How to write your best college/scholarship essays

Nikolai Kutsch, News Editor

A path of prompts, claustrophobically constricted by narrow word counts, winds along the websites of universities and scholarship programs towards dread-inducing deadlines. 

Framed by the glowing laptop screen is an empty Google Doc, upon which high school seniors have to draft a text that needs to paint a picture of themselves for admissions officers and selection committee members. 

Over my high school journey, I’ve submitted over a dozen essays across multiple applications, culminating in a flurry of letters ranging from, “We’re pleased to inform you…” to “We regret to inform you…” Applying to a program or school can be both exhilarating and nerve-wracking, and essays are inevitably at the center of your candidate experience.

Here, I’ll share my advice for creating essays you will feel good about. I’ll be featuring some of my college/program essays from the past, but remember: these are your essays, and your voice is the one essay readers will want to hear.

Show Don’t Tell

You have likely already encountered this phrase in English class, but it really does deserve its place in the sun among writing advice. It livens your writing and maximizes the few words you’re allowed to use.

Per this advice, let me show you an example of how the Show Don’t Tell rule can improve your writing, using a 25-word short answer prompt from UNC Chapel Hill’s 2021 application. 

UNC-CH Prompt: “One family tradition I cherish:” 

Telling Example: I love spending time with my family at the beach every summer. My grandmother and great aunt spend the day on the front porch of the beach house while my cousins spend most of their time on the beach. We have lots of great conversations during the day and at night.

Showing Example: Salty breeze rocking the Grannies’ front porch chairs and keeping cousins cool on warm island sand. Happily chatting at sunrise and under stars. Every summer!

Colorful descriptions like “front porch chairs”, “salty breeze”, and “island sand” paint a beach setting in fewer words. While the “Telling” example thoroughly describes my family’s beach trips, the “Showing” version pulls on your senses to evoke emotion, which matters when the word count is short/slim.

Could Someone Else Write This? 

Regardless of what else your essays are about, you’ll want them to scream YOU! 

When staring down an essay prompt, begin to consider stories from your life that might relate to what the application is asking. When you combine the personal nature of your stories with the “show don’t tell” rule above, your essays will give crystal clear insight into your identity, which helps you stand out among the large applicant pool. 

This is important when you’re facing a question about your academic interests, like this one from this year’s NC State application:

NCSU Prompt: Explain why you selected the academic program(s) above and why you are interested in studying these at NC State.*(250 words) 

Since my tentative major is International Studies, it’d be fair if I wrote, “I selected International Studies because I’m really interested in other countries, such as those where Russian is spoken, and I want to connect people from around the world with each other.”

By all means, don’t shy away from stating your interests in your essay. However, consider which personal experiences from your life might do a good job explaining your curiosity. 

Here’s how I started that essay about why I selected the International Studies major for NC State:

“Filling our mugs with coffee and starting a video conference with someone almost 7,000 miles away was a Saturday morning routine for me and my grandmother.

Upon becoming a “virtual host family” for Oleg, a prospective exchange student in Kazakhstan who couldn’t come to the U.S. due to COVID-19,  I felt eager to discuss Central Asia and improve my Russian-language skills. However, something took me by surprise by drastically enriching our exchange: my grandmother’s agricultural extension career.”

In fact, this is another way of showing who you are through a real-life example, even if you aren’t sure which major is right for you (which is completely normal). Try to think of a story that shows why you’re curious about horses/chemistry/design/music/anything else under the moon. 

Proofreading Like A Car Wash

When you roll up to an automatic car wash, there are several steps between you and the shiny vehicle you’re seeking. Soap, water, spot-cleaning, rinsing – varying processes blended for a stunning result.

That’s a good rule for your essay, too. Ask several people to read over what you’ve drafted. A close friend will be able to tell you if it sounds like you. A teacher may be able to give you grammar and vocabulary help but preferably in a way that preserves the original voice of your writing. 

The most important proofreader might be you yourself. Do you feel like your essay sounds like you? If you’re relatively comfortable with your first draft, your proofreaders should be able to truly help you polish your essay while not completely changing it. 

Finally, word-checking programs like Grammarly have helped me avoid some embarrassing spelling mistakes. You may want to enlist their help as well. 

Wrapping Up

Writing essays for scholarship or college applications requires a lot of time and effort so remember to be proud of yourself for the work you’ve invested in these writing assignments. 

Give yourself plenty of time to write and don’t feel overwhelmed if you’re stumped for ideas at first. Be deliberate with your words, but don’t stop being yourself, and once you’ve submitted your essays, don’t stress out over what you could’ve done differently – there might be a thousand other ways to write your essay.

Finally, in case it helps to see another example, here’s a bonus essay from my 2021-2022 application to Wake Forest University: 

WFU Prompt: Tell us more about the topic that most engages your intellectual curiosity. (150 words)

This summer, I let black-and-white photographs carry me to 1920s-era Berlin as I waltzed through the art-lined halls of the Goethe-Institut in Washington DC, surrounded by German’s melodic flow as I spoke, wrote, and read for my C1-level language exam. 

My exam lasted roughly five hours, but German has captivated me for over five years. German invites me to analyze green politics and parliamentary elections while offering the promise of exploring quaint coastal villages and hiking through Switzerland’s mountainous cantons. It unlocks the gates of medieval castles and stories of Turkish immigrants and Syrian refugees. 

Whether listening to podcasts about coping with repression in former East Germany, flipping through 20th-century novels and plays by Duerrenmatt and Brecht, or watching 1960’s Austrian rom-coms while jotting down vocabulary in my notebook, the linguistic and cultural diversity of the German-speaking world means there’s always another region or dialect for me to delve into.