How to Write Winning Scholarship Essays

The vast majority of legitimate and reputable scholarships are going to require an essay as part of the application process, which means your student needs to know how to write winning scholarship essays. Otherwise, they may miss out on exciting opportunities for free money to help pay for college, increasing the odds that they’ll need student loans to make ends meet.

While “no essay” scholarships do exist, most of these are no more than sweepstakes, and some of them are incredibly sketchy. If you want to know more about no-essay scholarships, check out this article: What You Need to Know About No Essay Scholarships

Writing winning scholarship essays isn’t as challenging as it sounds, as long as your student knows the best approach. To help them get started, here is an in-depth guide on how to write a scholarship essay that will grab the attention of the committee for all of the right reasons.

Read All of the Instructions to Write Winning Scholarship Essays

how to write scholarship essaysWhile this may seem like common sense, many students rush through the instructions section before they start writing their scholarship essay. Why? Because reading instructions isn’t fun and many students are fairly pressed for time.

Ultimately, winning scholarship essays always adhere to the instructions. If your student misses a requirement, their essay may be automatically discarded, meaning they spent all of that time writing for no gain.

Have your student examine the instructions to look for details that outline the process including these:

  • Topic they must cover
  • Formatting requirements
  • Due date
  • Word count
  • Sourcing requirements

Only after this step is complete should they move forward.

Define the Audience for the Scholarship Essay

The audience of a scholarship essay is whoever will be reading it, and catering the content to those groups of people helps create winning scholarship essays.

While you likely won’t know exactly who is going to review their essay, they can infer a lot of information based on the organization or business that is providing the funds. For example, if your student can discuss a topic that relates to a company’s products, services, values, or mission, it may be easier to connect with the reader on a meaningful level.

Typically, you can figure out the audience’s priorities by reviewing the organization’s website. Read through the product or service descriptions, About Us section, as well as any mission statements to get insight into the group’s values.

Brainstorm Before Writing Scholarship Essays

In many cases, scholarship essay topics give your student a lot of leeway regarding what they can write. In fact, they may be able to choose from multiple prompts, something that may make it harder to figure out what winning scholarship essays for this organization entail.

When writing a great scholarship essay, brainstorming is an important part of the process. They should grab a sheet of paper, list every topic or prompt, and jot down notes of examples that apply to each one. With our students in The Scholarship System, we teach them mind-mapping for this step, a powerful tool to uncover creative essay ideas.

Usually, brainstorming only takes a few minutes, but it can make a world of difference when writing winning scholarship essays. It allows them to organize their thoughts and identify ideas that excite them.

Choose the Right Topic to Cover

After your student brainstorms, they should focus on topics that ignite their passion. If they are excited about the idea, it’s often easier to write about it. Plus, their enthusiasm will shine through.

Review the list of ideas and choose an option that peaks interest and fits the prompt. This makes writing winning scholarship essays feel like less of a burden, which can go a long way when your student wants to apply to a long list of scholarships.

Some key aspects to look for when selecting a topic include:

  • One that speaks to core values
  • Why the investment (the scholarship) is worth it
  • How it led them to their degree choice or career path

Ideally, the topic should relate back to at least one of the points above, creating a connection between the content of the scholarship essay and your student’s future.

Structuring Winning Scholarship Essays

Winning scholarship essays are always well-structured, so creating an outline is a smart move. Most high school students are familiar with essay outlines, so your student should be able to handle this with relative ease.


Begin by structuring the introduction. Usually, your student will want to have an attention-grabbing first sentence followed by a short explanation of what will be discussed and a thesis statement that directly addresses the prompt. Students can get creative here but any story, question or attention-grabbing beginning should clearly tie into the rest of the essay and of course relate to the prompt.


Ideally, each body paragraph should discuss a single point that relates to the topic, usually in a few sentences. If possible, it’s a great idea to make the point through a mini story or example. This keeps the essay interesting for the reader and helps them understand the writer even better. For example, rather than saying “I initially decided I wanted to be a lawyer in 9th grade…,” a student can instead share a quick story or example and sum it up with “That is when I first discovered my passion for law.”


Having quality transitions between paragraphs is also essential as it improves the flow of the essay. To structure this portion, your student can write each point they want to cover and arrange them in an order that promotes readability and logical segues.


The conclusion should wrap everything up by reemphasizing how the prompt was addressed, discussing lessons learned, and even speaking to the core values of the audience. Depending on the essay prompt, students can stress how this essay shows they are a great candidate for the scholarship. Again, a few sentences will usually suffice.

After writing the outline, review it to make sure that it adheres to every requirement in the instructions and that every component provides value to the reader. Remember, winning scholarship essays always meet the requirements, so it’s wise to review this before the writing phase begins.

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Writing the Scholarship Essay First Draft

With the outline in hand, your student now has a guide for writing a high-quality first draft of their scholarship essay. How they decide to approach this phase may depend on their personal style.

Some students like to begin with the introduction, move through the body, and then create a conclusion. However, others may prefer to write the body first and then craft the introduction and conclusion after. Both approaches are perfectly acceptable as long as the final paper flows logically.

First drafts are allowed to be rough, so it’s fine if your student just lets their ideas run rampant while they create. Let their passion guide them as they get their thoughts down on paper.

It’s also okay to ignore spelling or grammar errors as they write as these can be cleaned up during editing. Writing the first draft is more about getting all of their ideas on paper than anything else, so a degree of sloppiness isn’t inherently a problem.

Refining First Drafts into Winning Scholarship Essays

Once everything is written, now is the time to refine the content. First, your student should correct any mechanical issues, like spelling or grammar mistakes. There are a variety of tools that can help them do that, but it’s also important to not rely on technology entirely.

A great approach for finding errors is to read the essay out loud. This allows your student to potentially hear problems, which can be easier than spotting them with their eyes. In some cases, using a text-to-speech program can work too, allowing your student to listen for issues.

In the vast majority of cases, winning scholarship essays are error-free, so finding mistakes and correcting them is critical for your student’s success.

Once the errors are corrected, the draft can be reviewed for flow. Ideally, each paragraph should shift naturally into the next, following a logical thought pattern or progression through an event. If a transition feels awkward or a detail feels out of place or unnecessary, then edits should be made.

After that is complete, your student should recheck it a final time to ensure that all of the requirements set forth in the instructions are met. This includes everything from properly covering the topic to meeting word count minimums and not going over maximums. Similarly, they should take a look at the formatting to make sure they used the proper font and size, margins, spacing, and anything else listed in the instructions.

Get an Outside Opinion

After the draft is refined, it could be time to get a second opinion. Often, it will be difficult for your student to review their essay objectively, so having someone else take a look is smart.

Who they choose is up to them, but some options worth exploring include trusted teachers and tutors. Parents can also make a good choice if their writing skills are strong, but some students won’t be comfortable with their parents reading what they wrote, depending on the topic. In those cases, selecting someone else is a better option than trying to force the issue.

Finalize and Submit the Essay

After the essay is reviewed by someone else, your student should make any final edits based on the feedback they receive. Then, once it is ready, it’s time to submit the scholarship application and essay for consideration.

By following the steps above, your student can increase their odds of writing winning scholarship essays that help them find free money for college. After they use the process a few times, it will likely begin to feel like second nature, making each essay easier to complete than the last.

Want even more help on writing scholarship essays? Grab a copy of our Free 3-Step Scholarship Essay Writing Guide where you learn the exact 3 steps we teach our students. This 3-Step Method helps even those students who hate writing!

Free Essay Writing Guide

Click here to grab a copy of the writing guide

If you and your student would like to learn more about how to find scholarships that can help pay for college, sign up for our free college scholarship webinar! We cover how to spot the scams so you can make sure your student is applying to scholarships that are actually worth their time. Join the next free training here:

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