your essay will get lost in the slush pile. I can almost guarantee that if you tell a story, those who are reviewing applications will remember your essay above the others. Which puts you in a good spot.

If hundreds of people are applying for the same scholarship as you, and everyone, to some extent, deserves the money, how does a panel begin to narrow down who earns the scholarship? Grammar and spelling errors are an easy way to eliminate candidates when doing so becomes difficult. Don’t give them a reason to kick you out of the running based on a spelling error. Heavily proofread your essay, and even have a friend read through it. I also recommend downloading Grammarly, a free app that catches those little spelling and grammar errors we often overlook.

Of course, storytelling is not the only way to write a scholarship essay, but in my experience, it’s the most effective approach. It’s quick, it’s fun, and I’m 3/3 in receiving scholarships using this method. However, whatever topic or form your essay takes—be honest, be sincere, and be creative.