Most students do not realize that the process of writing a personal essay for scholarships is more than just a chance to tell stories. It is an opportunity to write a very specific form of argumentation or persuasion.
Of course, when it comes to writing about our lives, it is pretty difficult to identify the elements of a “strong argument” in a brainstorming session, or even in a first draft. The best arguments usually appear in later drafts when you can distance yourself from the life you’re describing, and assess your writing with an analytical mindset.
The value of a first draft
So, I suggest that you let yourself brainstorm and write a first draft before you become too self-critical. Once you have what you consider to be a “complete first draft,” you can engage in the process of draft analysis that will inform how you revise and strengthen your argument in the next draft.
The goal of draft analysis is to consider only the text that you have already written, not the grand ideas that you wish you’d written. When you engage in this process, don’t try to start re-writing your draft as you analyze it. Pretend that you are someone like me: an outside reader who wants to get a quick sense of what is on the page (not what’s in your head).
Analyze your draft with these questions
As you read your draft, ask yourself the following five questions. Make a list of sentences and phrases, or color-code the parts of the essay that answer each of these questions. If at the end of your analysis you are missing some of the answers, jot down the facts and ideas you plan to include in the next draft.
By carefully assessing what you have already written, you will likely notice trends, themes, and arguments that you decide to play up or down in your next draft.
- What specific facts do I share about my immediate goals, my long-term future, and myself?
After reading your draft, you should have a pretty long list of facts that you’ve shared with your audience, and if you don’t, that’s a problem.
A strong argument is one that shows the committee that if you receive funding to pursue your short-term goals, then you’ll be more prepared to have an impactful long-term future. So it is really important that you share concrete details about how you imagine both types of these future goals.
Furthermore, make sure you have shared clear facts regarding your past and current situation. I have read so many applications that tell great stories, but forget to include basic facts, like what city the events happened in, or the year, or even what the student is planning to study. Usually, people forget to share what’s most obvious to them about themselves, and often those are the facts that make you more memorable. Remember, you’re not writing to yourself, you’re writing to a reader who has never met you.
- Do I clearly explain how my sense of identity, past experiences, accomplishments, and skills make me the right person to achieve the short- and long-term goals I’ve set for myself?
You might be tempted to share as much about yourself as you possibly can, and hope that your reader will be able to put all of the pieces together in your favor. But when you’re asking someone to fund your future, the point of sharing details about your past is to prove that you are capable of achieving your goals. A clear and persuasive argument will only include stories and pieces of information that are necessary to show that you are a person who is capable of (and passionate about) accomplishing the specific goals that you have set for yourself.
If there’s some material that doesn’t actively contribute to a past-towards-future argument, you can probably cut it out of the text.
- Do I make clear connections for the reader between my personal motivations, my future goals, and the mission of the funding organization?
Readers don’t have very much time to get through application essays, so you want to make sure that your writing clearly makes the most important connections for them.
The importance of bringing up personal aspects of your past is to show one of two things:
A. You have thought carefully about why you want to accomplish the goals you have identified.
B. Your past experiences allow you to identify with the community, mission, or primary goal of the scholarship organization.
If there is no relationship between the past that you describe and your motivation to accomplish certain goals with the organization’s precious funds, then you are likely telling the wrong story about your past.
- Do I describe or define my own sense of identity? How do I explain the relationship between my identity and the mission of this particular community organization?
When organizations request applications from candidates of specific racial, cultural, ethnic, or health backgrounds, go ahead and assume that the organization understands that individuals within this community represent diverse and unique points of view regarding their own sense of identity.
As you write your personal essay you have a chance to show or explain what this aspect of your “identity” or “community” means to you through your own experiences. It’s completely up to you to define, describe, or even challenge certain definitions of your community.
If you don’t describe or define it for yourself, you’re effectively allowing your reader to do so. And your reader may define that identity or community differently than you want them to.
- Is there a single sentence that clearly states how accomplishing my goals will allow me to contribute to the communities or missions associated with the scholarship granting organization?
Yep, even in a personal scholarship essay you should be able to clearly identify a thesis sentence. This sentence should directly state what your goals are, why you have them, and why these goals should matter to your intended audience.
Here are some examples:
Thesis for a Research Organization
Weak: My work will save the world from sickness.
Strong: Given my family’s experience with colon cancer, I am particularly driven to develop machine-learning techniques that can improve diagnostic processes through the automated analysis of medical photography. I hope that such work can have broad impacts in communities far outside of the lab.
Thesis for a Community-Based Organization
Weak: I want to give back to my community as a future lawyer.
Strong: The fieldwork that I completed as part of my sociology major at UCLA gave me insights into how the law influences social dynamics in various immigrant communities. By focusing on the study of immigration law at Georgetown Law, I look forward to becoming a lawyer who can be attentive to complex aspects of daily life in United States immigrant communities.
Moving forward to your next draft
Once you’ve carefully considered the content of your essay in its current state, remove the material that doesn’t belong, brainstorm the new pieces you’d like to add, and write a get to work on your next draft!
Do you need help creating an attention-grabbing, goal-oriented scholarship essay? Do you need help crafting any other element of your graduate school application? Our expert advisors can guide you to success! Check out our one-on-one Admissions Consulting Services for more information.Want Rebecca to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
• 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Grad School Statement of Purpose, a free guide
• What is a Scholarship Series, a blog series
• Awards! Grants! Scholarships! Oh My! a podcast episode