Hack Your Scholarship Essay

If there’s one thing library students are familiar with, it’s writing. Research papers, discussion posts, slide presentations, blogs—you name it, and we’ve written it. But wouldn’t it be nice to get paid for writing papers? Fortunately for you, you can!

Scholarships are a great way to secure funding for tuition, conference travel, textbooks, software, and other school-related needs, but in order to earn these scholarships, you first have to conquer the scholarship essay. You will be hard-pressed to find a scholarship application that does not require an essay or personal statement of some sort, so it’s important to be prepared. And as a person who has written approximately 2.2 million of these essays in library school alone (and earned 2 scholarships in the process), I’m here to help you crack the code.

My system isn’t guaranteed (note the aforementioned ratio of scholarships applied for and scholarships earned), but it is definitely confidence-boosting. If nothing else, you’ll send in your application with the knowledge that you did your best and that you have the same chance of winning as everybody else, and that can be a victory all its own. Here are my tips:

  1. Follow the instructions. Take care to stay within the limits of word count and essay length, format the paper in the requested manner (APA, MLA, etc.), and submit the application on or before the due date. This tip seems simple, but a hastily put together paper with good ideas may not go over as well as a less interesting paper that follows all the rules. Also, if you mention in your paper that you’re organized and pay attention to details, and then you fail to follow any of the directions, what does that really say about you? Be conscious of the message you’re sending out. It’s not just what you say—it’s also how you say it.
  2. Write about something that interests you. Most of the essay topics are fairly open-ended, so there’s an opportunity to inject some of your own flavor. My favorite topic to research and write about is the digital divide, so I usually find a way to weave a discussion of accessibility and computer education into whatever prompt I’m given. I’m not advocating that you dump in a bunch of unrelated information about your passion for AACR2 and clowns—I’m simply saying that if you have an opportunity to discuss your relevant interests, you should go for it. Your passion will influence your tone, and the scholarship committee will be able to sense the honesty and sincerity of your words.
  3. Read essays from those who have won in the past. Often, organizations post an excerpt of the winning essay in a press release, and in some cases, the essay is published in its entirety in an academic journal or professional newsletter. Read it, and figure out what made it a winner. Is the writer’s tone enthusiastic and persuasive or scholarly and informative? How many sources did he or she use? Is the essay significantly below the word count, or does it meet it exactly? Something about this essay was right—it’s your job to figure out what, and to implement those same strategies in your own paper.
  4. Google the names of previous winners. This is mainly a confidence booster because it helps you realize that the people who have won in the past aren’t really that different from you. And then you’ll start to believe that you have what it takes to win, too. A lot of library students have an online presence via LinkedIn, Twitter, or personal blogs, so it’s relatively easy to take a peek at their résumés. I wouldn’t contact them one-on-one, especially if they’re complete strangers, but my logic is that people post résumés online so that others can read them, so what’s the harm in indulging?
  5. Get feedback. Whether it’s yelling into the next room to ask your sister if something makes sense or emailing a copy of the finished paper to your advisor, a second set of eyes and ears never hurt when writing an essay. Something that sounds clear to you may prove to be confusing to others, and since you won’t be there in person to explain your essay to the scholarship committee as they read it, it’s important to be sure that your essay makes sense to someone other than yourself.

Writing a scholarship essay can be scary—you’re putting yourself out there and saying, “Pick me, pick me!” But with practice (and a healthy dose of confidence), this process becomes easier and easier. And who knows, you may find yourself a few dollars richer in the process.

What do you think, fellow hackers? Do you have any tried and true rituals for acing the scholarship essay?


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