Essay Writing Tips

Do you moan and groan when you find out that your college or scholarship application requires an essay? Do you wonder why the college admissions office or scholarship office wants to torture you by having to write yet another essay? Essays are a vital part of your application and the can be fun to write. Remember, most essays are written on a very important topic – yourself.

Here are the Top 10 Tips when writing your college or scholarship essay.

1. Follow the instructions and find a topic.

Not to treat you like a first-grader, but since day one, you’ve been told to read directions and follow them. That’s true with the essay as well. For example, if an essay requirement is 500 words, then you should probably submit an essay that is about 500 words (don’t worry if it’s a little shorter or longer). An admissions office does not want (and probably will not read) your 15 page term paper on the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Before you begin, check out the essay topics for all of your applications. Is there a common thread? Could you write that one perfect essay and submit it to multiple organizations? Remember, some scholarships and colleges have a “Topic of your Choice” option. Never decline to apply for scholarships or to a college because of an essay requirement. You will miss out.

2. Look around you. The answer’s usually there.

What can you write about? The answer is usually in front of you. College and scholarship folk want to know about you, your life and experiences. Brainstorm ideas with your family and friends. Over the years I’ve read amazing essays on the simplest of topics. Who would have thought that an essay written about a frog gigging (Google it) experience would be suitable to submit for financial consideration?

3. Get the reader’s attention from the beginning.

Your English teachers tell you to start off any paper with an “attention getter”. This is very true for college and scholarship essays as well. An admissions counselor might have to read 50 essays a day. If yours doesn’t get their attention right off the bat, they might not keep reading. However, just a warning, sometimes students can go too far (See #8).

4. Show it – don’t tell it. Use strong verbs and vivid language.

Over the years, admissions counselors have come to dread what has been coined “The Big Game” essay. This is the essay about the winning (or losing) sports game of the season. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong about writing on your sports experience. However, don’t give us the play by play of the game. We can read that in the newspaper. Instead, show us your experience. Give us that “you are there” feeling.

5. Honesty is key. Write about your feelings and experiences.

Writing about yourself can be tough.

After discussing essay topics with students at a high school, one student approached me about the essay she had begun for two selective private colleges. The topic was to discuss a challenge that you had to overcome. This student had written about the time in 7th grade she was caught using her cell phone at school.

Not a very compelling story.

After asking questions about her life, I realized that the subject she should write about was the one that was the hardest for her to put into words – living with a father who was an alcoholic. She mustered up the courage to write on this subject and created a beautiful essay. She is now a successful student at her first choice college.

The other side of honesty is plagiarism. What is plagiarism? It’s when you copy someone else’s essay and call it your own.

Don’t do it.

Trust me.

6. We want to know about you.

I think this point has been made. Essays are usually about you. Most colleges and scholarships folks cannot interview each student, so the essay is usually the only part of your application where your personality can shine through.

7. Try it on someone else.

Make sure that you write your essay in plenty of time for others to read it. Ask your English teacher to check for grammar issues. Ask a parent for their opinion (do not let them rewrite it). Ask a good friend (or a friend who will tell you the truth) to read it. Ask them “Does this sound like me?”

8. Don’t be obnoxious, off-color or obscene.

The essay is not the place to pout or make excuses. I’ve read essays that went something like this “My high school grades stunk because I had lousy teachers who bored me”. Be honest – not obnoxious. Also, your essay shouldn’t be a laundry list of accomplishments. Yes, knowing your achievements is important; however, you can submit this information separately in a student resume. Remember, going for shock-value may backfire.

9. Use personal pronouns and maybe even contractions.

My high school English teacher gave an automatic “F” for using the personal pronoun “I” in an English paper. So, guess what? I wrote all of my college and scholarship essays in the third person.

That was embarrassing.

Since most college and scholarship essays are also dubbed “Personal Statements”, the first-person voice is appropriate. Use “I”, but don’t forget to capitalize it.

10. Take the time to develop your essay. 

 Are you already thinking of possible essay topics? Good. Write notes or a draft now. Don’t delay. You can “free write” whatever comes to mind and then revise it. Check for content. Check for grammar. Although essays can be more casual than formal five paragraph English compositions, remember to use proper grammar. This includes punctuation and capitalization. Essays are not text messages.


Piece of cake. Now write your essay – you have colleges to get in to and scholarships to win.