When a pop-up lake formed after a heavy downpour, right where I was supposed to judge a high school writing contest, I gingerly waded through it while protecting my packet of writing submissions. I wasn’t expecting the rain—or the rather deep “water feature” that soaked my shoes. Once inside the warm, dry building though, I also wasn’t expecting the next bit of news: In addition to the writing contest, I would be judging scholarship application essays.
“What are the rules for judging?” I asked.
“You just have to pick a scholarship essay you like best,” the sponsor said.
“But how am I supposed to judge it? What are the criteria?”
“There aren’t any,” she replied smiling broadly. “You just have to like one.”
That was it. Those were the rules and I wasn’t going to get any further information, so I thanked the sponsor and walked over to a desk to examine the essays and the prompt. However, I figured I couldn’t just “like” an essay, so I put together some rudimentary requirements for selecting the one I liked best. At the very least, I thought the essay should answer the essay question prompt. The best essay though, might also sound authentic in some way. In other words, instead of sounding like a resume of grand achievements, I was hoping to find an essay that might also address larger issues learned and an ability to reflect in a substantial way about life’s losses and gains.
When examining the essay prompt, I could see that the instructions included the word “describe,” but many of the answers before me used bulleted lists. The lists were impressive, no doubt. Many of the students who wrote these lists achieved more in their four years of high school than many achieve in a lifetime. However, they hadn’t described a specific experience or written an essay.
As a writing instructor and tutor, I have helped give feedback to students on scholarship and internship application essays. I’ve reviewed them critically—not just for grammar or spelling—but also for “authenticity” and substance. Not every student is going to have a shocking or exciting story to tell, but each story is unique and can be told effectively. Straight-A students, talented athletes, world travelers, and those who rose from less than privileged circumstances aren’t the only ones who have stories to tell. There are other spaces in between and the blank page can be shaped in many different ways.
So, when students come to me for help, here are a few things I spend time doing:
1) Getting to know the whole student. In discussing interests, goals, and experiences, I can see which significant milestones have shaped a student’s perspective.
2) Examining the essay question with the student to determine the goal or purpose of the essay to be written. Some questions ask for a personal experience. Others ask candidates to share how their personal experiences and course work will lead them to help others. If coursework is a part of the essay question, I can also help students study course descriptions online for the majors they are considering—even if they change their minds later on.
3) Determining the right “hook.” Scholarship committee teams read hundreds of essays—many of which begin the same way or tell the exact same experience a student may think is unique. I work with students to explore ways to make their experience stand out in an authentic manner. Often, a simple description suffices to “hook” readers and tell a meaningful story.
4) Finding places to insert achievements, volunteer work, and other experiences. Sometimes scholarship applications don’t give candidates a place to list their achievements, so essay writers try to cram as many achievements and skills as they can into a draft. However, this tactic diminishes the “authentic” feeling a personal essay typically communicates. Instead, I work with students to identify achievements and volunteer work that can serve as examples or support for an idea.
5) Providing revision strategies to tighten language and ensure that the question at hand is answered and that all requirements are met, including word count.
The day that I spent judging scholarship essays provided a new perspective for helping my own students succeed. On that day, I faced rows and rows of awards and gold stars that read like a resume, but I couldn’t get a sense of who these students really were. So, the selection came down to interviews. Of course, all of the candidates performed well. Eventually, I asked them to describe their experience, exactly as the prompt asked them to do. The “wrote” answers soon gave way to conversations about family, friends, losses, triumphs, and new lessons learned. These conversations flooded the spaces between the lists to create deeper and more lasting impressions of people who would change and shape the places around them.
Do you need help with a scholarship or internship essay? Would you like for someone to review your essay to make sure it’s original and that it meets the requirements—and then some? I’m happy to help. Schedule an appointment today: firstname.lastname@example.org