Scholarship Essay Tip: Writing for the Judges

Kay Peterson, Ph.D./FastWeb

When the scholarship judges pick a winner, they’re looking for someone to represent their organization—their ideals and values. The application essay is your chance to demonstrate that you’re their best representative.

This is what Diane, a FastWeb user, needs to do in her essay for the Key Club International Scholarship. Diane has been asked to answer the following question: How have you exemplified the ideals of Key Club?

“Throughout high school it has been my mission to be as involved as possible, having fun while being of service. Because of my enthusiasm, I motivate others to volunteer, that is why I have been able to bring about changes to impact my high school through leadership in various activities, especially as Key Club President. Contrary to popular belief, students are not lazy; they just need a little motivation. By planning numerous enjoyable and diverse activities, I have seen many students come around and get involved in helping others. For example, I planned an Intramural Pilo-Polo tournament, open to anyone in the school, to raise money for the Leukemia Society. After the tournament, students kept asking me to have another one. Five months later, answering their request, I organized another tournament. The participation overflowed to my next activity, the Key Club Halloweenfest, which consisted of a haunted house, games, bake sale, crafts, face painting and prizes for elementary school children. Students who are not even in Key Club, but appreciated my response to their Pilo-Polo requests, helped out with this event. We raised $565 for the Leukemia Society and sponsored four teachers at our school who were participating in a Team-in-Training Marathon. I have since planned many other Key Club activities during my presidency, including four fundraisers, five drives, two socials, and a gift wrap, all of which had high participation rates.

Another community service activity I have been involved with is the Four Diamonds Dance Marathon; the past three years we have earned a cumulative $60,000 for children with cancer. Each year I set new goals for myself and my Dance Marathon committees, like how many new businesses to contact for donations or how much security is necessary—anything to improve the success of the event. In addition to chairing three committees, I am also the supervisor of the Dance Marathon, along with the two co-chairmen.

I feel that I have not only brought changes to my high school, but also our local Kiwanis Club. This year we have formed a tight bond exemplifying the ideal of Kiwanis Educating Youths. We have worked hard together to help the success of each other’s activities; right now we are working together to establish a Builder’s Club. I think I have exemplified the ideals of Key Club through initiative, participation, motivation, and service. I feel that I would make a good candidate to receive one of your generous scholarships. I would greatly appreciate any financial aid to help me with my future endeavors."

Diane has produced a solid essay that meets many of the objectives of a winning scholarship application:

- Her activities demonstrate that she’s a good candidate for this award. - She’s included a lot of detail to create a vivid picture of her achievements. - She’s focused her essay on relevant activities (e.g., she only talks about her volunteer activities, not her academic achievements or career goals).

But there’s still room for improvement:

- The first paragraph is way too long, and lacks a central idea. That’s a good sign that she needs to think more about the organization of her essay. - The essay loses steam because it’s structured as a laundry list of activities. - The conclusion is weak. She hints that her actions have impacted the sponsoring organization, the Kiwanis Club, but she doesn’t really explain how.

To begin our critique, let’s start by focusing on the opening of her essay. Here, Diane starts to answer the essay question: How do you exemplify the ideals of Key Club? But while she talks about Key Club ideals, she never really identifies what those ideals are. As a result, it’s not clear how she lives up to them—or why she values them. Instead, she focuses on herself: her activities, her achievements, her effect on others.

I’d suggest that she create a new introductory paragraph. Instead of opening with one long paragraph focusing on her role as Key Club president, she should start with a brief statement about Key Club’s ideals.

In writing that introduction, Diane needs to decide which ideal she will emphasize. Currently, her essay covers two issues: the importance of volunteerism and her role as a leader who motivates others to volunteer. The two issues get muddled, and she never really identifies which she demonstrates.

Since the bulk of her essay alludes to her leadership activities, I’d suggest that she explicitly highlight leadership as her Key Club ideal. Now she can set up a sort of a thesis: Key Club values the ability to organize and motivate others to improve things and create an impact.

Once she defines the ideals she exemplifies, she’ll have a much better shot at restructuring her essay to make it more effective. She can still refer to her many activities, but now those events will have more meaning because the reader will understand what they signify. She’ll need to focus on reworking her subsequent paragraphs so that her essay progresses instead of simply listing additional activities (“Another community service activity I have been involved with …”).

When she’s more secure about precisely what she’s exemplifying, she’ll see how to better describe the events that demonstrate those qualities.

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