Writing a Winning Personal Essay

Posted by Allison Leach on Feb 14, 2017 4:00:00 PM

Scholarships can be highly competitive, particularly when candidates present similarly impressive accomplishments. Whether applying for a merit-based or need-based scholarship, a personal essay is often the key to distinguishing yourself from a pool of candidates. 

Although your qualifications are clearly outlined in your application and resume, it is the personal essay that will allow the scholarship committee to get to know you as a person: your experiences, your values, and your motivation.

We recently highlighted a variety of scholarship opportunities available to adult students - most of which require submission of a personal essay.  We hope that current and prospective students, who are considering applying for these awards, will benefit from the following tips:


Take Time for Self-Reflection
Writing about oneself can be a difficult task. Take some time to think about who you are and what you want to accomplish, perhaps enlisting family and friends for additional feedback. It may be helpful to make a list of your accomplishments and relevant academic/career/personal experiences. 
This list might include:

  • personal characteristics and values
  • personal/academic influences
  • unique or significant experiences
  • academic goals and achievements
  • career goals and achievements
  • personal obstacles or hardships 
  • subject-area interests, knowledge and skills
  • community involvement

This list should not only help outline the essence of who you are, but also provide some specific talking points for your essay.

Carefully Consider the Essay Question/Topic.
If the question is somewhat general, such as, “why are you a strong candidate for this scholarship,” develop a specific theme or thesis for your statement; for instance, “how financial hardship has shaped my commitment to education.”

Familiarize Yourself with your Audience
Research the donor/organization offering the scholarship, and - if possible - past recipients. Try to gain a sense of what values and experiences are valued by the organization, and reflect these criteria in your essay.

Set Goals
Using the points from your self-reflective exercise, set specific goals for your essay - focusing on points that can be communicated in both a convincing and illustrative manner.

Some possible goals may include:

  • What makes me unique? What experiences best sets me apart from the other candidates?
  • What have I accomplished? Why are these accomplishments significant?
  • How did I get here? What obstacles did I overcome along the way?
  • Why am I pursuing this degree-program? How has/will it change my life?
  • What knowledge am I bringing to the program? What knowledge do I hope to acquire?
  • What are my career goals? What steps have I taken toward these goals?
  • What is the most compelling reason that I should be considered for this scholarship?



Begin with an Outline
An outline will provide a framework to help you organize your ideas. Focus on your key points: details, formatting, and syntax can wait. Once you have you have established what you hope to communicate - and in what order - it will be easier to refine your ideas and compose your essay.

Captivate Your Reader
Your introduction should draw the reader in, entice them to want to learn more.  Devices such as descriptive language, quotations, or anecdotes may help you to introduce your thesis/theme in a creative manner.  
As you transition to the body of the essay, build on your captivating introduction by using specific examples to illustrate each point.  In other words, show - don't tell.  

Be Mindful of Your Audience
Your essay should reflect who you are - and how you might speak - with a tone that is neither overly formal, nor overly casual. Aim for authenticity, using clear concise language, proper grammar and correct syntax.

Avoid controversial topics, regardless of how integral they might be to your personal journey. Certain subjects - such as politics or religion - or deeply personal issues can be divisive, and may make the reader uncomfortable.

In applying for a scholarship, you have already indicated to your audience that you are in need of financial assistance. While you may mention financial hardships, try to avoid a pleading or desperate tone.


Take a Break
After you have completed your first draft, give yourself some distance before revising or proofreading: you may return with new ideas!

Edit and Revise
Carefully read over your essay, correcting any spelling or grammatical errors. Refer back to your outline to ensure that you have covered all of the desired points, and look for opportunities to rearrange or improve your content.

Get a Second Opinion
Once you are satisfied with your revisions, ask a friend/colleague/family member to help you with an additional review. Simple errors such as word omission or repetition may not be caught by word processing software, but can be glaring to an astute proofreader.

Writing a personal essay need not be intimidating.  Focus on who you are, where you are going, and why you are deserving of a scholarship: if you can convince yourself, you can convince the scholarship committee as well!

For information about scholarship opportunities offered by the College of Charleston School of Professional Studies, please see Scholarship Opportunities for Non-Traditional Students. To learn more about our degree programs for adult students, please contact the SPS.


Topics: Student

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