A Comprehensive Guide to Writing a Winning Scholarship Essay

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: January 18, 2023

A winning scholarship essay is the pinnacle of your application. It’s your chance to make a case for why the sponsor should fund your college education. However, writing a winning scholarship essay may be very daunting for you. You may be challenged by one of the four issues I hear from students all the time, like: 

  • “I don’t like to write.” 
  • “I don’t know what to write about.” 
  • “I don’t know how to develop your story to make an impact.” 
  • “I am exhausted from all the writing.”

Do any of these statements sound familiar to you? My goal is to help you move past these common roadblocks that students have when writing scholarship essays. Keep reading to learn about: 

  1. The five most common essay types that scholarship sponsors ask students to write about 
  2. How to write a winning scholarship essay for each one of these essay types
  3. How to get past roadblocks that may stump you in your writing or ability to convince the sponsor of your worthiness.

We have also included sample scholarship essays that you can use as a guide to inspire your writing. By following these strategies, you’ll walk away with tools and shortcuts to reduce the time it takes to write a winning scholarship essay that meets what the scholarship sponsor is looking for.

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Key Takeaways

Table of Contents

What is a Scholarship?

A scholarship is a financial award given to a student to help pay for educational expenses. Scholarships are typically awarded based on academic or athletic merit or personal attributes such as community service, leadership, or financial need.

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Why is the Scholarship Essay Important?

The scholarship essay your write is essential because it gives you a chance to demonstrate to the selection committee what makes you the best candidate for the scholarship. It allows you to showcase your academic achievements, personal strengths, and any extracurricular activities or volunteer work you have participated in. It also allows you to explain your unique circumstances or hardships and how they have shaped you. Ultimately, a well-written and thoughtful essay can help you stand out from the competition and make a positive impression on the selection committee.

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Private sources award 1.7M scholarships, with a total value of $7.4B annually.

Is the Scholarship Essay the Same as a College Essay?

A scholarship essay is different from a college essay. You would write a scholarship essay to apply for a particular award from a nonprofit organization, college or university, or other entity that is awarding funding for college. The purpose of a scholarship essay is to show why you deserve the scholarship. A college essay, on the other hand, is usually used to apply for admission to a college or university. The college essay is meant to give the admissions committee a better understanding of your strengths as a candidate. You can, however, use the essay you’ve written for college admissions for scholarship applications with some tweaking.

What Do You Write in a Winning Scholarship Essay?

What you write in your winning scholarship essay will depend on the question asked by the scholarship sponsor. In my experience coaching students, I have observed that scholarship sponsors ask five types of questions.

5 Types of Scholarship Essay

Personal Statement Essay

If a scholarship essay prompt asks you something like, “To apply, tell us about yourself, the challenges you’ve overcome, and how you plan to make a difference in the world with your education,” such as found in the Yvela Michele Memorial Scholarship, you are being asked to tell your big picture story and why you deserve a scholarship. The personal statement essay makes a great essay that tells a broad story of your

Sample Personal Statement Essay

My name is David Morris, and I am a senior at North High School. Over the last four years, I have completed a challenging course curriculum, been an active member of my school community. I have strived to gain admission into my top school, the University of Texas at Austin, where I’ll attend in the fall.

While UT was generous in offering me a $20,000 merit scholarship, I need additional funds to afford the school. Therefore, I am humbly requesting consideration for the Mae Gold Foundation Scholarship for $5,000. Based on my research, I have the academic background, achievement history, personal mission, and goals that align with the Foundation’s objectives to “send deserving students from the state of Indiana to college.”

My goal is to study psychology at UT Austin and then study medicine and become a psychiatrist. My passion for this career path started as a junior when I volunteered at Wishard Hospital. My assignment was to assist Dr. Patel, a psychiatrist, with 35 patients with schizophrenia, bipolar, and other mental illnesses. As part of group therapy support, I interacted with the patients. I played games like chess, pool, and table tennis with patients. I shadowed Dr. Patel, learning his day-to-day and watching how he impacted the lives of his patients. This experience taught me workplace skills such as time management, teamwork, and planning. But most importantly, it exposed me to the possibility of being a doctor. 

While I know the journey is long, I am confident I will persevere and keep going until I achieve my goals. Throughout my education, I have challenged myself at every turn. I have taken 7 AP classes and 5 honors courses. During the last two summers, I have taken computer science classes at IUPUI. Also, I am in leadership positions in my school’s Key Club, play golf, and work a part-time job at Kroger. 

The only barrier to achieving my dream is financing college. The cost of attending UT is $52,000. Even after the scholarship, I’d have to pay $32,000. I am aggressively looking for scholarships to lessen the amount of student loans I’ll have to take on. So far, I’ve won awards from various scholarship agencies totaling $15,000. The $5,000 award from Mae Gold will give me so much closer to my goal. By investing in me, you’ll help me become the first person in my family to graduate college and enter a STEM field where students like me are underrepresented.

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Leadership Essay

A leadership essay prompt essentially asks you to reflect on an activity that is unique and has reached and impacted people, like the one asked by the Glenda W. Brennan Foundation, which asks, “tell us how you give back to your community and what your plans in the travel industry are.”

Sample Leadership Essay

While in high school, I have had significant leadership experiences, both in volunteer service and paid positions. These opportunities have given me a unique perspective and have helped me learn new skills, such as working with people, communicating, and being efficient.  

Over the last three years, I have volunteered at Seven Loaves Food Pantry. Every Saturday, I help prepare bags of food for families in need. My job is to sort out food and place it in a bag. Once a staff member announces on the megaphone, “Get ready for the run!” I gather a few carts and run out to the cars in line for their groceries. As I pile groceries throughout their car, I get many thanks of gratitude. There’s one that I remember vividly, a mother with a young child said to me, “Thank you for all of your hard work. Our community needs this. God bless.” Having the privilege of interacting with the recipient face-to-face is the most rewarding feeling, and it is why I chose to volunteer for this organization. The kindness and positivity this program has presented to me are what I strive to portray in my personal life. 

Also, since 2018, I have volunteered at the public libraries for the City of Plano. I read to children at story time events and assist them with Legos, counting money, watercolor painting, and other crafts. I love making their day and seeing the intrigued looks on the children’s faces as I read or play with them. In one particular event, a child’s parent came up to me after and said that her daughter truly enjoyed her time and wanted to come back and see me the next day. These responses develop my desire to help and interact with children in any way possible.

I have worked at Dallas Country Club since 2018. My duties involve filing documents and assisting the HR Director with organizing the file area to reduce backlog and clutter and increase productivity. Also, I learned a new computer program, which I use to file new hire employee information and payroll. During the holidays, I help coordinate catering packages for members, including taking orders, organizing and packing trays of food, and solving concerns as they come up. I dress up as characters, like the Easter bunny, entertaining children. Since joining the Country Club, my problem-solving, communication, and project management skills have advanced. In other aspects of my life, I have applied these skills, including at school when I am assigned group projects. I usually am the one who takes the lead in organizing and assigning tasks for each person, making sure every member gets their work done on time, and encouraging my group to work as a team to be more efficient. 

Overall, I have learned several things from my leadership experiences. With my new skills and knowledge, I also understand that my actions significantly influence others. I feel more prepared for college and my future.

Future Plans Essay

A future plans essay prompt asks you to share your academic progress and discuss your intent, promise, and future career goals in detail. A good example of a future plans essay prompt is the one asked by the Jacques Borges Memorial Scholarship, “Why are you passionate about becoming a civil engineer? What are some of the problems you’d like to address in your community? how do you believe you can contribute to the solution to these issues? Sponsors would like to know what you expect to achieve in your future career, what inspired that choice, the aptitude you demonstrated that prove you’ll succeed in this career choice, and the role your college will play in your future success.

Sample Future Plans Essay

Last summer, I read Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, which I found to be one of the most profound books I had ever read. In the text, Alex, the protagonist, has his right to choose taken away by a totalitarian government. Learning about the hardships and moral dilemmas Alex faced helped me appreciate my freedom to decide my career pathway. I want to work at a law firm and handle civil rights cases to protect people’s natural born rights. 

Someday, I hope to be as influential as civil rights leader Julius Chambers. Chambers opened a law practice in Charlotte and is most famous for the integration (by busing) of public schools in the 1971 case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.  Like Chambers, I believe that nothing should slow the advancement of civil rights. I will strive to get a position on a state supreme court to rule in landmark cases involving violations of the rights and protections guaranteed by our Constitution and laws. 

I believe that vision, hope, hard work, and my education at Georgetown University will position me for a successful career in law. I chose Georgetown because I would like to pursue rigorous academic coursework and conduct research alongside expert practitioner professors and like-minded students passionate about learning. I will take advantage of being part of the Honors Program to develop my thinking skills further. The course I am looking forward to most is called “What is Politics For?” In the class, I will explore questions that dominate public discourse and join the discussion with peers who value learning as much as I do. 

In addition, I plan to research under the guidance of political science professors like William Winstead. He examined Nietzsche’s Practice of Warfare influenced German culture and determined how Germany interacts with foreign nations today.  With his in-depth knowledge of how to gather adequate resources on a topic and synthesize a more significant meaning between history and modern-day politics, I hope to understand the rationale of political behavior in the United States.

Also, I am excited about participating in extracurricular opportunities offered at Georgetown University that will prepare me for a career, such as volunteering abroad in England to understand better how their unitary form of government works or securing a prestigious internship with parliament. Hands-on experiences juxtaposed with working with relevant and active professors will provide me with the foundational knowledge and expertise that will prepare me for law school and a career someday as a lawyer.

In closing, I hope you will consider my application for the Newfield Scholarship. The scholarship will go towards educational costs and allow me to focus on my studies in my first year. I will ensure that the investment in my education is returned tenfold in the communities I plan to serve in the coming years. Thank you for this opportunity, and I look forward to your decision.

Struggle Essay

A struggle essay prompt is one that asks you to speak about a challenge you faced and how you succeeded in persisting through and eventually overcoming the challenge.As an example, The Cat Zingano Overcoming Loss Scholarship asks the question, How has the loss of a close family member or loved one caused you to focus on what matters most in your life and what you want to “fight” to achieve?” When you craft your winning scholarship essay, you’ll speak about any problem or challenge you have dealt with, the actions you took to work through the problem, how you’ve grown as a person after facing the challenge, and the learnings from this experience that will help you in the future.

Sample Struggle Essay

I struggled in Mrs. Hennessey’s geometry class. While classmates intensely followed her lesson, studying the whiteboard as she drew perfect shapes and angles, I couldn’t keep up. After school, I’d go home and practice drawing lines and shapes for hours until it got dark outside. My eyes were sore, and my fingers blistered from pushing too hard on the loose-leaf paper to draw shapes like Mrs. Hennessey’s. 

After a few weeks of noticing my late nights studying, my parents offered, “We will get you a tutor [if] it will help.” But I always refused. You see, looking back, the problem was not that I didn’t understand geometry. I didn’t need tutoring, so I didn’t want to waste their money. What I wanted instead: that I could draw every point, segment, line, and triangle straight, clean, and 90 degrees. Geometry made me fully aware of my flaws, and I hated it. 

This all changed, for the better, when I took Art 1-2D. On my first day of class, the teacher, Mrs. Pierce, introduced herself, saying, “I would like you to draw what you want our world to look like. There is no right or wrong in this class. Art is how you, as the artist, choose to interpret it.” Staring down at the blank sheet of paper, I had trouble getting started. Seeing everyone around me had a clear objective and art skills, I defaulted to drawing six stick figures united, holding hands. I looked over at my classmates’ drawings. While I cannot remember precisely what they drew, it looked more creative and professional. My figures were not perfect in any way, and it bothered me. Their legs and arms weren’t straight, their heads were not perfect ovals, and they all appeared different. 

When my art teacher walked by my desk, I expected her to criticize my work and tell me what needed to be fixed. Instead, she kneeled in, close to my paper, and said, “Kaeli, that looks great!” I felt relieved as the weight had been lifted off my shoulders. In her validation of my art, down went the pressure to be perfect. In my art class anyway. 

Over the next few months, Mrs. Pierce assigned us so many projects that I loved — that broadened my perspective of art.  One example includes a distorted art project. The project tasked me with picturing myself in an object that reflected distortion. Using a decorative tissue box cover, I placed my phone at eye level, hit the red button, and hoped for the best. The image reflected my face: twisted, deformed, and imperfect.  I immediately knew the exact point of this assignment and its lessons applicable to other parts of my life.

In my geometry days, taking an hour to draw perfect lines and symmetrical shapes took a toll on my mental health. I spent more time worrying about the aesthetics of my work than the content and purpose of learning. Welcoming art into my life changed all of this for me. Art has reset my views: it has no expectations and lacks perfection.

Thematic Essay

A thematic essay prompt asks you to write a response related to a quote, mission, or concept. This essay will vary by the sponsor, so you cannot write it ahead of time unless another sponsor asks a similar theme question. For example, The Bryent Smothermon PTSD Awareness Scholarship asks student applicants: “ What have you learned about yourself or the world around you through your experiences with service-related PTSD? How do you hope to use your experience to help other veterans who are currently suffering from PTSD?” Thematic essays are creative and give you an opportunity to tell the scholarship sponsor a unique story about yourself and your life experiences that show you’re worthy of scholarship funding.

Sample Thematic Essay

Often, it’s difficult to resist the temptation of my phone. Seeing the screen light up in the corner of my eye while struggling to focus on the road ahead is challenging. Aside from my phone, there are endless disturbances that many young people and I encounter while driving. 

Distracted driving affects thousands of people. But specifically, I have seen teens physically and mentally connected to their phones because it’s how we grew up. That’s all we know. It is a constant battle—fighting the urge to return a friend’s text, skip to the next song, or post on Instagram. This nagging fear of missing out drives us to indulge in hazardous activities that distract from what’s most important, keeping our eyes on the road. 

Regretfully, I have been both a distracted driver and an accomplice to distracted driving. One example I can still see clearly in my head was during the homecoming of sophomore year. I was in the car with my friends, Anya and Sophia. I was sitting in the passenger seat next to Anya, who was driving. Sophia was sitting in the back seat. It was 9:00 PM, the windows were down, and Shawn Mendes’ new song was blaring as we cruised down Preston Road with no care at the moment. But within seconds, that reality faded once our oblivion carried us through a still red light, almost colliding with another vehicle. My heart stopped, and shock took over my body. I still remember the look on the little girl’s face in the other car. She must’ve been barely five years old. I thought to myself: we could’ve killed her. We could’ve killed ourselves. 

Beyond escaping a near-death experience, that night taught me three things:

  • I learned the importance of safe driving.
  • I can see now how easy it is to lose control of a situation while distracted.
  • I have learned the significance of spreading awareness of being a safe driver.

Every day I sit in the driver’s seat, I do what I can to prevent myself from distracted driving. Before I start the ignition, I connect my Bluetooth, put on my music, and input the directions to where I am going. If I get a text from my parents or friends while driving, I ignore it and respond when I can safely pull over. Also, I avoid eating while driving. And my rule is never to have more than two passengers in the car. Taking these actions and being an example to my friends who observe me while driving can be crucial in saving lives.

As a result, I’m 17 years old and can proudly say I have maintained a clean driving record. I have no tickets or accidents to report. Praising me for my driving maturity, my parents have allowed me to take road trips with my friends as far as 100 miles from our home.

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How to start a scholarship essay?

Crafting a successful scholarship essay doesn’t have to be a challenging process. Start with an outline, focusing on the essentials of what you want to present. Be sure to include compelling anecdotes and examples to back up your viewpoint. While working on your essay, forget about worrying over word count, as the most important thing is getting your ideas down on paper first. Once that’s done, take time to read through it carefully, refining and tightening it until it answers the prompt clearly before submitting your application.

How long should a Scholarship essay be?

Writing a winning scholarship essay can vary in length, but most are around 500-1000 words. However, it is important to follow the specific requirements set by the scholarship provider.

Dos and Don’ts of writing a scholarship essay.

Writing a scholarship essay can be a daunting task. Here are some do’s and don’ts that you’ll want to adhere to as you write your winning scholarship essay.


  • Carefully read all instructions and requirements. Make sure your essay is following all the requirements, or it may not be considered.
  • Use proper grammar and spelling. A well-written essay will make a good impression on the reader.
  • Make sure you stay within the word limit.
  • Proofread your essay. Check for any typos or errors.


  • Don’t wait until the last minute to start writing your essay. Make sure you give yourself enough time to plan and write your essay.
  • Don’t exceed the word limit. This could lead to points being taken off your essay.
  • Likewise, refrain from utilizing excessively informal language or slang.
  • Don’t plagiarize. Make sure your work is original, and cite any sources you use.
  • Therefore, don’t submit your essay without proofreading it first. Additionally, be sure to check for any errors or typos.

Conclusion + Next Steps

Now that you know how to write a winning scholarship essay and have seen examples of great scholarship essays, you can begin to write your own scholarship essay. By following these tips, you’ll be well on your way to writing a winning scholarship essay that stands out to the reader and wins you the funds you need to pay for college.

Don’t forget to download the Scholarship Starter Pack, which includes fill-in-the-blank essay templates and other resources to get you started with finding and winning scholarships to pay for college.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.