Applying for Scholarships Inspiration and Motivation Scholarship Essays

How to Stand Out in Your Scholarship Essays

Oftentimes, students don’t know how to stand out in their scholarship essays. They want to portray themselves as special but struggle to find the words to capture who they really are. If that sounds like you, this will help.

A Lesson in Standing Out to Win Scholarships

A 10-year-old boy decided to study Judo despite the fact that he had lost his left arm in a devastating car accident.

The boy began lessons with an old Japanese Judo master. The boy was doing well, so he couldn’t understand why, after three months of training the master had taught him only one move.

“Sensei (teacher in Japanese),” the boy finally said, “Shouldn’t I be learning more moves?”

“This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you’ll ever need to know,” the sensei replied.

Not quite understanding, but believing in his teacher, the boy kept training. Several months later, the sensei took the boy to his first tournament.

Surprising himself, the boy easily won his first two matches. The third match proved to be more difficult, but after some time, his opponent became impatient and charged; the boy deftly used his one move to win the match. Still amazed by his success, the boy was now in the finals.

This time, his opponent was bigger, stronger, and more experienced.

For a while, the boy appeared to be overmatched.

Concerned that the boy might get hurt, the referee called a time-out. He was about to stop the match when the sensei intervened. “No,” the sensei insisted, “Let him continue.”

Soon after the match resumed, his opponent made a critical mistake: he dropped his guard. Instantly, the boy used his move to pin him.

The boy had won the match and the tournament.

He was the champion.

On the way home, the boy and sensei reviewed every move in each and every match. Then the boy summoned the courage to ask what was really on his mind.

“Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only one move?”

“You won for two reasons,” the sensei answered. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of Judo. And second, the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”

The boy’s biggest weakness had become his biggest strength.

(The One Armed Judo Fighter, Source:

What Most Students Forget About Scholarships

I tell you this story because some of the things that you and your family try to hide in your applications, are the things that will set you apart from other applicants.

Some of the things you try to hide are exactly what the scholarship committee needs to hear.Click To Tweet

Too often, parents and students become consumed in trying to paint a perfect picture:

  • I have straight A’s!
  • I’m in the top 10%!
  • I scored high on my SAT/ACT!
  • I’m in all-region band!
  • My daughter is in the National Honor Society!
  • My son is an Eagle Scout!
  • We volunteer every weekend at the homeless shelter downtown!

While those things are great and contribute to a student’s Scholarship Profile, speaking as someone who sits on a scholarship committee and reads hundreds of essays each year, I want more than that.

Many students have it wrong when they feel as though they have to continuously highlight who they are. Yes, committee members want to read your essay and get a sense of you – but don’t stop there.

Maybe your GPA isn’t as high as it could be… but is it because you were bullied for a semester and just couldn’t focus?

Perhaps you weren’t as involved as you could have been throughout high school…but maybe it was because you had to work to help your family keep food on the table.

Was that last six when weeks you just didn’t get it done…because senioritis got the best of you?

Tell the committee. Give them depth and breadth.

By no means does your scholarship essay need to serve as a confessional or diary entry, but always remember that committee members are people too.

We have families. We have careers. We have lives.

What Most Scholarship Committee Members Won’t Tell You

Again, I sit on a scholarship committee and have aided in making decisions regarding scholarships at various levels. The essays I remember most are the ones that I connect with the most. For me, I appreciate a student that is willing to bear their soul and express their vulnerability in a well-formulated argument that answers the question.

Perfect doesn’t win.

Perfect didn’t earn me scholarships.

Honesty did. Authenticity did.

In order to stand out, be honest with committees when it fits into the theme of the essay.

Real Talk: “I don’t want to feel sad or depressed after reading your essay. I want to feel as though your answer gives me an “Aha!” moment and instant connecting point that reveals you as the student we’ve been looking for all along. Make me feel as though I’d be the biggest fool in America not to award you and your family the money.”

What Winning Scholarship Essays Have

Check your scholarship essays against the following criteria. Do your scholarship essays have:

  1. A clear understanding of your position. Do we know what you believe and why?
  2. A sense of who you are.
  3. An eye-opening, head-nodding, or life-altering thought/analysis.

Of course, this doesn’t encompass everything, but it’s enough to get you started and thinking about any changes you can make to your scholarship essay and application process.

Don’t be afraid to try something different. Don’t be afraid to “go there” with the reader.

Feature Image Artwork Credit: iStockPhoto/RapidEye

About Your Author
Having earned well over $150,000 in scholarships to pay for her bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees, Gabrielle McCormick teaches students, parents, and education professionals from across the country about winning scholarships to pay for college. Between finishing her dissertation and watching the NFL and NBA, she runs Scholarship Informer in her efforts to make college affordable for anyone that wishes to attend.
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