I recently received the following question from Ask Isa:
I am applying for a big opportunity at my university and I just found out it's very competitive. I know you won the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship and I wanted to know, how do you stand out in a competitive scholarship application when it comes to essays?
Want to Stand Out
Dear Want to Stand Out,
I applaud you for asking this question, because scholarships and big opportunities in college are competitive, and essays are a great way to stand out above the rest.
In addition to winning the JKC scholarship, I also used to tutor students in scholarship and college admission essays; below are the top three things that will help you stand out above the rest, because they are things most students don't bother with (aka the students who don't win):
1) Read the prompt carefully: Before you even start writing read the prompt a few times and get a feel for exactly what they are asking. Put yourself in the scholarship committees shoes; ask yourself what they really want to know about you from this essay. Then, talk the prompt over with a mentor or professor and start brainstorming what you will write about. After you share your ideas of what you can write about, ask your mentor to be honest and tell you what is most compelling.
2) Be you: Almost every first draft of an essay I used to get from a student would be generic and boring. I don't say this to be harsh, but it seems to be the default setting. We write what we think someone wants to hear, and end up losing ourselves all together. Your essay should be written in a way that could absolutely not be written by anyone else. It should have your unique voice, style, and (when relevant) life experiences that have made you who you are today. Believe it or not, you are interesting! Be yourself and you will stand out.
3) Use lots of eyes: Every author has an editor, even the best of the best. Actors have directors. Athletes have coaches. Anyone who stands out for their craft understands that their first attempts are never enough; they understand that they'll only be at their best when they solicit feedback from outsiders.
Getting feedback is always uncomfortable, but it is a prerequisite for greatness. It is also a prerequisite for standing out in a scholarship essay. Start your first draft as soon as you hear about the opportunity, and leave plenty of time to have at least three people read and edit it for you. Ask professors, mentors, or people who might be familiar with the opportunity (e.g. past winners).
The truth is, there is no easy way to win a scholarship or prestigious opportunity. Hard work will pay off, and you have to work harder than the hundreds or thousands of others doing the same thing.
I'll never forget the advice a mentor (and past JKC scholarship winner) gave me when I was writing my first scholarship essays and wondering how I was going to have time to do all of the things I've just listed above: "just think," she said, "if you win this award every sentence you write will be worth a thousand dollars."
Invest your time in every scholarship application, and you will see results.
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