Using a previous scholarship essay contest we hosted, where our judges received more than 4,000 essays, we noticed some frequent mistakes students make that can instantly disqualify you from an essay contest.
We thought to ourselves, "Hello, learning opportunity!
Here, an example of what NOT to do in an essay – and some tips on making yourself a better candidate for scholarship cash.
Here’s one of the essays we received for a previous scholarship contest, to help you learn the do’s and don’ts of essay writing:
“To be able to hold onto your money you have to know how to manage it. Money management is a complicated process. As teenagers we often have no idea how to manage money and we end up wasting a lot of it. But in a bad economy most of us have had a crash course in what happens when you don’t manage your money properly. We have had to delve into a world foreign and unfamiliar to us and solve our own money problems. The most successful of us have managed to still have some semblance of a social life without going over our small budgets. The keys to doing this successfully are actually quite simple.
Set up your own budget of expenses. Teenagers may not have to worry about paying a mortgage or rent but we do have to be able to pay for gas, insurance for our vehicles, and the never ending list of project expenses and supplies for classes. So you have to sit down and balance what you spend in a month with what you actually make, and whether that’s the money you get for your birthday that you manage to stretch with help from mom’s pocketbook or it’s the minimum wage that you get from the local fast food joint where you have managed to find employment the money comes from somewhere and it needs to be written down.
Review your expenses daily. This includes balancing your checkbook and reviewing your online statements, as well as calculating any emergency expenses that you were not considering. This needs to be fluid as sometimes things come up that you just couldn’t have forseen.
You have to get creative. You are not always going to have the time to sit there with a calculator crunching numbers so create small ways to keep thing balanced without having to. Send yourself easy phone reminders about a few of your expenses. Always bring your school id with you because a lot of places will give students discounted rates. And finally, just remember where your money is going it will help.”
So, what was wrong and what was right?
One thing the essay writer did correctly was to stay within the word count for the contest.
The essay contest stated within the rules that essays should range from 250-350 words and this essay comes in at 349 words. Good job!
Another positive is that the writer stayed on topic and answered the question that was presented.
However, even though the writer did stay on topic, the response took a meandering approach and didn’t take a strong or memorable stance. In short, the “meat” of the essay wasn’t there. Think of it this way: sum up in one sentence what you want the reviewer to know and remember after reading your essay. Did you get that across in a clear and concise way?
Each essay should get across at least one breakout idea (aka, the thesis statement) and the rest of the essay should focus on selling that point. If it’s a new, creative or off-beat idea, focus on selling and explaining that. If it’s a common idea, focus on trying to say it better than anyone else.
Here are a few more examples of what the essay writer did wrong:
Misspellings are the fastest way to ensure an essay is disqualified. When combing through a stack of essays, a judge will first rule out the essays with simple misspellings. Long story short: run a spell check and have someone else you trust look over it. It’s always best to get a second set of eyes.
Incomplete sentences – Remember, each sentence should have a subject (someone or something) and a verb (action). Wondering if your sentence is complete? Here’s a hint: A complete sentence tells a complete thought.
No capitalization –
it’s bad enough not to capitalize words at the beginning of a sentence, but at the beginning of a paragraph it stands out even more! Yikes!
Missing punctuation –
In this example, the writer does not have proper command over the use of commas — namely they are missing in places they should have been added and added places they are not required.
Poor grammar and sentences that don’t make sense –
The essay writer uses poor word choices, improper grammar and mistakes such as having too many spaces between words. Another example of poor grammar is the confusion of grammatical persons — in the beginning of the essay the writer uses the first person plural (we) and toward the end, the writer uses the second person (you).
Run-on sentences –
In this essay, one sentence has 72 words. As a rule, try to keep sentences no longer than 35 words each.
Keep these tips in mind the next time you write an essay. Remember, you don’t want to give the judges any reason to disqualify your essay right off the bat.
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I have had the privilege to sit on several scholarship committees over the years, but lately it seems as though fewer students are actually reading the guidelines before they submit their applications. I don’t know if they believe that the winners are chosen at random or that no one is actually reading the essays, but after reviewing a recent stack of submissions, I've come to the conclusion that many students are simply too lazy to follow directions. Just like most things in life, scholarships come with rules. I know most students abhor them, but scholarship providers don’t simply give away money because students ask nicely for it; providers want to know that the investment they are making is a good one and that’s where scholarship guidelines play a part. If students are unwilling to spend the time needed to review the rules and submit a quality essay, they probably won't be willing to go above and beyond in college, either. Although that may not be the case for all students, it’s the rationale used by many providers to weed out possible contenders. In general, three fatal flaws that continue to keep most students from reaching the coveted finalists pool.
1. Word Count
I know many students express their frustration over the limitations placed on scholarship essays, but the word count is there for a reason. In most cases, scholarship essays are kept to 500 words or less. It makes it easier for committees to review hundreds (sometimes thousands!) of submissions and ensures that students are staying on topic. It’s also an easy way for scholarship committee members to reject those applicants who failed to read the directions. No matter how brilliant the essay may be, if it doesn’t meet the word count, no one will be reading it. In my experience, more than 20 percent of the applications I have reviewed are disqualified because the students do not follow this simple rule.
I blame Twitter for derailing many students in this area. So many have grown accustomed to fitting in 140 characters in their everyday conversations that it seems to have filtered into their scholarship essays, as well. I cannot tell you how many times I have come across someone using the lowercase ‘i’ instead of the appropriate version, not to mention all the acronyms littering the page; OMG, it’s enough to make me SMH! Another pet peeve of mine - spelling errors! Many are obvious keystroke errors, but simply having another set of eyes proofread the essay would save many students from this fatal flaw. Many scholarship reviewers use the baseball rule when it comes to grammatical errors; 1-2-3 and you're out!
3. Wrong Response
I know I have mentioned in previous posts that students should work smarter by reusing some of their previous work. That does not mean, however, submitting an essay that has nothing to do with the scholarship prompt. For example, an essay about the zombie apocalypse probably shouldn't be used for an essay about ice cream. As a reviewer, nothing is more frustrating than coming across a submission that was obviously meant for another scholarship program. It basically screams, ‘I want the money, but I don’t want to work for it.’ Another fatal flaw, students who write why they deserve a scholarship or list all of the hardships in their life; unless the scholarship provider specifically asked for this information, students need to stick to the script and stay on topic. They may think that it will tug at the scholarship committee’s heart strings (and sometimes it does), but if their essays do not answer the scholarship prompt, they'll be headed for the rejection pile. So many students complain about not winning scholarships, but if more would take a few moments to review the guidelines and learn to stick to the rules, I think they would have a better chance at actually earning some cash for college. It’s amazing how many never even take the time to edit their work before hitting the submit button. Clearly, these students don’t value the scholarship committee’s time, so why should we feel inclined to provide them with a scholarship? In most cases, the students who put forth their best efforts (and pay attention!) will earn the scholarship rewards.