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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In preparation for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show this morning, I reached out to the admissions offices at the University of Virginia and Occidental College in California for examples of essays that they considered memorable — for good, or ill.
Before I share some of these samples, a caveat (one familiar to regular readers of this blog): while it can be instructive to read actual college admissions essays, trying to copy a particular approach — or in some cases avoid it — can be perilous. That’s because how one responds to an essay can be an intensely personal experience.
That said, I would argue that there are some basic lessons to be gleaned from the following examples. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an essay that was not especially well received at the University of Virginia, in part because the writer misjudged the age and sensibility of his or her audience:
John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…
John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions. …
Another essay, also musical in focus, got a more appreciative read at U.V.A.:
I strode in front of 400 frenzied eighth graders with my arm slung over my Fender Stratocaster guitar — it actually belonged to my mother — and launched into the first few chords of Nirvana’s ‘Lithium.’ My hair dangled so low over my face that I couldn’t see the crowd in front of me as I shouted ‘yeah, yeah’ in my squeaky teenage voice. I had almost forgotten that less than a year ago I had been a kid whose excitement came from waiting for the next History Channel documentary.
It was during the awkward, hormonal summer between seventh and eighth grade when I first heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The song shocked my senses — until that point my musical cosmos consisted mainly of my father’s Beatles CDs.
I would argue that the admissions committee was able to relate a little more to this essay than the first. And it was certainly more evocative and detailed. It also conveyed more about the writer (and applicant) — a crucial quality in a college admissions essay.
I turn, now, to excerpts from a recent essay that struck a visceral chord within the admissions office at Occidental (where, as an aside, President Obama began his college career):
My head throbbed as I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself to give up.
‘Come on, Ashley. Put the pencil down. Just put the pencil down and go to bed,’ I told myself sternly. I had been hard at work for hours — brutal, mind-numbing hours. I groaned as I moved over to my bed, collapsing in a pile of blankets and closing my eyes.
I lay there for a moment or two, gathering strength, gaining courage. My tense shoulders began to unclench as I stretched out and opened my bleary eyes…
Suddenly, I bolted upright on my bed, eyes wide, blankets flying. Everything had fallen into place. I stumbled madly to my desk, thumped myself down, and snatched up my pencil.
‘I’ve got it! That’s it!’ I whooped, scribbling furiously, as my brother pounded on my wall for silence.
I had just won another skirmish in my ongoing battle with the crossword puzzle.
What worked here? I’m told the admissions officers appreciated how the writer conveyed her love of words — and in the process told them much about herself. As a writer, I admired the way she built a sense of mystery at the outset, one that served to draw the reader in.
I’ll close with an attempt at metaphor that fell a bit flat, at least in its reception at Occidental. The applicant writes:
I believe in jello; a silly greeting, tasty dessert, or the answer to life as we know it?
Factor #1: Have you ever tried to make jello? It takes patience. First you have to boil the water; then mix it with powder, stirring for two minutes; then finally adding the cold water and putting it in the fridge for forty-five minutes. Think about the creation of people…
To share your own thoughts on essay strategies — and, perhaps, some excerpts of your own — please use the comment box below.