Once you’ve managed to get your head and your word processor around the basic notions of writing an error-free scholarship packet and tailoring your essay and application answers to the specific scholarship, it’s time to let your personality shine through. Out there in scholarship land, there are hundreds upon hundreds of awards to be given. Each one will have dozens of applicants. Larger, more national scholarships can have thousands of applicants each year. Your job is to cut through the noise.
One way to tackle the problem is to think about what you imagine a “typical” application may say. What do you think everybody else would answer to the questions posed? Ask your parents and teachers. Once you’ve got an answer that seems right, stop; it probably is right. A large portion of applicants will answer along the same pat, hackneyed lines that you and your network came up with and that the scholarship committee has seen year in and year out for the entire time it’s been in existence. This is your benchmark: don’t answer any of the questions or write an essay that sounds like the answer you came up with.
Instead, use the “model” answer as a point from which to diverge. Be careful, though. You still need to answer the question. You just need to do so in a way that is different (and better!) than you imagine the majority of applicants will do it. Remember: this is a competition, and many of the people you’re competing against will be tired, demoralized, uncaring and/or simply not as talented as you. They are filling out applications an simply phoning in the answers in order to get their packets in on time or simply in front of the committee. Use this to your advantage.
Write Like You Speak
When I say that you should write like you speak, I don’t mean that you should use slang or linguistic shortcuts. But so often when we write (and believe me, I do the same thing even on this very site), we get caught up in formalism and stylistic rigor-mortis that makes us sound either convoluted or, worse, just like everyone else. It takes a conscious effort to avoid this. One way to do so is to think of each sentence not as if you’re writing it for an essay but rather as you would say it out loud.
You should be writing more than one draft of your application and essay, anyway; so in your first draft, write what you want to say in the same way as you would say it out loud. Then, when you go back to redraft it and clean it up, correct some of the casual language (contractions, slang, etc.) Even after you’ve dropped some of the words you use in everyday conversation, your personality will still be present. Just cleaned up and a little more formal. Think of it as yourself in business attire: ultimately, no matter what you’re wearing, it’s still you in the clothes.
While you’re at it, be sure to use language that expresses your emotions and how you feel. Don’t use passive voice like “there are…” Instead, say “I feel…” or “I am moved…” Use words that reflect the values of the committee and the scholarship, as well as your own. Talk about the “changes” you’d like to make or the “mark” you’d like to leave on the world. What brings you joy or causes you pain, and how will this scholarship help you to address these feelings.
Conversely, avoid business jargon. Many words that have long been nouns have been “verbified” (see what I mean?) by the business world. While impact is a powerful word, it is something we have not something we do; and either way, the word has been so over(mis)used that it will be less impactful if you attempt to impact the committee by using the word impact. Other words to avoid are “traction,” unless it’s a scholarship from a tire or hiking shoe company, any form of “synergy” and “solution,” unless you’re actually talking about dissolving something or addressing a specific problem (math or otherwise). Such language is so pervasive and has been used so often that it has become almost meaningless in today’s culture (or if not meaningless, at least boring).
Be Thankful, but Not Long-Winded
If the application or your essay is supposed to be a certain length, stick to the length guidelines and don’t go over. More importantly, don’t waste a lot of space with fluff or colorful language. Address the issue(s), make your discrete points and conclude concisely. The committee is going to read a lot of essays; they will not want to slog through an essay that is taking forever to get to the point.
At an appropriate place in your essay (not just randomly, or in a place where it doesn’t fit), work in some words of gratitude for the opportunity to apply and for the committee’s consideration. Even if you have to tack it on at the end; it’s appropriate and will be appreciated.