Enter the $2,000 Nitro Scholarship now! Apply in 3 Minutes!

How to Start a Scholarship Essay

The lights dimmed. Darkness. The room settled. Silence. Then, the distant whirring of ... something. What was it? Suddenly, brightness and sound and images launched me into a magical world. At age 6, my first movie experience made an indelible impression. Now, twelve years later, I embrace the formal steps toward becoming a unique storyteller. A visual artist. A filmmaker.

That's just one example of how to start a scholarship essay. Now let's talk about how you can start yours. 

So, look: Who doesn't want free money? Scholarships are abundant; so are applicants. Your essay's first few sentences need to distinguish you. They must grab the attention — or imagination — to make your reader want to continue. There isn't one surefire way to write an essay, but here are some universal tips to help elevate each of your submissions.

New Call-to-action

Getting started

Get a pen and paper — don't sit down at your computer, not yet — and brainstorm. Think about the question or topic you'll be addressing and write down everything that comes to mind, no matter how random or unrelated your thoughts may seem.

Try to fill a page. Once you have that, sift through your thoughts. Rearrange the most relevant ideas into your outline.

Essay outline

Intro: How to stand out

Make your intro short and sweet. Don't simply restate the question or say how you'll be answering it. Get right into it.

Whatever the overall tone of your writing — whether scholarly, casual or something else — you can engage the reader with either a pertinent story or a personal anecdote. As humans, we're more likely to identify with and remember a story as opposed to just facts and figures.

Is there a quotation that might work as a lead for your essay? Almost certainly, but use caution here: Many other essay writers will have the same idea, and they'll likely mine the same books and websites as you to find that quote. Other people's quotes don't reveal anything about you, which is really what the reader wants to know. Who you are should imbue your prose.

Another opening option: you could kick off with a question, just not the one you're trying to answer. If you're responding to "Why Does Recycling Matter?" then you could start with something like:

When was the last time you had to wade through three feet of garbage to cross the street? For me, it was when I visited New York City during a summer trash strike. The smell and filth were overwhelming. Today, though, citizens of Gotham are less likely to encounter that for one reason: recycling.

Body: Give examples about yourself

Be clear in your language: Word selection matters. Use a thesaurus sparingly. Better to stick with the words you know — it keeps your writing more natural and authentic.  In short, more you

Remember, you are the key here. Scholarship essays are all about what makes you different, what motivates you, why you're driven to go to college, and why you're a good fit for the college you're applying to. Be specific. Let the people reading your essay get to know you a little bit. They're more likely to be interested in someone they can visualize versus someone who provides a stiff recitation of extracurricular activities they've participated in.

Look at the contrast between these two examples:

1. I have been a member of the National Honor Society for three years. I also play basketball and serve on the yearbook committee.

2. As soon as I was old enough to get a part-time job, I applied at the local movie theater. Thankfully, they didn't recognize me as the kid who got busted staying for the second showing of The Force Awakens when I was 12. Even then, I was captivated by movies.

Which one creates an image in your mind? Which one will you remember?

Finally, keep in mind the school or organization sponsoring the scholarship. Let their values provide some guidance for what you write. This doesn't mean that you should merely say what they want to hear. Stick to your ideas, but express them in a way that will resonate with your reader.

For example, an essay for an athletic scholarship should read differently than one for a faith-based scholarship. Each of your application essays should be unique. One size will not fit all.

Conclusion: Closing with confidence

You've made it to the end ... now what?

This part is actually pretty easy. Just summarize what you've already covered and thank the scholarship committee for their time. Kind of like this ...

As you can see, I've been studying film informally for most of my life. I'm excited to have the opportunity to learn more about my passion in college and, eventually, make it my career. 

Thank you for considering me for this scholarship.

George L. Spielberg

After you write

These tips may seem obvious — because they are. But often the basic steps are where people get tripped up. That's no different for scholarship applicants. So, take heed!

  • Rewrite. First drafts are just that, and they don't win anything. Good writing requires review and revision.
  • Use spell check but don't rely on it solely. Read your writing thoroughly and eliminate silly mistakes such as confusing our with are, or their with there. Same rule for an automated grammar check — let it be your starting point but don't use it as a stand-in for thorough proofreading. (If you have the time, it can be helpful to set your writing aside for a day or two after you finish it and then proofread it. Reading it with fresh eyes gives you a better chance of catching mistakes.)
  • Edit multiple times. Does your writing flow? Is your premise supported by subsequent paragraphs? Have you addressed the topic thoroughly? Is your copy lean and mean? Are you observing the correct style for the application?
  • Get a second opinion. Ask someone you trust for an honest appraisal of your essay before you submit it. If any feedback rings true, rewrite as needed.
  • Review (and follow) instructions regarding word count, format, or other formal guidelines. You don't want to spend time writing a great essay only to have it rejected on technicalities.

Know your scholarship options

Did you know that Nitro is more than just a knowledge resource of how to pay for college? Each month we award our $2,000 Nitro College Scholarship to someone — why not you?

It only takes a few moments and who knows — you might just be starting the next semester with a nice Nitro check in hand. While you're at it, check out these no-essay scholarships.

About the author