The college application process is competitive. Being awarded money to pay for college can be even more so. Unfortunately, even in the case of need-based scholarships, competitive criteria are used to determine who receives funding, because resources are limited. This is where your application essay comes in. Need-based scholarship applications require income documentation, but committees want to know more than just numbers. The essay is your chance to tell your story.

Open With a Specific Event

A strong opening paragraph will make your essay stand out, as will a compelling story that illustrates your financial need. Instead of just stating that your single mother raised you while working two jobs and attending night school, start your essay with a specific evening you remember her walking through the door at 9:30 p.m., yawning after a long day and still taking the time to sit and talk with you. If you remember her arms being full of the groceries she shopped for between her shift at the restaurant and her community college class, describe that. Reflect on this specific memory as a way of leading into a discussion of the difference this scholarship would make to your family.

Frame Your Story Positively

You are clearly applying for aid because you need financial assistance, but don't sound self-pitying. Focus on the positive, such as how your hard-working single mother has inspired you. If the essay instructions allow, indicate how excited you are that the funding could make your chosen career possible. Perhaps it would allow you to contribute to society in ways that your present financial circumstances don't. For instance, if you've always dreamed of volunteering for Doctors Without Borders, but never thought anyone in your family could attend medical school, discuss that.

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Be Personable and Likable

It's important that the committee see you as likable. Regardless of how you illustrate financial need, avoid giving the impression that your career decision is primarily an economic one. Steer clear of controversial topics, too, since you don't know the political beliefs of those who will be reading. You may dream of leading a social revolution some day, but don't use a scholarship essay as your chance to highlight your political beliefs.

Be Honest, Humble and Proofread

Don't try to sound like someone you're not – and avoid sounding pompous. Students sometimes fill their essays with quotations by famous philosophers, straining to sound as intelligent as possible. Simply sounding like yourself is what will make you most likable. An essay containing careless mistakes could detract from the committee's positive impression of you, so carefully proofread your essay before submitting it.

About the Author

Elizabeth Ewe Weaver earned her MFA in writing from Columbia and has studied composition-rhetoric at the graduate level. She has presented at the NCTE's annual Conference on College Composition and Communication convention and served as full-time writing faculty at several universities. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review and elsewhere.